I don’t realise that I am in another microsleep until I come out of it and nearly commit suicide. My first instinct is to pull the car into the left hand lane where the oncoming traffic is travelling at a relative speed of 140 miles per hour. In a fraction of a second I correct it. We’re alive until my next microsleep at least.
I thought Russia was supposed to be cold. Nobody told the month of May. The windows don’t wind down fully and are ajar like a knackered stove. That might be a blessing judging from the number of insects crushed onto the windscreen and being mummified by the shitty wipers. No air conditioning, naturally, just a stale breeze of air from the blowers that smells like hangover breath. The airflow knob is turned all the way down to the coldest blue of the dial, like so many things about this car it’s merely a performance. Nothing works in this 90s VAZ-2107 hatch-back except the engine and the steering wheel. It was £450 but we were probably ripped-off.
It was my idea to get the Russian car. Daniel said we could get a modern european car within the £500 budget. I said if we were going to do the London to Ulaanbaatar Rally, we had to do it properly in a car that would look the part. Since most of the journey would be in Russia, that meant a Russian car. This was the only piece of shit we could find on the UK market. It didn’t take long for authenticity to get old. The only music we have is a Simply Red cassette we found in the car – we’ve already tangled it in the cassette player.
So instead we mostly listen to unintelligible Russian talk radio. I can barely hear it over the road noise but it is fading out. Daniel reaches forward and tries to retune it, but the signal seems to be getting weaker. “I’ll try and find something else,” he says, but nothing is tuning properly.
The E road we’re driving on is a single carriageway the width of two cars and a hair more. Every time we go past an articulated truck I have to steer against the back-draft. Daniel has told me to slow down more times than usual today. I remind him that we are in a race. He reminds me he wants to finish alive. I fear we’re already too far behind. We haven’t seen any of the other participants since we left London. Daniel is convinced that we’re still where we should be, but I think we’re easily two days adrift of the pack.
I am driving the car as fast as I dare. But every time there is a gap in the traffic someone overtakes us. The overtaking car is often older than ours and usually driven by a septuagenarian.
I see a sign for a rest stop, “I need to stop, I’m falling asleep with my eyes open.”
“No worries,” he says, with no emotion. Is he annoyed we’re stopping again or relieved? I can’t tell. He sounds tired as well.
Benji pulls the car into the patch of wasteland labeled as the rest-stop car-park. There is a petrol station and a strange cafe-cum-charcuterie-cum-vodka-bar attached. It advertises in pictures that it sells Russian meats, vodka by the shot and wide cups of ‘cappuccino’ that are just shots of espresso topped with whipped cream instead of foamed milk, if they’re anything like the other cappuccinos we’ve been having. Vodka seems to be sold everywhere. I try not to think how many drivers we are passing who have had a shot of vodka or two. Next to the cafe are three abandoned and browning attractions from a travelling fair. One is a small ghost-train style ride called Green Week. The front is painted with images of naked, feral women sitting in trees, looking down at the crusty carriages hungrily.
We’ve stopped early. I think Benji should have done another hour of driving. I wonder if he intends to carry on or wants to swap. I can’t blame him for stopping. Driving in another country is exhausting in the same way your first driving lessons are. You have to be consciously competent. Constantly alert. Every detail of the environment pulls on your attention with equal force. My neck still aches from my last stint of driving. Being a passenger in that oven is no rest.
“I’m just going to stretch my legs,” I say.
“Do you want any coffee?”
“Thanks.” That may have sounded ungrateful. I’m too tired to know.
Beyond the dust-bowl car park I find a field. Beyond that is a loose scattering of trees hiding a shallow but wide river. That river shouldn’t be there – we’re off track.
I don’t have the energy to explain this to Benji. We made a pact to stay positive but it seems we had different expectations about the race. How can I explain it to Benji without sounding like I’m making a point?
A cool breeze is coming from the river and dampening my crusty face. I follow it through the line of trees and down to the bank. At the edge of the water I submerge my hands and splash some onto my face.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” someone says. A woman, naked in a patch of long grass, her feet dipped into the water. She stands, picking up her dress, turning away from me slightly, but not enough. She reveals her athletic body of off-white, almost sandy skin. Teardrop breasts with coffee areolas. Her lower body is wider than her torso, uneven like a gymnast. Her thighs touch at their thickest point.
“John, something or other,” I say.
“John 7;37.” She smiles, her high cheekbones squeezing narrow eyes, “It’s rude to stare.”
I put the two coffees on the roof of the Vaz carefully, expecting them to dent the rotting bodywork. They’re both huge and mostly cream. I’ve also bought some snacks for the next portion of the drive. Vaguely penisy looking cured meats of some kind. Some wrapped in pastry. All of them vacuum packed. I open one and instantly regret it. It smells as fleshy and salty as it looks. This is the last thing we need in the car.
