Violet, p.1

Violet, page 1



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  To JLOH – my favourite travelling companion.

  ‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything’

  —Mark Twain


  Title Page




  Beijing: 1




  Beijing – Ulaanbaatar: 5

  Ulaanbaatar: 6











  Ulaanbaatar – Irkutsk: 17




  Irkutsk: 21







  Irkutsk – Moscow: 28

  Moscow: 29




  Moscow – Berlin (flight): 33

  Berlin: 34








  About the Author



  The body lies broken on the dusty, potholed track. The sky is a fading bruise of purple and grey, the alleyway illuminated by the faint lemony glow from one of the low-level windows at the back of the hotel. Parched, weedy-looking shrubs; gritty, dirty soil, and the ever-present hum of a generator somewhere close by mingles with the tinny sound of a radio from one of the rooms higher up. A mangy dog appears, its unclipped toenails scraping the cracked concrete. It sniffs. Whimpers. Before starting to lick at something dark and wet that’s pooling on the ground near the dead man’s head.

  The hooded man pushes the body slowly with his boot and the dog starts circling, saliva dripping from its hungry mouth. The man makes a clicking noise with his tongue, stamps his foot once, hard.

  Shttt shttt.

  The dog whimpers once more, then slinks away into the thick night.

  ‘Tell me what happened,’ the hooded man says. He spits out a chewed matchstick and takes a pack of crumpled cigarettes from his back pocket.

  ‘I told you on the phone.’ The young woman’s voice shakes as she tries to compose herself. ‘He fell … He was climbing up the balconies. He was nearly at ours. I … we … we shouted at him. We threw things. Tried to get him to stop. We told him we would call the police.’

  ‘What did he say?’ He lights a cigarette. Puts the used match back into the box.

  ‘Nothing. He just … He laughed. Then he said, “Let me in, little pig … Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and blow your house down.” It was creepy.’

  The hooded man snorts. ‘What does this mean? “Little pig…”’

  Leetle peeg.

  She shivers. ‘It’s from a nursery rhyme. It’s the Big Bad Wolf—’

  ‘Wasn’t he with Red Riding Hood?’

  ‘Another one.’ She shakes her head. ‘I guess there are lots of wolves in fairy tales.’

  He blows a series of perfect smoke rings into the air above him. ‘Not just in fairy tales.’ He coughs up a ball of phlegm and spits it on the ground, and she feels a light spray misting across her sandalled feet.

  She swallows hard, trying not to retch. Whimpers, just like the dog. ‘Please,’ she says. ‘Please help me.’

  The hooded man shrugs. ‘Why don’t you go to police? If it was accident? Like you say?’

  ‘But … but what if they don’t believe it? I’ve heard things. Bad things.’

  ‘Bad things about wolves?’

  Bad things about Russians, she thinks.

  Finally, she looks him in the eye. Holds his gaze. He’s not that bad-looking. This is not the worst thing she’s ever done.

  ‘Please,’ she says. ‘Can you make this go away?’

  He comes closer to her, stepping over the body. She can smell him now. His hot, stale sweat. She wonders when he last washed. She shudders, imagining the smell inside his clothes to be much, much worse. Hot acid roils up her throat and she swallows it back. She has no choice about this. She needs his help.

  ‘And the other girl?’ he says, blowing smoke slowly into her face. ‘Where is she now?’

  ‘She’s … I…’ Her eyes flit up and left, towards the balcony. His eyes follow, and then back to her again. His stare is hard, his expression unreadable.

  She says it again, more pleading. More desperate. ‘Please. Can you make this go away?’

  He grins, revealing sharp, wolfish teeth, and she hears the chink of metal on metal as he unclips his belt. There’s a brief pause, while he removes the cigarette and drops it on the ground, grinding it into the dirt, then without breaking eye contact, he slowly pulls down his zip. His huge, dark pupils gleam in the moonlight, full of want. She can’t look at him anymore.

  She closes her eyes and tries to imagine herself somewhere else. With someone else. Somewhere far from here. Somewhere long ago.

