Worse Than Death (obscurity: every megalomaniac’s nightmare)
By Ed Crane
Totally lost Andrie Federov sat in his car parked on the side of the thin street running through the middle of Popruka, a village about 200km from Saint Petersburg. He didn’t know the name of the village, he couldn’t read the signs. The screen on his Fonepad confirmed the impossible. No network, no wifi. No satnav. Incredulous, he fiddled with it for ten minutes removing the battery and re-booting it several times. Assuming it was due to a local systems fault he accepted he was in the only place in Europe where nothing worked.
Across the road there seemed to be some kind of café crammed against a row of squat terraced cottages with peeling paint and rusting corrugated iron roofs. There wasn’t a soul about. A hundred metres away a couple of cats watched a ragged crow picking at an indistinguishable animal pancaked on the road surface. On the verge of panicking Andrie headed to the hostelry.
Thirty minutes ago he’d pulled off the Expressway to find a bush to piss behind. Returning to the car he found himself on a scraggy country road splitting the flat half-hearted farmland into two halves. Thinking there would be a spur linking the slip lane he followed it, but it only led him deeper into nowhere. A solitary sign, he assumed was a place name, was written in Cyrillic. The last time he’d seen anything written in that scrip, outside of a museum or antique shop, was when he was a kid. After an age of driving through featureless landscape he saw a gaggle of buildings huddling behind a bunch of Italian Poplars. A dusty concrete road led him to where he was now.
The interior of the bar was surprisingly luxurious. The carved mahogany beamed ceiling set off by silvered classical style lamps and brown leather seating made it look almost Csarist. The barkeeper, a large man about fifty, stood behind two beer taps watching Andrie enter through the open door.
‘Good morning, Sir,’ He said at Andrie. His manner, business like but friendly.
‘Good morning. Sorry to bother you, I seem to have lost my way.’
The barman looked pointedly at Andei’s clothes and smiled, his expression almost sympathetic.
‘You up from Moscow?’
It was Andrie’s turn to smile. It was the reaction he’d expected. ‘Yep. I pulled off the Expressway for a . . . break and couldn’t find the slip road back on.’
‘That’s because there isn’t one, Sir. I think they forgot.’
‘Just my luck. I tried looking for one, but I got lost. I can’t read the signs they’re still in old text.’
‘Things don’t move very fast around here. I guess you want directions?’
‘That’d be great, thanks.’
‘I’ll draw you a map,’ the barman said giving the impression it was something he often did. He rooted around under the bar, came up with a large frayed beermat and commenced to trace a hieroglyph on it with a pencil.
While the barman worked, Andrie glanced around the room. It was empty apart from a large round table in one corner. Four very old men in dark suits that had seen better days sat together on one side of it facing a fifth man sitting in the middle on the opposite side. He looked even older, as did his suit and crumpled shirt and black tie. He was almost bald with just a few wisps of white hair stretched across his liver spotted pate. His deeply wrinkled skin and dark sunken eyes reminded Andrie of his great-great grandfather who died at a-hundred-and-two. The ancient “chairman” spoke continuously in a quiet voice which reached Andrie’s ears as a barely audible drone. The four men around the table seemed to be hanging on every syllable.
When the barman looked up from his map, he noticed Andrie eying the group. ‘Take no notice of the “politburo.” They’re nothing.’ He tapped the corner of the hieroglyph. ‘This where we are. If you go along here for about three kilometres you come to a junction. . . .’
Andrie watched the barman’s fingertip follow the lines as he described the route back to the Expressway. It all looked pretty straight forward. When the explanation was over Andrie took the proffered beermat.
‘Thank you, you’re very kind.’ Andie felt relaxed. ‘You know what? I’m thirsty in this heat. Can I get a beer? And one for you also.’
Andrie’s host thanked him and poured out two glasses from one of the taps. The two men stood either side of the bar supping their beer. A scraping noise from the table attracted their attention as the ancient speaker struggled to his feet and shambled up to the bar watched by his four admirers. He placed both hands on the wooden surface to steady himself and stared directly into the barman’s face.
‘Give me a half-bottle of Vodka,’ he said in a hoarse, but cultured voice.
The barman blew out his cheeks. ‘How many fucking times do I have to tell you? NO credit.’
The old man lowered his gaze. ‘A shot then.’
‘That’s a hundred to you.’
Crestfallen the old man replied, ‘I only have fifty.’
His ancient crumpled face touched Andrie’s twenty-five year old heart. ‘Here. On me,’ Andrie laid two silver fifty Euro coins in front of the "starry veck."
An imperceptible nod acknowledged the gift as he pushed the coins across the bar. His now defiant eyes bore into the barman’s belying the worn face which a generation ago was strong, cold and treacherous.
‘There was a time when refusing me anything would cost you your freedom.’
The barman snorted a short mocking laugh and slapped a shot glass filled to the brim on the bar-top. A few drops spilled out and ran down the side leaving alcoholic streamers on the glass. He leaned over until his face was ten centimetres from the old man’s.
‘Yeah. . . . WAS old man.’ He pointed to the open door. ‘When you’ve drunk that, get the fuck out. Go back your room and wait for your next social cheque before you come in here again wanting vodka.
In less than three seconds the vodka was down the old goat’s throat. Turning old unsteady feet, he shuffled out the door. Slightly shaken by the short exchange Andrie watched him wander across a threadbare lawn toward a two story Soviet institutional style building. Andrie noticed the barman looking at him, a wide smile on his face.
‘Congratulations, Son. You just bought a drink for our great leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.’
Andrie frowned, ‘Who?’