An Expedition To The Taiga

by Andrew Crumey

Published in Magnetic North ed. Claire Malcolm (New Writing North, 2005)


In Moscow, Roy Jones was due to attend a conference of mechanical engineers. Arriving at the airport, he passed through the customs channel and emerged to see a row of impoverished-looking taxi drivers, mournfully waiting in the foyer for their pre-booked customers. Russia, his wife had warned him, is a wild and unruly place. The taxi drivers are in some instances muggers in disguise. She'd seen it on a TV documentary. They lure rich Westerners into their cars, drive them to remote and shabby neighbourhoods, then allow their passengers to escape with their lives only if they first hand over their every valuable. Even their Polartec fleeces.

But among the drivers Roy Jones saw as he emerged stood one, sallow-faced in a fur hat and battered black leather jacket, bearing a sign saying "Mr Jones". How reassuring. Though surely the conference organisers should have remembered that Roy Jones was Dr, not Mr. They went outside to a grimy white car. Roy Jones felt brave enough to place himself in the passenger seat, holding his briefcase, while the driver casually fitted the larger suitcase into the boot. Roy Jones had just about figured out the seat belt when the driver got in beside him and started the car.

"Do you know where you're going?" Roy Jones asked.

The driver gave a thin smile. "Yes. Do you?"

Roy Jones didn't know the name of the hotel. The conference organiser had e-mailed it to him last week, but it was a funny Russian word that meant nothing to him: a possible hotel, nothing more. Now the driver was taking him there.

Roy Jones watched the unfolding succession of slab-like buildings and strangely quiet roads, punctuated by advertising hoardings whose enthusiasm was almost touching in its futility. The sky was grey and overcast; the air was filled with swirling powder-snow, whipped by the slipstreams of the ancient, fuming lorries they overtook.

"Do you live in Moscow?" Roy Jones asked. It was all the small-talk he could think of. Long silences were as discomforting to him, even with insignificant foreigners, as long periods without going to the bathroom.

The driver nodded. "I live in Moscow," he said. "All my life, I live in Moscow. Except for one year, I live in London."

So when he said he lived all his life in Moscow, Roy Jones reasoned, the driver was in fact lying. It was good for Roy Jones to know exactly where he stood. Or rather, sat, with his briefcase clutched tightly on his lap.

"What were you doing in London?" Roy Jones asked.

"A girl," said the driver enigmatically. He looked the kind of man no woman could ever fall for. At least, no woman that Roy Jones could think of. Like his wife, for instance. Or Dorothy, the departmental secretary at the university. But what about the students? Those female ones, who'd sit on the lawn beneath his office window in the summer term? Roy Jones knew nothing about those young and dangerously carefree girls. None of them were engineers.

"I love London," said the driver, turning towards Roy Jones with a sudden obliviousness to the road ahead. "And I hate it."

It must be a Russian thing, Roy Jones decided: this tendency towards inconsistency. Not to mention a tendency to ignore the road. He said, "Do you love Moscow, or do you hate it?"

The driver nodded. "Yes. That's it exactly, my friend."

The car took a bend, and a dignified building appeared on their left, adorned with a hammer and sickle. Roy Jones thought they would have got rid of all that, but apparently not.

"What I really love," said the driver, "is the taiga."

Roy Jones was puzzled. "You love the tiger?"

The driver nodded.

"Which tiger is that?"

"The taiga," the driver repeated. "You know, the forest."

From the depths of his memory, Roy Jones recalled a wildlife program he'd watched one Sunday evening with his wife. The taiga: T-A-I-G-A. A great expanse of forest, between grassy steppe to the south and frozen tundra to the north. So at once, Roy Jones knew exactly where he was with the driver. Lots and lots of trees, the odd bear or eagle, and the soothing voice of David Attenborough, while his wife got up and asked if he wanted more tea.

"Of course, the taiga," said Roy Jones. "Well, I'm sure it must be very nice. A bit like the New Forest, perhaps?"

"I hate it," said the driver. "The taiga, it is beautiful, and it is hell."

Roy Jones could not recall, in at least twenty years of attendance at international conferences on industrial lubricants, any conversation with a local taxi driver quite like the one that was now evolving. "Tell me," he said, "have you always been a taxi driver?"

His companion shook his head. "I am not a taxi driver." Roy Jones felt a shiver of fear; was this the moment when the hidden plan would make itself known, as the driver pulled up in a side street far from any hotel or officer of the local law?

The driver repeated. "I am not a driver, not a teacher, not a husband, not a writer." Roy Jones was struggling to find the point of all these negatives. Apart from husband and teacher (or rather, lecturer), Roy Jones was none of these things either. "No," said the driver. "I am a man. That is all I am. You go to taiga, you find this for yourself. You find what you are. Then perhaps you love yourself. Or perhaps you hate."