  He shuffles closer towards her and his trousers slide down to his ankles. The sour milk smell of him hits the back of her throat, but she won’t cry. She refuses to cry. She can do this. She has to.

  He lays a rough, warm hand on top of her head, exerting just enough pressure to force her to her knees. Gravel cuts into her bare flesh, but she barely feels it. She is numb.

  ‘Oh yes, leetle peeg,’ he says, ‘I can make this go away.’



  I’m sitting alone on a concrete bench. Around me, people are swarming, shouting quickly in a language that I can’t understand. Above me, the sky is a thick powder blue, like dirty paintbrushes swirled in water. The smog is so dense I can taste it. Waves of panic wash over me as I try to inhale some fresh air, and I wonder how anyone can breathe in this city. What started out as an exciting, fun morning has rapidly declined into panic and frustration; and not for the first time, I regret leaving Sam behind in Bangkok.

  There is something easy about that place, with the swarms of British backpackers and grinning Aussies, men on stag parties, cold beers and menus written in English. Even though Thailand is as far away from the English countryside as can be, there is a certain warmth. Familiarity. Despite all the stories you hear, I felt completely safe there. But then me and Sam had that stupid falling-out in the hotel lobby. I can’t even remember how it started.

  And so here I am, sitting outside the Beijing international train station, no boyfriend, only half my luggage – since my rucksack went AWOL somewhere on the way to China – and still no ticket for the train I want, which leaves tomorrow morning. I could call Sam, beg for his forgiveness, ask him to follow me out here. But firstly, I know he doesn’t want to, and secondly, I’d only be doing it out of desperation. He got sucked in, in Thailand, didn’t want to follow the plan – my plan – loop back via China and the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow, before flying home from there. He’d gone into an Internet café and resigned from his job; he was getting more excited than I liked by the cheap beer and the hordes of stunning young women that seemed to flock to him on a daily basis. ‘I’d just like to hang about here a bit longer,’ he’d said. ‘Lighten up, sweetheart. You need to smoke some more weed.’


  He’d changed since the group of German students arrived. There’d been a wild night. I’d felt uneasy, but he’d felt the opposite. ‘This is the kind of fun I came for,’ he said. To them, not me. I knew then that my Sam was gone. Was I angry? Not really. I just hope he stayed sober enough to do the appropriate checks on some of those beautiful ‘women
that he and the German lads were spending so much time with.

  Now I’m alone, in Beijing, a bustling metropolis of nearly twenty-two million people, feeling properly homesick for the first time in months. I did have fun yesterday, going for a proper Chinese tea ceremony with a young couple I’d met in the gardens near the Forbidden City. The tea had been ridiculously expensive, and I’d realised early on that it was a scam of some sort, but as scams go, it was pretty friendly. And I know more now than I ever thought I needed to about the many different kinds of Chinese tea.

  This morning I was buzzing, ready for another full-on day, making sure I could fit in as many crispy duck pancakes as I could manage. All I had to do was pop down to the train station and buy my ticket. The station is huge, the guidebook said, but buying a ticket should be simple. Just make sure you go to the international section. When they said huge, I hadn’t quite realised what that meant. But while I sat outside, waiting for the sun to push its way through the ever-present smog – it didn’t, by the way – it dawned on me that small towns in China have five million inhabitants, and that huge really means the station is the size of Manchester, and after walking around the whole place for two hours, being jostled and stared at, pointed at, pointed out and misdirected for hours on end, what I realised was that foreigners can’t buy international tickets in the station after all; they have to go to a travel centre in some business hotel, streets away … and that I am so over this now. This so-called ‘adventure’.

  And so I sat myself down on this concrete bench, and all I want to do now is cry. But that’s not going to get me anywhere. Certainly not to Moscow, which is where I really want to be. I need to move on. Find another companion for my trip. So I take a swig of water, then I pick up my backpack and head back into the throng.


