I walk down into the Underground later than usual. The first train is full, the seats are taken. It has been a bad start to the day and I am dejected. I had carried a book with me, in hope that it might lift my spirits. Midway down the train there is a seat alongside a labouring type.
I turn to my book.
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf
There is a Russian soldier and a horse on the cover. I find my mark and return to the protagonist – alone in a restaurant. His isolation all the more apparent in the cold carriage. I am confronted by the feeling that we; he and I, and everyone inside this carriage, we are all alone.
The man alongside me stirs and I turn. He looks at me with a smile on his heavy face.
-Can I ask you what this book is?
His accent is foreign, the expression is articulate, sharp and accurate. Each letter is shaped, and felt. Perhaps he is a Russian? I am certain that he is from somewhere in Eastern Europe, his clothes are the clothes of a worker, but of good quality, and well cared for. His face is worn and creased, with a thick stubble that looks as if it must always be there. There’s vitality and clearness in his eyes.
I name the book. And he has not heard of the author. I tell him that the author was a white Russian living in Paris, and he drove a taxi.
-A taxi driver.
-Yes, a taxi driver.
-Can I see the back? Can you read it? I do not have my spectacles.
I do, and end with a reference quoting Maxim Gorky.
-Maxim Gorky! And he was a communist and this man a Russian émigré! That is acclaim. He must be good.
-Yes, he must.
-On this train many people read books. I see all of England reading books but they do not read books like this.
-The Russians were great writers.
-The Russians wrote about the heart and the soul. I respect their culture. Here people read to be entertained. A book like this, it will be read by one in a hundred. No, not one in a hundred, two people in this whole train, two in a thousand will read this book. We are the two. (he laughs).
– Perhaps you are Russian?
-No. Are you?
-No. Romanian. I am an engineer, I come here to work in the spring. I will go home.
-But in Romania you are more exposed to Russian culture?
-In Romania the Russians aren’t welcome. 1948. 1962.
He names these unknown dates as if in explanation.
-But the literature is read.
-Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Chekhov… Solzhenitsyn. I respect the culture.
The train grinds on the track, and my station approaches. I look as if I am about to move.
The stranger smiles.
– Go, he gestures.
I stretch out my hand. Standing by the door I wonder if I should turn, having shattered the illusion of being alone. Turning back the Romanian is watching and waving warmly. The train goes, the platform is empty, and I open my book and wait for another train.