Before our Kiev-bound sleeper train left Moscow, my boyfriend and I shared an impromptu picnic: heavy bread, pale cheese and half-litre bottles of dark ale, procured from a gold-toothed hawker at Kiyevsky Station. It was a bright, dusky evening through which dust particles danced.
"Cheers!" We clinked our beers together in naïve celebration. Not only were we saving hundreds of roubles by travelling in a third-class platzkart carriage, we were also embracing the true spirit of travel. Our fellow passengers had swapped their city clothes for baggy joggers and were entering the hush of the vodka-swigging, card-dealing, night-time train world. Three women opposite us drank a bottle of red, giggling at one of their boyfriends who stood on the platform with his hands in his pockets, a knight half gallant, half embarrassed.
The train hissed and shunted. I watched the station outside the spattered window becoming pylons, becoming tower blocks, becoming fast brown land. Soon the provodnik, a stocky young carriage attendant, began marching the aisle in leather boots, tossing shrink-wrapped floral linen packs to each passenger. With varying levels of skill and sobriety, people made their beds and flopped up into them: ambitious sea-lions scaling lofty rocks. Empty bottles rolled like flotsam, back and forth across the shifting floor.
People's voices lowered along with the sun, though there remained a constant fuzz of whispers, radios and deep male laughter. In darkness the carriage took on the atmosphere of a mildly threatening dormitory. The smell of man-piss wafted from the toilet, evoking pub urinals and multi-storey stairwells.
I slept for about an hour – a light, fractured sleep thanks to the three women with the long-drained wine bottle who were now texting everyone in their phone address books and screeching at the replies. I couldn’t help but smile at their hilarity.
We reached the Ukraine border at around 1am. The train slowed to a stop and the doors slammed in quick succession as soldiers and a spaniel boarded to stamp our passports and sniff our bags. They brought cold air and tension.
Two brother-looking men replaced my three giggling friends, who had scattered and staggered into the night. The men had chiseled faces but not in a handsome way – rather chipped at, sandblasted and coated in a layer of grease. They were drunk. They smelled drunk. And stale, like a hot day’s labouring and a night in the bar.
I watched them leap into their bunks, hunker down on the bare vinyl and pull the naked duvets over their heads. No flowery bedsheets for these fellas. Within a minute they were snoring deep, dragging snores, a mere beat from being in unison.
Steve made a tiny wail from the bunk above me.
"What is it?" I whispered, poking my head up to see.
I smelled Steve's anguish. Both pairs of the brothers’ feet were sticking out of their duvets, inches from his face, reeking of bins you might find in an alleyway between a butcher’s shop and a cheesemonger's. The brother on the left wore a pair of mustard-coloured socks, which may have once been white, and his big toes jutted upright out of holes like a corpse’s thumbs from a horror-movie grave.
"Passports!" the soldiers were saying, up and down the carriage. Steve and I dutifully showed ours, but there was no response from the brothers. "Паспортів!" the soldiers shouted, prodding one in the legs. Nothing.
The other man – Mustard Socks – came around slowly, pulling for inspection tatty documents from his trouser pockets. Then, “Oi!” he shouted at his brother. Still no response. "OI!"
A soldier tugged at the sleeping man’s leg, but he didn’t stir. Mustard swung his knees over the side of his own bunk, leaned forward and punched his brother in the head. The brother lashed out and swiped him back without waking up. I wondered what kind of murky existence he had, to develop such a reflex.
The recycled air breathed thickly with farts, feet and illicit cigarettes. As I rearranged my bedding ready to lie down again, I noticed a long thin bloodstain on my pillowcase, as though a previous user had bled from their ears. I flipped the pillow over and lay my head down, spotting a tiny cockroach scuttling up the wall of the carriage in the direction of Steve’s bunk; then another, then another.
This, I told myself (although less convincingly than before), was the true spirit of travel.