I am on a train going from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki, reading a novel about an American infiltrator in Russia. Every now and then I look out of the window, wishing to see something interesting. We are driving along the edge of a forest and birch trees stand bunched up together, tall and thin, their narrow tops piercing through grey clouds. I scan the flashes of wilderness for a wolf, or a Siberian tiger, but instead there’s just trees and grass. Across the aisle is an old woman and opposite her a young man. She is about sixty and he is about twenty-five. They have struck up a conversation. He is in love. She is wary. It is going like this:
‘We walked around Petersburg all night then got breakfast in the morning. We spoke about everything.’
‘How did you meet her?’
‘In a bar. We got to talking about our situations.’
‘And what was her situation?’
‘She lived there.’
‘I live in Helsinki, used to live in Russia. I am Russian.’
‘Why did you move?’
‘My mother died when I was young. I left for university in Finland.’
‘It was tough for a while, but the universe looked after me.’
He sounds earnest. As if all he’s ever done is put his trust into something bigger than himself.
‘And led you to this girl, I presume.’
‘When will you see her again?’
‘I’m going back to Petersburg in two months’ time.’
‘And you’re sure it’s love?’
‘Yes. Yes, I’m sure it’s love.’
A good place to fall in love, Saint Petersburg. I imagine him declaring his feelings on Nevsky Prospekt, in the middle of the busy pavement, perhaps on Anichkov Bridge. Behind him beautiful buildings, pastel-coloured palaces. He says the words during the white night, tinged by the electric blue of dusk.
I peek at the man. He has lovely brown hair and chiseled cheeks. He looks like the kind of person to fall in love during the night. More mysterious, more passionate. Falling in love during the daytime seems almost pathetic in comparison.
‘Be careful,’ the woman says.
I learnt earlier that she is from Israel. I wonder if anyone her age believes in falling in love after one night. Maybe she has fallen in love before, during night-time, and maybe her heart was broken. It is harder to see the old woman’s face; she is facing the same direction I am. I catch a glimpse of red hair, wispy and frail.
‘I’ve never been careful,’ says the man.
Someone once told me that most Russians are careful, but maybe he has never been so when it comes to love. Maybe when love is real, nobody is careful.
He asks her about Israel now. She is travelling alone. She has always wanted to see Russia. She has read about it all her life. Israel is beautiful. Saint Petersburg is beautiful. Yes, I hope Finland is beautiful too. It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it? All these places, all these beautiful places…
The train rolls on and the old woman gets up to retrieve something from her bag, stored in the hold. I turn my head slightly, so that she’s in my periphery. I catch a glimpse of her face. She has a long, ragged scar that runs from her right eye to the bottom of her cheek.
It has started raining outside. We pass a lake and the water pounds down through the surface, making it ripple. We’ve just made it across the border. Every now and then a little wooden cabin appears in the middle of the trees. I spot one with a red front door and a pile of logs out front. As soon as we pass it the rain stops and the clouds begin to part slowly, waiting for the sun to shine through.
Isabelle Spurway has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Kent and currently lives just outside London. She writes many of her stories during her commutes to and from the city and finds most of her inspiration in travel.