Cycling Stories: Made in the USSR (Part 23)

soviet cycling jersey gold medal

We land in Kiev. It hadn’t stopped raining since we touched down in Borispol airport. We could use a break, we tell Nikolai Rogozyan. It’s not like we’re racing next week. It’s not like you lose anything if you lie in bed for two days, dry and warm with a book in your hands and not worry about four soiled wet jerseys you need to wash, four shorts and four t-shirts and eight arm and leg warmers and eight socks and two wet pairs of shoes. I get it, it’s not like you’ve been slashed all over with a knife and thrown to the bottom of a hole in the ground full of insects. You’re in Kiev, not in Kandahar. It’s not complicated.

You want to destroy an army, you mow everyone down and make it sink in its own blood bath. Or a building. You don’t break doors and windows and say, I destroyed it. You flatten the whole structure from top to bottom and turn it into a pile of rubble so that no one can say this looks like a building to me.

Pull the trigger. Don’t be a pussy.

We’re on the Brest-Litovsk highway wet from the moment we started to ride. The guy I’m riding with has been narrating a movie to me scene by scene since we left the base. This is the third time he’s taking me through the movie and I don’t tell him this because I know he’ll keep going because I know him better than I know my own brother because me and this guy, we eat, sleep, train and race next to each other 11 months a year. My brother, I see him once or twice.

Pull the trigger.

I peel off away from the bunch, slow down and turn around. Rogozyan’s car is the size of a gasoline lighter parked on the road shoulder and I can see through the mist of drizzle he’s taking a leak in front of the car. He doesn’t see me when he flies past me in the opposite direction because Brest-Litovsk is a four-lane highway with a median strip wide enough to camp on.

The boys and Rogozyan are still on the road clicking the miles when I smoke a cigarette lying in bed in wet and dirty clothes before I take a shower. My bag is empty like a cave’s mouth after I pack my possessions without all the cycling tackle I carry with me around the country. Goodbye.

I land in Nalchik. Anton is in town on holidays my mum tells me. We play chess and chip away from a golf-size ball of hashish and empty Belomorkanal cigarettes, stuff them with pieces of hashish and tobacco and smoke and drink black sweet tea between glasses of Moldavian port. The sun is up one moment and down the next.

He’s telling me he’s making a mint flying in and out to an oil or gas rig in Siberia somewhere. Doing what? I say and he says he’s not sure but he brings a suitcase of vodka with him he buys here in Nalchik four roubles a bottle and sells them for 20 in Siberia. Why, I say, would anybody pay 20 roubles for a bottle of vodka? You kidding me? he says, it’s an oil rig. You said gas, I say. Whatever, he says. They sell no vodka on gas rigs, brother. Bet you didn’t know that. Live and learn. And, he says with a finger pointing up to the ceiling as if something profoundly important is about to come out of his mouth, they pay me 400 roubleviches every trip in wages. Shut up, I say. True, I swear, he says. I’m in, I say, sign me up. Signed, he says.

It was Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man flowing from the wooden speakers that made him say this: “Remember Chert?”

“Who?”

“Chert, remember?”

“A crazy guy you studied with?”

“Yes. He lives in Sukhumi, did you know that?”

“Lucky man.”

We’re at the train station an hour later, hop on the train to Rostov to get off in Armavir to hop on the train to Krasnodar to catch a train to Sochi and from Sochi a train to Batumi to get off in Sukhumi to visit Chert and swim in the Black Sea. It takes one earth’s rotation to get to Sukhumi like that. If Caucasian Mountains had a tunnel we could be there in two hours.

Near Armavir the train stops at every village and this is what we want. Outlawed opium poppies grow here and no one can do anything about it because you can’t arrest and jail a plant. How Anton knows this I don’t ask. We hop off in a random village sunk in greenery with not a soul in sight and plod through backyards and gardens looking for poppies. Some of them reach our chests with hulls the size of an apple. Anton nicks them on the side or at the hull’s base with a razor blade and swabs the juice with a piece of cotton roller bandage he pulled out of his shoulder bag like he’s a rogue warlock.

My job is to carry tatters of bandages soaked with opium by two fingers and wave my hands to dry them. Part of the job is not to draw attention to my hand-waving. They catch you harvesting opium, it’s better to slash the wrists with that razor blade than go to prison for this.

Back at the train station we check the timetable and vote to hitchhike to Armavir. A man with a teacher’s looks in a tidy Lada built when I started school picks us up outside the village we milked for opium. The guy doesn’t ask us more than where we’re going and we tell him we want to catch a train in Armavir and he says yeah no problem I’ll drop you off in Armavir I’m going to work. He’s not a talker and we fall asleep on the back seat with four windows opened and the sun scorching the salad-green Lada.

