All around people were huddled in packs, laughing as they swatted the flies from their faces. Rumours and gossip were being passed around like cuts from the stalls, the lives of the customers being chopped, ground and ferried home to be devoured. This was typical of these edge-of-the-city markets, where people measured the changing seasons by blossoms and the future by patterns of tealeaves. There was one redeeming aspect of such places, however; it was as if Communism had never happened. The ideas that had forced us to be equals were as useless as the scraps thrown to the dogs that scavenged around the stalls.


The sun had peeled back the cool dark layers of shade and the only respite was the promise of a cloud hanging on the horizon. I caught the eye of an officer, the youngest of a group that taken refuge in the shadows. His attempt to feign stern authority was ruined by his colleague’s failure to suppress a yawn. Not willing to drop the façade completely, he gave a sharp sideways swipe of his head and whistled, a fleeting sound like a falling bomb. It was an empty gesture, however. There was no way an old relic like myself was going to make them relinquish their sliver of shade.


My eyes were drawn to the blankets just beyond the maze of stalls. At a glance, I noticed a single battered shoe, a cracked porcelain bulldog and an old military coat. ‘Rain’s finally on the way,’ a martyred voice to my left declared. He was about to say more but the dust his heels kicked up suffocated the words as they came out of his mouth. As he coughed, his mouth flapping like a freshly hooked fish, I felt my skin flush and gently burn.


It wasn’t until I reached the edge of the market that I came across the clinical mind of our old Communist homeland. In many ways it was hard to believe the giant windowless, steel-doored monsters were still around. Inside I could see the immaculate, boiled white coats of the workers, the almost empty shelves and the old style kassas. The staff stood idle and stared in silence. There were no customers. It seemed that the outlying ring of western style stores was tightening its stranglehold on the market. The lumbering Communist intellect and our much-lamented soul, our Dusha, were being stalked by the cruel predatory spirit of the new Russia.


I had come north, as far as the metro line went, not even sure why I had made the journey. You see it was months too late. But as cruel as it seemed that even several weeks ago this trip could have slowed Kolya’s decline, I kept telling myself that there had to be some reason for his insistence that I come, even when it seemed his fight had been lost.


When I had received that terrible first phone call, I was convinced there had been a mistake. The clumsy, unsure voice informed me that I had been contacted at the request of an elderly male patient. The receiver was halfway back in its cradle when I heard the crackle of her pleading voice.


‘Sorry, Alexander Sergeivich. But I have to ask something of you,’ she implored. Her voice snapped like brittle twigs. She sounded no older than a teenager.


‘Before you ask me anything, doctor, may I ask where you got my name and telephone number from?’


‘Well, that’s exactly the, well, the issue, I suppose you’d call it. The patient I mentioned, he’s not very coherent and the only information we can get from him is your details. We have absolutely nothing on him.’


She paused.


‘So he didn’t have any papers?’


‘No, none at all. And I probably shouldn’t be even saying this much, but he claims he’s never had any documents.’


That was enough to spark the awareness of what was unfolding before me.


As the only link to Kolya, I received calls persistently. Whether genuinely concerned, eager to be done with this whole affair, or acting on his pleas, I’ll never know. But, despite their efforts, I had stood firm against their insistence that I visit.


And then Kolya decided to make his move.


‘Forgive me for being so, well, so... I mean, maybe if you can sit down or… sorry, let me apologize.’


Another voice choked with stress.


‘Alexander Sergeivich, my name is Doctor Yenin. I am calling you under some rather irregular circumstances. The patient you’ve been helping us with, so to speak, Nikolai…one moment… Nikolai…’


‘Yes, doctor. Kolya.’


‘Kolya, is it? Well, Kolya has decided to discharge himself, which we all know is a little…pre... premature. We can’t really stop him though, as his general condition is OK. But I, we, all of us here think Kolya should have someone around to help him and we were wondering if-‘


He knew I’d give in.


Needless to say, the outside of the apartment block was unkempt. Inside, the stairs were dark and exuded damp into the air. The walls, which had been a generic shade of white, now bore scrawled profanities and obscene images. His was one of the only doors I had seen recently that hadn’t been reinforced in any way. It was made of flimsy old wood and covered in cheap, plastic material.


‘Alexander Sergeivich,’ the voice echoed in the stairwell.


‘I’m so glad you could come.’ He addressed me with the utmost formality. He stood erect, with his hand outstretched, years of military and Party training ingrained in his manner.


His pallor struck me. His blank eyes and brittle skin rendered him hardly recognisable from my memories.


‘It’s been many years, Nikolai Sergeivich.’ The matching patronyms triggered a moment of awkward uncertainty.


It was in the nervous silence that I noticed the stench. We were still several steps from the doorway so I doubted it came from his apartment. He had been never been anything but meticulous. But as I drew closer I realised it was undoubtedly his. It was a dry, stultifying stink, one of decomposition and decay.


As he ushered me in, I noticed faded messages scribbled on his hands. With the door closing behind me, everything was engulfed by the withering smell. My reaction was to turn and leave, but in doing so I noticed sticky blood on his teeth and fingers and it propelled me inward.


The apartment was spotless, but the air stagnant and fetid. His windows were taped shut, despite the hot weather, and sunlight poured in.


‘My stomach is very bad today, Sasha’, he confessed. His voice had a metallic tone as the words bounced off the bare walls.


‘And watching me eat is not a pleasant sight. But you did insist on coming during feeding time.’


Without asking he thrust a glass into my hand. As he filled it, I noticed a bloody fingerprint on the side. I turned the smudge away from my lips and tilted the rim toward my nose, greedily breathing in the fumes. Once in my mouth, I held the spirit, savouring the vapour as long as I could before I had to swallow.