  The Beijing International Hotel is seriously plush. Marble pillars, velvet sofas. There’s a long black bar made of smooth, sparkling granite. A good-looking Chinese man with neatly gelled hair is standing behind it, polishing glasses. I could sit there, ask him to mix me a cocktail. Something classic, old fashioned – like a Brandy Alexander. Then sip it seductively and see who might come in and offer to buy me the next.

  But that’s for another time.

  I don’t want to stay here alone in this city full of noise and smog. It’s too big. Too impersonal. There’s a reason why most backpackers follow a trail, go to the same places. I’d always thought that wasn’t for me, and yet here I am alone, and I’m not happy about it at all. I’m kidding myself if I think I prefer my own company.

  What I need now is a new friend. A replacement for Sam. I pause. Thinking again about the barman. No. What I need more than anything else is a ticket out of this place, and I just have to hope that my bag turns up before I move on. I look down at my skirt, wondering why I’d chosen this particular look for the flight. I bought a load of things in Bangkok, thinking I might head to the beach before moving on, but that never happened, and now I look like a goddamn hippy. I don’t fit in here, in this hotel. But without the rest of my clothes and my hair stuff and everything else I need, I’m just going to have to style it out. I suppose I will just have to be who this outfit suggests.

  The hotel travel centre is a small room filled with too many rubber plants. There’s a small leather sofa, and one desk where someone is being served by a beautiful Chinese woman with her hair pinned up with chopsticks. I’ve seen this before, but not on someone wearing a navy business suit. I like the contrast.

  The air conditioning is on full, and I’m relieved to be out of the thick, sticky heat, but after a few moments I’m already feeling a chill on my legs. I watch the woman with the chopsticks, smiling and nodding at the customer. Blonde, hair in a messy ponytail. Shorts. Backpack on the floor. Another traveller. Another me?

  I hope so.

  ‘So you’re saying I can’t get any sort of refund on this, even though I booked it six months in advance?’

  Chopsticks nods again. ‘So sorry. We cannot do it.’

  The blonde sighs in frustration. ‘It’s an expensive ticket. I did call before I left the UK and was told you could deal with it here…’

  Chopsticks shakes her head gently. She’s still smiling.

  The blonde stands up. ‘Fine,’ she says. ‘I assume the ticket is transferable? If I can find someone else to take it…’

  ‘You can do that, yes.’ Chopsticks is beaming now. All sorted, and she didn’t have to do a thing.

  The blonde hitches her backpack onto her shoulders, giving me a wry smile and a massive eye-roll as she leaves the room.

  Chopsticks is heading towards a door at the back. I glance up at the clock. The minute-hand ticks and the hour-hand clicks into place at the top. Five o’clock.

  I jump up off the sofa. ‘Wait … I need to buy a ticket.’

  ‘Sorry, we closed now,’ Chopsticks says, her smile dipping just a little. ‘We open nine am.’

  ‘No … I need to get the ticket now. The train is at seven-thirty tomorrow.’

  She frowns. ‘You want Trans-Siberian?’

  ‘Yes. Yes, please.’

  ‘No ticket left. Come back tomorrow, and you can get ticket for another day, OK?’

  It’s not OK, but she’s disappeared through the back. Shit. I grab my bag and slink out of the room, beaten. For another brief moment, I want to cry. But I bite it back. Looks like I’m going to be getting to know the barman after all.

  There are a few others in the bar area now. A couple of businessmen in suits on the high stools at the bar. A tanned couple with umbrella’d drinks and their faces stuck in the Lonely Planet. The blonde is sitting on her own, a tall glass of beer in front of her. She’s gazing out of the huge windows, watching the hordes of ant-like humans going about their business.

  I hesitate, not sure whether to approach her, but before I can make up my mind, she turns around and sees me.

  She looks confused, just for a second, then she smiles. ‘Hey. You were in the travel centre, weren’t you? Did you get sorted?’

  I shake my head. ‘Sold out. I need to rethink my plans.’ She just stares at me, saying nothing, and I stand there feeling a bit awkward. ‘That beer looks good.’ I smile at her, nod towards her glass. The condensation is trickling slowly down the sides, and suddenly I am so thirsty, I have to fight the urge to pick it up and sink it in one. When did I last have a cold drink? The water in the bottle I’ve been lugging around with me all day is so hot now I could probably use it to make tea.

