The turn of the screw
By Khasukha Magomadov, special to Prague Watchdog
"Vroom-vroom-vroom," came the roar of an engine somewhere in the distance.
Ivan Petrovich suddenly stopped and listened. Perhaps he had imagined it? But no, the engine continued its hacking roar, filling the hapless tourist's heart with hope.
For half a day now Ivan Petrovich, a suburban Muscovite and presently entangled nature lover, had been walking round in circles in the forest between Moscow and St Petersburg, and had even begun to think that he might never find a way out.
His mobile phone was running out of juice, his boots were stuck with mud, and sweat poured down his back. The accumulated fat of fifty-odd years announced itself as fatigue and shortness of breath.
Although the forest was now quite sparse, it stubbornly refused to "end". And now there was this roaring car engine. That could mean only one thing: there was a road nearby.
Ivan Petrovich rushed towards the source of the noise and after only twenty or thirty yards found himself on a forest road, so narrow that there was barely room for two cars to pass along it in either direction. But it was a road, and ideally it would lead to the motorway, and thus to other people.
Suddenly from round a bend appeared the very same car whose engine Ivan Petrovich had heard.
No wonder its engine was emitting such an anguished howl. The car was a Lada 6 of indeterminate age, red with a gray front wing, and although It had apparently been retired from the auto market long ago, it was now being made to serve as an off-road vehicle.
Ivan Petrovich emerged from behind a tree and thumbed a lift.
The Lada braked, and a door opened invitingly. Without asking questions, Ivan Petrovich climbed into the back seat, reasoning that in such a remote wilderness one should accept any offer that came along.
Inside, the car was crowded. Three plump and bearded men in padded jackets seemed to occupy all the space.
“Good afternoon, lads! Mushroom picking, eh?" Ivan Petrovich asked at once.
“Not much,” one of them growled. The others grinned.
Ivan Petrovich paused briefly, puzzled. Then he could restrain himself no longer:
“I’ve lost my way a bit in your neck of woods. My name is Ivan Petrovich, by the way.”
To his surprise the forbidding bearded men responded immediately. Slightly turning his head, the driver introduced himself as "Abdula al-Rahman". The man in the passenger seat said his name was "Abu Usman", and the one in the back beside Ivan Petrovich simply said: “Osama”.
Ivan Petrovich peered in bewilderment at the round, Slavic faces with their broad, thick, light brown beards and blue eyes, and inquired:
“You're not Russians, then?”
“Yes, we are. It’s just our religion,” the driver reassured him. “My other name is Pyotr.”
“Like my father,” Ivan Petrovich said with relief. Out of curiosity he asked: “And where are you going?”
“We’re looking for metal. Nuts, bolts, fittings. We’re going to make a blockbuster,” Osama said, patting a bucket beside him.
“For stunning fish?” the tourist asked.
“Yes, something like that,” the man next to him said with a sly squint.
"Poachers,” Ivan Petrovich decided. “ Oh, I should never have never have taken a lift from them. Though I don't think the water-bailiff is around just now, so we won’t be arrested.”
But at this point the car swerved off the road and stopped.
“We’re here,” said Pyotr in a voice of command.
Through a small forest cutting an embankment and railway line were visible.
“There’s lots of scrap metal here,” Pyotr-Abdula explained. “We’ll find nuts and bolts.”
Ivan Petrovich got out with the men, reasoning that the sooner they go their scrap metal the sooner they would leave again, and thus take him to other people.
While the bearded men wandered around the base of the embankment, Ivan Petrovich climbed to the top. There were no nuts, no bolts, no fittings. There were sleepers, rails and desolate forest all around. It all threatened to drag on for a long time. Ivan Petrovich sighed, and shouted to the metal collectors:
"I say, have you got a monkey wrench?”
Thirty minutes later it was done. Rattling in the bearded men’s bucket were about fifty large metal nuts, while the same number were missing from the rails on the roadbed.
"It’s all right,” Ivan Petrovich reassured himself. “One nut to hold each rail should be enough. The track engineers will come and fix it later.”
Then there was a rumbling as the rails boomed beneath the weight of an approaching train. The train was still far away, but as the rumbling grew louder Ivan Petrovich felt a sense of vague anxiety. Something was wrong.
The metal collectors ran down the embankment and stood near the car, keeping an eye on the tracks where light-grey passenger coaches were already flickering into view. Ivan Petrovich even tried to make out the name of the train, but its high speed made that impossible.
Suddenly there was a loud clang. The train seemed to slow down, and the coaches at the rear fell over on their side. Like matchsticks the trees on the slope lay down beneath the rapidly descending avalanche of metal.
In confusion, Ivan Petrovich and the bearded men watched what was taking place.
“Ach, the nuts weren't needed,” Pyotr-Abdula said angrily. “And we wasted all that time collecting them...”
(Translation by DM)
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