My finger is deep inside my right sock when I spot Him. Furtively glimpsing over the headrest in front of me, I spy the dark uniformed figure holding out an imperious palm to halt the bus.
Heart hammering, I draw the curtains closed, slither down the seat and stifle my breath. But then I hear it: the chilling hiss of doors parting. My Guard is coming to get me.
It should never have come to this. My trip into the rarely-reached republic of Transnistria – Europe's final bastion of socialism; the last kid on the bloc – had been planned for months, and I knew that slipping in meant greasing the palms of border officials. So on departing Chisinau this morning, I had kept some small banknotes to hand while concealing the rest all about me. As the minibus had pulled up at the barriers, I'd felt confident of closing the deal.
But then I met My Guard.
Indifferent to my proferred entrance fee, He'd steered me into his office and ordered – hand on holstered gun – that I turn out my pockets and slip off my shoes. Intimidated, I complied. Before I had a moment to gather my thoughts, I was being pushed over the disputed border into an alien territory, with nothing remaining but the single 20 leu note secreted in my sock.
Now, as I'm marched back to the same office, I know it won’t be enough to buy my way out.
“This is all I have left,” I plead, laying the clammy note on the desk beside my passport. He says nothing; He simply stares. My eyes avert up from that discomfiting gaze, only to settle on the symbol adorning His military cap. A blood red hammer-and-sickle.
The Cold War is over, I console myself, drawing an impotent breath. He can’t keep you here.
“We will keep you here,” My Guard spits.
“What? But…” I prattle back, “I-I already paid. To get in.”
“Get in is up to you. Get out is up to me.”
My guts turn to granite as the statement sinks in. I no longer have leverage. I'm at His mercy.
He glares wordlessly at me, so I stare wordlessly at the desk. Yet I can't help but hear Him, breathing laboured like a dozing dog. Inhaling through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth; a light whistle followed by a slight snarl. Whistle. Snarl. Whistle. Snarl. Whistle. Snarl.
I emit a small snort of laughter. I don't know what else to do.
His chair screams back across the concrete floor, as He swells to an impossible height. “Bring them,” He barks, jerking a bloated hand towards my passport and pocket money. “We go.”
All fleeting dissent spent, I begin, meekly, to gather up my possessions. He tears open the door. I don't know where He is planning to take me, but I'm certain it isn't Moldova.
Suddenly, a whisper. A new official, cigarette spilling from lips, has arrived with a message. My Guard nods along then, without even a glance my way, follows His colleague outside. Leaving me all alone.
I look down at the passport in my hand... and up to the gaping door... and make my decision.
Halfway across the forecourt, My Guard is stood at the window of a haulage lorry, engaged in a vicious dispute with the driver. His back to me.
This is my only chance.
Shoulder blades back and head high, I begin to stride with mock confidence towards Moldova.
There's a long queue of cars in the lorry's wake, so I start snaking in, out, in. The distant metal barriers shimmer seductively. I come close to another Transnistrian guard and, without breaking stride, flash him my passport. I pass by.
As I cut between cars I hear a shout from behind me – right behind me – but I stay focused ahead. There's my minibus, gallantly waiting on the far side of the border. And I am creeping ever closer. Closer. Close, close.
With a glorious hiss, the doors part and I step on board. The driver chuckles, and accelerates.
As I tumble into my still-warm seat, I spin round to witness the lorry silently shrink over the horizon; and My Guard sullenly stomp back to a vacated office. As His hulking frame vanishes inside, I realise I'm smiling. The solace of safety? A silent farewell?
Turning back to the road ahead, I roll down my right sock and tuck the 20 leu note deep inside.