“Wake up. Arrived.”

We’re in a police station’s car park. I know this because I’m looking at the signboard on the building we’re parked next to and it says in large bold golden letters on a navy-blue background that this building I’m looking at is a police station. It’s all I see, two words: POLICE STATION. Below that is something else, suburb’s name and other nonsense but all I’m looking at is the two words at the top.

This is the end, you pulled the trigger and this is how it ends. You go down long enough, you hit the bottom at some point, it’s only a matter of time. This is your time. You asked for it. This is what you wanted, to get out of here one way or another. This is one way, one of many and this one is yours.

I want my brother with me right now to help me with what to say and what to do. Three criminal convictions, he knows what to say and what not to say. What’s this brown stuff in my pockets? Don’t know, found it on the road. Brilliant.

Anton is awake too. The brown tatters in our pockets is bad enough. What’s worse is a syringe, he has a syringe wrapped in a towel in his bag.

The man who drove us here, he’s outside. He holds a police uniform folded over his left arm and stands next to the car waiting for us to get out. We step outside and I sweep the car park with my eyes for a way out of here because this car park is behind a concrete wall with an iron gate and an iron door and I can see the gate is locked and the door, I don’t know about the door.

The cop says, “Go through that door and turn left then walk until you come to an intersection. Ask for directions from there.”

We’re in Sochi standing in line to buy tickets on the Batumi train to Sukhumi. Sochi is like a second home to me. I spend four months here every winter and can ride a bike to Sukhumi blindfolded.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn around. Two cops, one is next to me, the other one is strategically at a distance in case we decide to run.

“Show me your identification document,” the one closer to me says.

I pull out my internal passport from the jeans back pocket and give it to him.

“Yours,” he says to Anton.

He goes through Anton’s passport first and then opens mine. He turns pages with a bored look on his face and then stops browsing. I know how it’s going to end. Round two, you’re on.

“Where do you live?” he says.

“In Kiev.”

He keeps his eyes buried in my passport.

“In Kiev? That’s not what it says here.”

He raises his eyes and looks at me.

Our internal passports have a stamp with a place of residence. Not having one is against the law, everyone is tied to an address and you can’t move anywhere you want, you won’t have a residence stamp if you do. My internal passport has two stamps, one with my Nalchik’s address and the second one that says I moved out from there. The second stamp is three years old. If this cop wants to, he can arrest me for vagrancy. Technically, I don’t live anywhere.

He says, “Name and date of birth.”

“Nikolai Razouvaev 26 March 1966.”

He checks that against what’s in my passport.

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a cyclist.”

“What?”

“I race.”

He pauses, looks at Anton. “Are you a cyclist too?”

“No,” Anton says.

Cop’s eyes back on me, he says, “What are you doing in Sochi?”

“Buying tickets to Sukhumi.”

“Sukhumi? What’s in Sukhumi?”

“A friend.”

He taps our passports against his thigh and I almost hear him say that we can go except he doesn’t say that because here’s a guy who looks like he hadn’t slept in bed for some nights with no place of residence since three years ago. They give you thirty days to have no place of residence, after that you’re an open game.

I’m an open game now.

He says, “I don’t believe you.” He puts our passports in the pocket of his blue cop trousers and says, “You two will go with us.”

At the police station they sit us in a room with two plainclothes cops and tell us to wait. We wait. The cop who arrested us comes back with another plainclothes cop and says with a nod at me, “This one, comrade Lieutenant.”

After he leaves, the plainclothes asks me the same questions again except he never says he doesn’t believe me.

“So,” he says, “you say you’re a cyclist.”

“Yes.”

“Say you’re me. Would you believe me?”

I don’t say anything.

He says, “Two problems here. One, I don’t know where you live. Two, I don’t know where you work. Help me out.”

My legs are shaved and arms and legs half white half black, will that help?

“He’s a world champion,” Anton says.

“Really?”

“Yes,” he says. “Show him your MSMK card.”

My MSMK card, I forgot about it. Master of Sport, International Class that looks like a KGB identification. It’s in Anton’s bag, all our stuff is in Anton’s bag where the syringe is.

“It’s in your bag,” I tell him.

He unzips his bag and rummages through it, pulls out my MSMK card and gives it to the cop.

We wait. The cop, he doesn’t need that much time to weigh up what’s on the card. He says, “You must be a proper cyclist then.”

“I’m in a national team.”

“Oh,” he says. “Do you know who Nikolai Morozov is?”

Morozov is second in command in the national team and he’s from Sochi. He knows everyone worth knowing here and they know him.

“He’s national team’s coach, one of. Lives here in Sochi,” I tell him.

