Just put an albatross around my neck. Daniel thinks I didn’t hear him but I did. We’re lost. There should be no river on our right but there is. I can see it from the road now anyway. And what’s the solution? Go to some unpronounceable town because there might be a party. Great race plan. I’m driving as fast as I can but what’s the point? We’ve lost another day of driving.
It galls me because he must think I’m stupid. Daniel and Yana are going to hook-up. Then he’s going to argue that we are so far behind that there is no point carrying on. Once he gets his end away, he’ll become as calm as a Hindu cow. Then he’ll put on that chill-dude act he always does when he gets laid. We’ll end up in the town for days.
OK, it’s not going well. Yes, I guess you could say the whole point of this trip was to have fun and meet people. It just pisses me off that he turns everything into chasing women since he became single. Now the Vaz has another spare wheel.
At least the shoulder rubs have stopped now. Why was she trying to get me to do it, to make Daniel jealous? Now she knows I am from Iran because, big surprise, Daniel told her. Now it’s the Persian freak show again.
“Which part of Iran are you from?”
Here… we… go…
Daniel thinks that being Iranian makes me seem exotic. What did he call it, a “conversational safety net”. Something to fall back on if the chat ever dries up. I’m still bemused by that. The middle-eastern badge never got me any higher up the food chain before.
“That’s the capital.”
“When did you go to the UK?”
“A few years ago. I lived in Dubai for a while after university, but it’s not great for Iranians. I came to the UK when I was 25.”
“Why the UK? You like the sexy British accent?” I swear I hear Daniel snort in the back seat.
“For freedom really.”
She stops talking. I look in the rear view mirror. Daniel is looking out the window and shaking his head. The radio still isn’t working, so we sit in silence until I forget where we’re going.
“It’s this exit,” says Yana. How does she know? All these exits look exactly the same.
“Are you sure? There is no sign.”
She puts her hand on my thigh and squeezes, “I’m sure, Benji.”
The exit leads to a road that thins out to a badly maintained single lane. Suspension must be optional on the VAZ. Every bump and pothole is transmitted flawlessly to my anus through the exhausted car seat. Yana is smiling. After one of the larger bumps she laughs, pushes the stray strawberry-blonde locks out of her face and holds down her chest.
“Are you trying to bounce me out of my dress, Benji?”
Soon a town materialises out of the countryside. Still no signs. What the hell is this place doing here?
“It’s a town that was built to serve a factory. The factory is gone. But the town has stayed,” she says, as if reading my mind.
“What do the people who live here do now?”
“It’s a kind of cultural destination now. There’s some agriculture, there’s a festival, there are lots of arts and crafts.”
“And it survives from that?”
“There’s plenty of towns that survive off being cultural destinations in the UK,” Daniel chimes in, “Glastonbury?”
“Yes, this is like a Russian Glastonbury,” says Yana.
Yeah, just like Glastonbury.
The town glints like a new penny on the banks of the river. Maybe the same river where we met Yana. I have a bad habit of not paying attention when I’m the passenger. We could be anywhere. The town is made of stone, low-rise buildings with tall, narrow windows and roofs coloured with emerald or ruby slates. The streets are wide and unmarked. There’s no pavement. Parked retro cars are dotted along the edges of the streets, marking an unofficial sidewalk. Our car looks inconspicuous here. The town has a bohemian, arty feel. Scruffy hipster types are hurrying along the streets and a few of the walls are painted with murals. One is a mural of a forest with creepy, naked women in the trees. A wave of deja-vu makes me shiver.
The town has a square and a chapel at its centre. An oxidised, bronze gateway cuts through the skyline in an ornate, sea-green pattern. A black, wooden block, in the likeness of a man’s head, wearing a fez, is perched on the gateway. I don’t draw Benji’s attention to that.
“Just park the car here, Benji” says Yana. “You can explore the town. I’ll go to the guesthouse and see if my friend can get us rooms for tonight. It should be fine, I think it’s still the off-season.”
“Where shall we meet you?” I ask, stumbling out the back seat.
“It’s only a small town, I’ll find you.” When she smiles, her eyes narrow. They look like beads of jet. She leaves us.
I pull on the front of my t-shirt, trying to waft some air up it. “It’s roasting already. When is their on-season?”.
“How long do you think we’re going to stay here?” asks Benji.
“I don’t know.”
“We should only stay one night. Get a good night’s sleep then get back on the road.”
“Get a good night’s sleep? We’ve been invited to a party.”
“We’re supposed to be in a race, Daniel.”
“No, we’re supposed to be on an adventure. I never expected to win. The website says only 10% of the racers ever finish.” Benji is quiet, it makes me feel guilty. I try to speak as neutrally as possible, “What are your expectations for the race… well for the whole thing, this whole adventure, vacation… whatever?”
“I think we can still finish. I want us to commit to the race and try to finish – for us.”
“I think we’re four days driving behind where we need to be just to finish in the four week time limit.”
“Me too. That’s why we need to make up time.”
“We’ve been saying that since the start. We haven’t made up a single hour. I don’t even know if we’re on the right road anymore. That river isn’t supposed to be there. Who knows how much time we’ve really lost.”
“Well what do you want to do, Daniel? Quit? Stay here and chase women? Try to get into Yana’s knickers.”