On the table was a glass of Coca Cola and a chunk of rotten, half eaten raw meat. The Cola almost made me laugh. The meat had come from a large glass jar that was open beside him. Inside it was a discoloured, decomposing mess. He picked up the spongy morsel and popped it in his mouth.


When he chewed, his mouth never quite closing, he fixed his eyes straight ahead as if in a trance, unblinking as if receiving some devastating piece of news. After he swallowed, however, he gave a self-satisfied smile, just like a child who manages to greatly offend his parents.


‘I’ve been unwell for quite some time.’ His voice cracked. ‘But you probably didn’t know that. I first found out in Magadan, while I was working there-‘




Every time I heard that name, even so many years later, it felt like a slap of cold air.


‘That’s right. Six years, I spent there. Hell on earth and even worse when your only job is to smooth over the cock-ups of prison administrators.’


‘Anyway, a few years in I started having such bad pains I couldn’t even stand. Given my position, the authorities made quite a fuss, but none of the doctors got close to making a decent diagnosis. Now, there’s no medical science there to speak of, but in my desperation, one night as I screamed and promised to personally execute every doctor I had in the camp, some old grifter from the village was called in. He took one look at me told me that the cure he knew was to eat rotten meat. He told me matter of factly, like ‘three pills daily. One after every meal,’ in that annoying superior way all doctors talk. I knew right then I was going to imprison that durak whether his cure worked or not.’


The sudden flourish of anger dissolved. Instinctively, he looked briefly over each shoulder before settling into a low, confiding whisper.


‘When I first tried to eat the meat, I couldn’t even look at it. I couldn’t go

anywhere near it. But in that climate, I knew I would die if I didn’t find a cure. So, on my hands and knees, like a fucking dying dog, Sasha, I crawled over and ate it. I lost consciousness, the pain and sickness was so bad. Now, I was never particularly scientifically minded-‘


I grinned nervously, but he slapped the table with his open hand, as if he sensed an interruption.


‘-But finding a reason how I didn’t do more damage by eating this poison has been impossible. It comes down to one simple fact; I shouldn’t have even made it through the winter, never mind back onto the Moscow train.’


He paused and faced me, raising the heavy jar like a precious relic.


‘But it taught me an important lesson, showed me how despite all the years I worked ripping confessions out of prisoners like rotten teeth, the worst prison of all is a diseased body.’


He carefully placed the jar on the ground and leaned forward. He hunched his shoulders and cupped his hands as if warming himself over a welcoming fire.


‘And it showed me that I made it back for a reason.’


A malicious grin spread across his face. He shrugged and rose up in his chair, his hand slicing through the sickening air.


‘Solitude took its toll, of course. After all, we were two days from the nearest oblast by train. The only thing we had was the inmates. But the real problem was power. The problem was that we weren’t sure how we would be able to hold on to it. All the talk about the camps, about what would happen in the future, always arrived at the same conclusion: the criminals would one day take control of the Gulag. Those of us working on the front lines had already noticed the Urkas slowly taking over. There was no way we could have kept them down.’


‘So I made the decision, Sasha. I ordered the guards to turn a blind eye in the camp. And terrible things started to happen.’


I looked downwards. The scratched armrest hinted at the violence that lay just beyond the reach of his words.


‘And that was around the time my health began to fade. I had never suffered from bad health before and at first I was convinced I was being poisoned. I would have made an example of a few, but I couldn’t even figure out if it was the guards or the Urkas I had to be worried about. As my sickness worsened, I began to lay the blame on myself for the brutal beatings that were taking place.’


Suddenly I thought of what I’d seen in the market. The mirror that caught my reflection, the glass in my hand, the seat I was sitting on, all of it would be bargained off and Kolya would end up fighting the feral packs for his life-giving meat.


He bared his teeth like a rabid dog.


‘But that didn’t stop me from giving the Urkas control. After all, it was that or face a full-scale revolt. And as bad as the routine attacks were, they would have been nothing compared to an all out mutiny.’


‘So I came up with a solution to the worsening problems, Sasha: the trains. They were the best way to give the Urkas power, but still keep control of the camp in the hands of the guards. It was a simple idea, really. All I did was put the Urkas in control of the carriages.’


He sighed.


‘No matter how much I succeed in fighting my sickness, I still must face my punishment for all those deaths I had a hand in. And now, everyday I eat this. The day I stop, I know I’ll die. And I couldn’t let that happen until I got you to visit.’


There was more venom in his voice now, more bitterness. This brooding cruel tone was what I’d been expecting.


‘I didn’t see the passenger list until after we had let them loose on the women’s carriage’, he continued.


‘Lena never stood a chance.’


The name alone weakened my grip and the glass dropped from under my nose. At that moment a sudden blast of sunlight illuminated his face and the walls took on a golden hue. The light seemed to drain his confusion and he looked momentarily serene. The spilt vodka felt oddly cool and cleansing as it soaked through my shirt. He looked lucid, as if the storm raging in his mind had passed. His eyes rested on the glass rolling on the thick carpet. His grin widened and I saw the grotesque bloodstained teeth. I was mistaken. He was not a portrait of piety; he was a parody of some long forgotten saint.


‘Before they even reached the camp, Sasha, the Urkas swept through the carriage, stealing and destroying everything.’


Looking up momentarily, a spark of recognition flashed between us. He turned and offered his fork and pushed the jar to my side of the table.


‘Feeling hungry yet, Alexander?’



- Nicholas Fox