The cop, he grabs a phone on his desk and pulls it next to himself. He says, “So, if I call him right now he’ll vouch for you, right?”

“He’s in Lithuania with the national team.”

“And you’re in Sochi.”

“I’m on a break.”

He grins. He pushes the phone away and says, “Guys like you, you don’t have breaks.”

“Sometimes we do.”

“What about you,” he says to Anton, “where you work?”

“On a gas rig.”

We wait. The cop picks our passports from the desk and taps them against its veneer top. He says, “Come here you both.”

We stand from our chairs and come next to his desk.

He says, “I’ll let you go.” He looks at me and says, “Pass my greetings to Morozov when you see him.”

“So we can go?” Anton says.

“Yes.”

Anton takes the passports and the MSMK card and puts them in his bag.

“Wait,” the cop says, “what’s in the bag?”

He stands and walks around his desk and sits on it. “I need to see your bag.”

He opens the bag and starts pulling stuff out. Socks, underwear, cigarettes. He pulls out the folded towel with the syringe inside and lays it in the pile with the rest. Pulls out a book, looks at the title and drops it back in the bag.

“All good,” he says.

I can taste the Black Sea’s salt water on my lips when we walk outside.

Chert takes us to a beach in Sukhumi and we swim to an abandoned dock in the sea to harvest mussels and bring them back to the shore in plastic bags. We make a fire and cook the mussels and Anton and Chert cook the brown shreds of bandage we brought from Armavir and we stay on the beach until darkness and walk to Chert’s place to drink home-made wine and eat khachapuri his mum had made for us.

All households in Sukhumi keep enough wine at home to drink every day for a year.

***

Autumn doesn’t last long in Kiev. It starts with red and yellow on the trees and the smell of burning leaves and the waves of soppy nostalgia and when the cold drizzles come you think about the start of a new season and the Black Sea and how you go there every year to click miles except this year you won’t because you had pulled the trigger to wipe out what you lived for.

The 45 square-meter apartment in a high-rise coffer on the fourteenth floor I live in isn’t mine, it’s my girlfriend’s parents’. I don’t need a job. The bureaucrats forgot to cancel my salary and a cool sum of money shows up in my account every month. I sleep until people have lunch at work and sit on the balcony with a book and smoke and drink Turkish coffee I brew in the kitchen with black pepper and cinnamon and a pinch of salt.

Wrong lifestyle my girlfriend’s parents tell her and she says I’ll get over it. She says you don’t know what it’s like. They’re never home, her parents. They live with the grandma near Kiev and wait until I stop sitting and smoking on the balcony.

I buy reels of music from a guy I met at a party. Like me, he sleeps until late and doesn’t work anywhere except nobody pays him to sleep until late. He sells music. He buys smuggled records and tapes them on a Japanese reel-to-reel and sells the reels. I’m his best customer.

He makes his own vodka at home, the samogon, and we drink it and listen to records and smoke and drink more samogon with his customers and when his wife comes from work she yells and opens all windows and the balcony door because she can’t breathe the smoke.

We go out to buy coffee beans and cigarettes or catch a taxi and go visit friends with a three-liter jar of samogon we have with us.

Sometimes, I don’t know if the darkness is the start of a night or its end.

The trees in Kiev are naked and wet from icy drizzle and I go to Pulya, my former team-mate, to say goodbye before he leaves to Europe. Nikolai Morozov is at his place staying overnight on his way to Italy where he’ll manage the all-Soviet Alfa Lum team. We drink Baileys with Belgian chocolate and Morozov pulls out a bottle of Ballantine’s. Pulya and him, they talk Giro and the Tour and I go outside to smoke because I can’t smoke in front of Morozov. When I come back, they stop talking and I say you’re talking about me and we laugh.

“You ride?” Morozov says.

“No.”

“When did you stop?”

“Middle of last season.”

“Do you want to come back?”

“No.”

“You’re stupid, you know that?”

Outside, the darkness is like a coat I’ve owned for many years. It’s mine. I did it to myself.

The drizzles had stopped and it’s dry and cold before snow falls and the winter starts. I walk to uni from Republican Stadium metro station and Elizarov’s car is parked next to the Planetarium. He’s outside leaning against the front door, arms folded across his chest. I say hey and keep walking.

“Wait,” he says.

I come closer and we shake hands.

“What’s wrong with you?” he says.

“Nothing.”

“Why don’t you kill yourself?”

“What?”

“I know what you’re doing. Find a rope and hang yourself, it’s quicker this way.”

I look at the asphalt under my feet, at his car and the bike rack where my bike used to travel to races. I know how this car smells inside.

He says, “We’re leaving to Sochi tomorrow. Do you want to come?”

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