‘You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus’
- Mark Twain
I watched the Russian boy’s hands intently as he shuffled and reshuffled the deck of cards, he was only seventeen but his hands were coarse and weathered like those of a man who’d spend his whole life in hard labour, and as the moonlight shone in through the window, lighting my students’ faces in the dark bedroom, I noticed that all of them were smiling, all of them except for the Russian.
Each time he dealt the cards, we were setting ourselves up for defeat. His poker face was indisputably perfect, the cold vacant stare that was ever-present in his eyes was unreadable, and I don’t think I ever saw him smile. He was a friendly enough kid but his stony gaze unnerved me, every time he misbehaved and I faced the challenge of disciplining him, my legs would quake and my hands would tremble. At 6’5 he towered over me, and his muscular build terrified me. He had the power to pick me up and crush me in one of those enormous battered hands, but instead he just looked at me blankly, as if he didn’t have the capacity to feel.
It was that same placid look I was greeted with as I was dozing off on the night train from Vienna to Prague. A heavily drunken Russian man forced open the door to my compartment, filled the room with the rotten stench of stale alcohol and cigarettes, and then slumped down opposite.
His presence unnerved me; I clung to my backpack and tightly closed my eyes but I could still feel his cold placid eyes examining me, I pushed my headphones into my ears to drown out the unearthly silence but his presence was deafening. I was petrified to fall asleep before this man who filled my body with unease, but my eyes were heavy and my body groaned with fatigue, and before long my body gave in to temptation and I quietly slipped into a dream.
I only awoke when the train jolted noisily and I was thrown from my seat some twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes later, and when I looked around the small compartment I found myself very much alone. The music had stopped dead in my ears, and as I ran my fingers along my headphones, I realised that my iPhone was gone.
My heart thumped, goosebumps appeared on my arms, and an unpleasant icy warmth swept over me as I realised what had happened. I quickly reached for my backpack to find that it too had been stolen. My passport, my wallet, my rail-pass, my laptop, my camera- gone, it was all gone. A wallowing despair fell over me, and not knowing what else to do, I slumped back down into my chair and looked out into the abyss.
It was the gently touch of a coarse hand on my neck that pulled me to my senses. I jolted awake to find the Russian’s cold eyes fixed on me in the dark. I didn’t mean to wake you, he whispered apologetically. I looked at him puzzled, and sat upright, knocking his jacket to the floor. You were shivering, he continued, picking the jacket back up and handing it to me. Thanks, I answered slowly and unsurely, reaching for my belongings in the darkness to make sure they hadn’t actually been stolen. So where are you headed?
And just like that I opened up the flood gates, he told me stories about his journey across Asia and through Europe, how he and his girlfriend had travelled together until their break up in Vienna, how he had gone and got stinking drunk to try to numb the heartbreak, and how he’d given up and was taking the first train back to Moscow. As he shared his story his eyes were still blank and without feeling but our tiny compartment was filled with emotion. I looked deep into his meaningless stare, the same stare exhibited in the eyes of my student, the same gaze that I’d seen in the mirror so many times- they weren’t the eyes of a Russian, they were the eyes of heartbreak. I was angry at myself for misjudging him so flippantly and so as an attempt to make amends I pulled out the beer my friends had given me for the road, and shared it with him in the darkness. And when he was finished telling me the tales of his adventure, I started telling him mine.
I told him about all the people I’d met who’d inspired me, and about the generosity of all those who’d given me a place to sleep, and although his eyes remained untouched something brought a smile to his unmoving lips. A small contagious smile that quickly spread into innocuous laughter- my friend, he told me, you’re on the wrong train. We were headed straight for Moscow, and without an entry visa I would be tossed off the train at the border. In a blind panic I completely forgot about my new friend, and not knowing which city, or even which country, I was in, I dashed off the train and left him behind in the darkness.
Ever since that moment I’ve felt his cold eerie eyes watching over me, and my only regret is that I never took the time to give him my thanks, to tell him how much our brief encounter opened my eyes, and to tell him that although I couldn’t mend his broken heart, I truly understood.