  ‘Tsing Tao,’ she says. ‘Sounds all exotic back home, but it’s cheap and nasty here. Even in this place.’

  ‘Mind if I join you?’

  She moves her laptop over to the far side of the table and gestures towards the empty seat opposite. ‘Be my guest.’

  I’ve barely sat down when a smiling woman appears at my side, asking me what I want to order. I return the smile and point at the beer.

  ‘One of these. Unless you want another?’

  The blonde shakes her head. ‘Not yet. Thanks, though.’

  ‘I’m Violet,’ I tell her. ‘I—’

  ‘Carrie,’ she says, offering me a small, lightly tanned hand. ‘So where were you trying to buy a ticket for?’

  The woman returns with a tray. We wait patiently while she lays down a white paper coaster with a frill around the edge and places the glass carefully on top. Then she lifts a bowl of unshelled peanuts off the tray and places it down in the middle of the table. She smiles and gives me a small half-bow, and I thank her and take a long drink. It tastes like heaven, and I already feel more relaxed.

  ‘I wanted to get the Trans-Siberian. I wasn’t fussed about which branch, as long as it gets me to Moscow. I’m supposed to be meeting friends there.’ The last part is a lie. I have no particular reason to want to go to Moscow other than I haven’t been yet, and I’m getting a bit bored with Asia. It’s all a bit predictable after a while – same sorts of people on the trail, doing the same things. I think Russia mig
ht spice things up a bit. Take my mind off Sam, and everything else. It’s not like I’ve got anything to rush back to the UK for.

  ‘Oh cool. Me too,’ Carrie says. Then, ‘Oh shit, sorry – you just said you couldn’t get a ticket.’ She slaps herself on the head, then laughs. ‘Let’s have a few drinks and you can forget about it for now. The train tracks will still be there the day after tomorrow.’


  Her accent is more pronounced after four beers. In the travel centre, I’d only caught a subtle lilt, but now, as we sit here de-shelling peanuts and complaining about the smog, it is undeniably Scottish.

  ‘Where are you from?’ I ask. ‘I have relatives in Glasgow. You don’t sound quite like them, but maybe somewhere nearby?’

  She snorts. ‘Wrong coast. Totally. I’m from Edinburgh. I get mistaken for Northern Irish a lot though. You southerners never get it quite right.’

  ‘I’m from Nottingham,’ I say, laughing. I throw a peanut in the air and catch it in my mouth. I’ve no idea where that came from. The city, or the peanut trick.

  She raises her eyebrows. ‘Impressive.’ She lifts her beer and takes a long drink. Her eyes are sparkling. ‘You don’t sound like you come from Nottingham. That’s the Midlands, isn’t it?’

  ‘Hmm. I’ve moved a lot. Lived all over. I don’t think I have any accent now. Not like you.’

  She leans forwards and smirks. ‘Do you need me to speak slow… er?’

  I pretend to look confused. ‘I’ve no idea what you’re saying.’

  ‘Funny. Would you believe, I spend a lot of time pronouncing my words carefully for non-natives. I’m quite good at accents, actually.’ She throws a peanut and tries to catch it, but it goes way wide of the mark. She swears under her breath, but she’s grinning. ‘Oh damn it,’ she says in a good approximation of my accent. She’s right. She’s a decent mimic.

  I toss another peanut and catch it. I’m clearly on a roll. Maybe this boho look I’ve adopted comes with extra skills. ‘Don’t worry. I’ve spent years perfecting this as my party trick,’ I lie. ‘I’d always hoped I could try that holding-lipstick-in-your-cleavage thing that Molly Ringwald does in The Breakfast Club, but I don’t wear lipstick and my tits aren’t big enough.’ The last part is true, at least. Something that caused many sleepless nights when I was a teenager, but is actually quite a relief now, when my peers are complaining about sagging and I barely need to bother with a bra. Besides, I’ve never had any complaints.

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