I have been translating from Russian into English since the early 1990s and major projects include the works of leading Kazakh writers, including Oralkhan Bokeev, Herold Belger and Olzhas Suleimenov, subtitles for films and documentaries for the BBC and a number of Russian television channels.
Today was the day. It was summer: sunny and stuffy. The trams clanged along the rails with a bell-like ding-ding as they turned corners. Once in a while, you could hear the sound of cars passing. The sky was a never-ending expanse of bright blue, and the sun beat down in blinding yellow.
Yusuf and Chub sat waiting in the uncomfortably gloomy yard of the run-down flats at the edge of their town. Buzzing flies accompanied the oppressive heat. Perro and Yeroma had gone to scout out the situation at the station. Chub had begun to tell the story of his barely week-long disappearance.
Perro was considered an authority among the local youths of the region and so had become the group’s leader. He was two years their senior and had already managed to serve two years in a penal colony for theft, made evident by his intimidating size and missing front tooth, which had been replaced by a glinting steel crown. His real name was Perimbet, but his nickname had become so well-used that nobody doubted that he’d been named Perro for his hound-like violence. Nobody questioned the name when they saw his animalistic grin. Chub, however, had been named Mouse.
They had discussed collection day and Perro had threatened Chub, saying that if he couldn’t find the money for the kitty, then he’d just have to find another way to do so. Chub’s aunt worked at the local supermarket and he’d once noticed the gold rings on her hands, and the jewels in those same rings. Aunt Lydia lived alone in a two-bed house on Cherry Street, surrounded by a modest garden. Her region was called Compote, aptly referring to his aunt’s street. Chub had seen her take these rings routinely from the jewellery box in her cupboard, fondly calling them her treasure. Two days ago, while Aunt Lydia was at work, he had robbed her; he had jumped the garden fence, with Perro on the lookout. They had both pulled socks over their shoes and hands – a trusty way to leave no trace. Perro helped Chub climb through a window and the latter opened the door from the inside for his friend. They found the jewellery quickly and then went searching for cash but with no luck, and speedily left the scene of the crime. They pawned their findings at the bazaar. Perro grinned with delight as he counted the cash. After the robbery, Chub had no choice but to run away from home. He loved his aunt and couldn’t think what he would do if she ever found him out.
‘Listen, mate, I’m really not myself after the robbery,’ he said to Yusuf, ‘can’t look my mum in the eyes, let alone my aunt. That’s why I’m running – running away from family consequences and probably a beating; why are you joining the runaways?’
‘I’ve got a dream, Chub. I want to see the ocean and travel the world if I can.’
‘Always the dreamer, aren’t you? Never anything realistic though! That’s not the way the world works. Sure, I can understand a dream, but why run from home when your Dad’s so good to you. But hey, when you’re a captain, take me with you, eh?’
‘Of course, we’re mates aren’t we?’ replied Yusuf, hugging Chub’s shoulders.
‘Mate, I’d take a bullet for you, you know that.’ Yusuf’s words touched him.
Perro and Yeroma’s return interrupted their conversation. They explained that the train carriages were being joined up on the hill. Most of them were freight, but they’d have to wait half an hour to catch an empty carriage. They went over the plan once more, checking that they’d packed everything, counting the money they’d saved up and looking over the map. Once all was in order, everyone apart from Yeroma lit their cigarettes and sat in silence. Everyone was quite tense, apart from Perro, who had run away from home before, but Chub was the most scared of them all.
‘Alright, it’s time,’ said Perro.
They stood up and walked towards the tall fence which surrounded the traders’ train station. Earlier, they had cut a hole in the fence and now they could just about squeeze through. The boys walked along the train tracks, crawling under trains. When they reached the fifth set of tracks, Perro stopped.
‘Wait,’ he whispered and they all looked around quietly, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Thank goodness!
The lads eventually climbed onto the brake plate of one of the freight carriages.
‘We’ll leave our backpacks here,’ Perro instructed, pointing at a grit container, ‘when they check the carriages, we’ll get onto the roof. Once the train starts moving, we’ll climb back down. And don’t smoke.’
They all wore fairly similar and unremarkable brown coats that they’d bought at the second-hand shop. Soon enough, they heard the station master banging on the train’s wheels, readying for departure, and the loud grating of his boots on the gravel.
‘Quick! Get on the roof!’ Perro ordered.
The lads bolted up the ladder on the side of the carriage and threw themselves onto the train roof. Yusuf was jittering, his feelings alternating between heartfelt joy and utter fear. He couldn’t quite believe that he was doing all of this. The look-out on the hill didn’t notice them. After some time, the wheels began to roll and the train departed. Perro gave the signal and they carefully descended to the ledge at the back of the carriage. The train was accelerating. The buildings started glittering as they flew by and blurred together with the fluorescent orange vests of the railway workers. The motorway came into view, lined on both sides with pyramid-like poplar trees. Something in Yusuf’s chest tightened as he watched them fly past.