I open the driver’s door to cool the car. A gust of even hotter air comes out. Where is Daniel? We need to get back on the road. We’ve overslept and taken extra stops almost every day. Driving this piece of crap for five hours non-stop is tough, but we must’ve lost close to sixteen hours of our planned driving time. We haven’t seen any other participants in the rally. We could be so far behind already that we don’t even finish within the four weeks time limit. But Daniel doesn’t seem to care. He keeps talking about “enjoying the adventure” and saying we’re in danger of “turning it into work”.
This was my idea, Daniel wasn’t convinced – until his girlfriend dumped him. Then he showed interest. “I need to push my comfort zone,” he said. I didn’t realise that it would be this draining and… I hate to admit it… boring. I thought there would be more camaraderie with the other drivers. That we’d make friends, go to parties. We booked into all the recommended rally motels but we’ve not met any other racers. Maybe Daniel is right, we need to chill out and enjoy the adventure more. But we’re never going to finish unless we keep to the plan and if we don’t finish it will all be a waste of time.
Daniel emerges from a field beyond the carpark wasteland. Someone is with him, a woman. She is laughing and talking enthusiastically. He is raising his eyebrows skeptically at everything she says, probably teasing her. This is how he acts around women who he thinks are too attractive for him. He tries to disarm them with backhanded compliments and a disinterested aura. And this woman is stunning. Way out of his league, but not his usual type. Her skin is the pure, ash-white that only redheads have. Her eyes are wide and green. Long, wavy, terracotta hair brushes the top of her pear-shaped breasts that swing, bra-less like kettle bells under her thin summer dress.
“This is Yana. She needs a lift to some town. She says there’s a cool party there and she can get us invited.”
She smiles a big lying smile that beautiful women use when they know you’re attracted to them. I feel the sting of an involuntary blush rising under my cheeks. How can I say no? “Sure.” I avoid Daniel’s eyes. I am not sure whether Yana will be the adventure that we have been lacking or the chisel that opens our splintering friendship. “I’ll drive for another hour.”
“How come the massage has stopped?” asks Yana in her pornographic accent. Benji tries to laugh it off casually but sounds bored. I’m driving again. I was giving her a shoulder massage from the back-seat while Benji was driving. Offering a massage was a way to take the bitch-seat and make it look like my choice. Now I’ve been driving for over an hour and she has hinted at Benji to pick up where I left off three times. That was the most direct ask. I knew he was nervous around girls, I didn’t know he was deaf.
In my peripheral vision I can see Yana looking at me – I raise my eyebrows, attempting to communicate that I don’t know why he’s being so prudish. But I don’t want to encourage an us-and-him split in the group. He’s insecure enough.
Maybe Benji is ignoring the offer on purpose. Maybe he thinks I will be jealous, that I’m interested in her and he doesn’t want to step on my toes. Well I am interested in her. She’s just my type. Dark hair. Mixed, Eurasian complexion. Small on top and thick on the bottom. She pulled down the neck of her dress for my massage and hasn’t pulled it back up. Her shoulders, decolletage and the cupfuls of her cleavage are all on show. It’s exhausting trying to keep my eyes off her and on the road.
But she isn’t my girlfriend, she met me five minutes before Benji. OK I’ve already seen her naked but I wish I could tell him to chill out, grow a pair and just massage the gorgeous woman’s shoulders. I don’t care if she prefers him or neither of us. If I had to guess I’d say she wants us both. This is the first woman we’ve spoken to in days and whether she’s interested in us or just using us for a lift, she’s our route into a party and finally some more human contact.
I wouldn’t mind Benji’s prudish disinterest if he was actually pulling his weight in the conversation. I’m trying to concentrate on the unfamiliar road. I can’t keep the semi-flirtatious patter going.
“So what do you guys get if you win the race?” she asks.
Benji doesn’t answer so I have to, “500,000 Euros if we win, but we’re not going to win. We just took part for the adventure, to push our comfort zones, try to grow, expand our horizons, go with the flow…” I cringe at the clichés but I cannot stop myself.
“And how’s it going?”
“Erm, not that well. We haven’t met any other racers and after seeing that river I am not even sure we’re on the right road.” I realise I haven’t mentioned that to Benji yet. I glance at the mirror and see him glaring at the wall of trees outside the window. Maybe he heard, I can’t tell.
“Well you met me,” she says brightly, briefly leaning into me and putting her head on my shoulder. I glance down her dress at her sweat beaded chest, then drag my eyes back to the road, “And I’m going to take you to a party.”
“So you claim,” I say, and after a long pause, “What is the name of the town we’re going to?”
Read the full story in the Kindle book, Rusalka and Other Stories [redirects to Amazon].