I’ve never heard Benji frustrated before. He’s usually so measured. I pause for a moment, nod and wonder if Yana is even wearing knickers. “I’m not saying let’s give up. I’m not saying stay here for more than one night. But let’s just be realistic. We haven’t seen or spoken to anyone except motel reception clerks and service station workers. We’ve not seen another racer since we left Calais. We’ve just been slogging away in a smelly Russian death trap. Now we’ve met some crazy, sexy hitch-hiker who might get us into some party. The adventure is about to begin. Let’s not throw it away. The race is a lost cause.” Ben is looking away. But he’s nodding. “Look, you don’t have to decide now. Let’s try and get a real cappuccino and see if we can find a snack that doesn’t look like a penis.”
“We had fun in that weird hotel in Germany,” I say. But Daniel is right. I don’t know why I am arguing with him. I don’t really think we can finish the race. I’m not really annoyed at him or Yana. I’m just sour that we have failed so quickly. I imagined us weaving in and out of other racers on the Autobahn, not sitting on my sore arse for 16 hours a day, staring down a dull Russian E road, trying to fight off sleepiness so we don’t paste ourselves onto the front of an oncoming lorry.
“That was fun actually,” says Daniel, looking at something I can’t see, “But that was days ago now.”
“Over a week.”
“We’ve been going over a week?”
“We’ve been going over a week. Wow. It all feels exactly the same.”
“So what do we do if we can’t finish the race?” I ask.
“You mean after tonight? We just keep going but with more of an open mind. When we see a town let’s stop there even if we’re not due a stop. If we see a hitch-hiker, pick them up. Then when we only have a few days of our annual leave left, just find the nearest airport and try to get home.”
“What about the car?”
“What about the car? Just give it to someone or abandon it. Did you want to take it home?”
“Well it does seem to be a pussy magnet.” Daniel’s laugh is spastic and echoes around the square. A couple of the hipsters look over at us and frown. I laugh too. My shoulders ache. My arse aches. I might be tearing a hemorrhoid, but I can’t stop. I realise we haven’t laughed in days. Daniel is crying. I can’t breath.
After that I feel almost post-coitus. I haven’t relaxed since we set off. I tongue my teeth. I’ve probably been grinding them while driving. I need to chill out. Daniel is right. The race is just a canvas for our adventure. Who cares where we end up. But where are we? The ‘no smartphone’ rule was another dumb idea by me.
“You need to hook-up with Yana tonight, mate,” I say. He stares. “What?”
“You need to hook-up with her.”
“Nah. She’s into you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She keeps flirting with you.”
“She’s trying to flirt with you. You’re ignoring it. She can’t make it any more obvious.”
“What, so you think she wants us both?”
“I have no idea. She’s probably just flirting with us because we gave her a lift. But you need to chill out. Just flirt back. You don’t have to marry her because you flirted with her. I don’t care if either of us hooks up with her or not. But she clearly enjoys the attention and so should we.”
Daniel laughs, “I think she wants to break you if I’m honest. But that’s irrelevant. She’s hot. Hot girls get invited to cool parties and know other hot girls. Just give her some attention without looking desperate and let her open some doors for us.” I am still suspicious I will end up as the third wheel, but I nod. Daniel continues, “Once we’re at the party, we’ll be the most interesting people there. A couple of guys rallying across Eurasia. We’ll be the centre of attention. Trust me. The hardest part of this whole journey was going to be finding the parties and getting invited. Yana has done that. Once we’re in…” Daniel makes a scooping motion with his hands.
“Alright I get it.” I exhale. “She’s not really your type anyway.”
“She’s not my type?” My voice rises in a goofy intonation.
“I didn’t think you were into pale girls.”
“Pale? Yana’s not pale.”
Benji shrugs, “I don’t know, mate. I’m Persian. Everyone looks pale to me.”
The heat must be getting to Benji. There’s little shade in the square and we haven’t eaten for hours. The town seems to be preparing for something, “I thought those were just discarded twigs at first, but I think people are leaving them outside their properties on purpose.” I point around the square.
“And what’s with the fried eggs on plates?” asks Benji.
There is something just under the surface of this town. Everyone we see is distracted. On the phone with one hand, carrying groceries or bottles in the other. Few of them are smiling. Maybe it’s just the Russian demeanor. I think Yana is the only person we’ve seen smile since we got to Russia.
“Maybe we’ve stumbled on some sort of event,” I say. “Did you see that the trees on the way in were decorated?”
“If we’ve stumbled on some sort of town festival…”
“We deserve this, Benji.” I slap him on the back.
I find a cafe with a takeaway service window. I tell Benji it’s my round. They have real, iced-americano, Danish pastries and rye-bread sandwiches with meat and yogurt fillings. I order in broken Russian, pointing at pictures on the menu. The woman who takes my order seems bored. She recaps my order in fluent English. I confirm it through a blush. Benji and I set up an impromptu picnic on a wide, concrete bench in the square.
“Maybe Yana knows there is something going on. Maybe she was just underselling this party. Is it some sort of special religious day? Have we missed something?”
Benji takes a moment to swallow, “It’s Friday.” He shrugs. “Do you think Yana will have got a room?”
“There don’t seem to be many tourists here.”
“Speak of the Devil,”says Benji.
Yana sways toward us. The summer dress reveals a matte, wholemeal, trunk of a thigh popping out of the cut of the skirt with every second stride.
“Do you think I’ve tanned?” She twirls revealing more thigh. Her black hair whips across her naked back.
“Compared to what,” I laugh. “We’ve only known you a couple of hours.”
“Compared to when you met me,” she says, while making a show of inspecting her arms. “Maybe you can’t tell now I’m dressed.” I try not to smile but I can’t stop it. She sees it and grins victoriously.
“I’ll treat you to some SPF 50 sunscreen if you’ve got us a room,” I say.
“And will you apply it?” I shrug, “Well, pay up, because we have a place to stay.”