"I see," said Roy Jones. Clearly this taiga place wasn't like the New Forest after all. "Do you go there often?"

"Not for many years," said the driver sorrowfully. "Last time, it was enough for me." Still the car followed its steady route through streets Roy Jones began to notice less and less, intrigued instead by the driver's words.

"Twelve years ago," the driver said, "or maybe more, I can't remember. My cousin and I, we like to hunt. We go to the taiga with our rifles. The big black bird, what do you call it?"

"Crow?"

"No."

"Eagle?"

"No, big black bird, a kind of grouse. What beautiful meat! And the one with the tail like this..." the driver drew a curve with his finger.

"Lyre bird?"

"Of course not."

Roy Jones had seen lyre birds on David Attenborough, but obviously it wasn't taiga week then. The driver drew the bird's tail again, this time taking both hands from the wheel in order to express himself more accurately, and Roy Jones realised that his life possibly depended right now on his own neglected skills in ornithology.

"Quail? Ptarmigan?"

"No, no. Quail is with the feathers on his head..." The driver was more interested in doing bird impressions than in watching Moscow traffic. Roy Jones was shrinking into his seat, wondering if his briefcase would have the protective qualities of an airbag, as random bird names continued to spill from his mind.

"Partridge?"

"Yes! yes!" The driver clapped and gripped the wheel once more. Roy Jones breathed a sigh of relief. A partridge had saved his life.

"That's a good bird," said the driver. "We hunt it, in the taiga. And another one..."

"Alright, never mind," said Roy Jones.

The driver was hurt. "I bore you?"

Roy Jones was sheepish. For all his consumptive appearance, the driver could still probably kick the shit out of him if he cared to, judging by the deft way he'd handled Roy Jones's suitcase. "I only meant to ask you what else you hunted. Bears?"

The driver shook his head. "Bears, you leave them alone, they leave you. But the pig, with the tusks..."

"Wild boar?" Roy Jones said it swiftly, before the driver could bring his hands up and make little tusks out of them that would have sent the car careering off the road into what Roy Jones noticed to be a passing McDonalds.

"Yes, the wild boar. We shot one, cooked it on a fire."

"That's most interesting," Roy Jones said politely. "And you're allowed to light fires in the taiga?" Yes, it really wasn't like the New Forest at all.

"You're allowed to do whatever you want," said the driver. "In the taiga, no one can see you. In the taiga, nearest village is maybe a thousand kilometres away. You see another man in the taiga, first thing you do, you reach for your rifle."

Roy Jones swallowed. "Well. Fascinating. And you went there with your cousin?"

The driver nodded. "We camp; we stay in huts. They open all the time; if nobody there you go in, light the fire, live there as long as you want."

"And if somebody's in the hut when you arrive?"

"Then you no go near. You keep your rifle close by your side."

All in all, this taiga place sounded a lot less inviting than when David Attenborough did it on the television. Roy Jones's wife had made a fresh pot of tea, and there on the screen was a big cuddly bear, reaching into a tree and mucking up a beehive, just like an outsized Winnie the Pooh. "Come and look at this, dear," Roy Jones called to his wife in the kitchen, as the bear slopped bee-studded honey into its hungry mouth. "Really, these creatures are so comical, don't you think?" But now the driver had totally spoiled it all. The taiga, it seemed, was just as lawless as the rest of this huge, unfathomable country.

"We go in boat," he explained.

"You and your cousin?"

The driver nodded. "Some supplies, essential things. Our rifles, of course. We go up the river, two hundred kilometres from road where we leave the car. Takes us a few days. We hear there's good place for the... for the..."

"Partridges? Grouse?"

"No, the black one. Never mind. We hear there's a hut, nobody is there probably. So, on the third day, we wake up in our tent, wash ourselves in the river, we have some fish to eat. In the taiga, very good fish."

Roy Jones could almost see it: the smouldering campfire beside the broad, cool waters. And all around, nothing but trees, impenetrably dense.

"We get the boat ready, and my cousin, he say to me suddenly, did you hear that? What, I say. A noise, he tell me. Sound like a gun. I say to him, I hear nothing - you hear a branch breaking. It might be a bear, he say, we better be careful, and I say, never mind about the bear, we make the boat ready, we go to the hut today and we find a nice bed tonight, have everything we need. He laugh - everything except a woman of course. Yes, in the taiga you have everything except that." Roy Jones could at least relate to this aspect of the adventure. While the resemblance with the New Forest had dwindled out of existence, the taiga nevertheless had something in common with the field of international tribology research.

"My cousin, he say, let's check the rifles. He not like the sound he heard. In the taiga, you meet another man, he's either mad or he's escaped from a prison."

"What about you two?"

"We were hunters. That's the other kind you meet. And hunters, they like to hunt. So you not want to meet other hunter. Otherwise, maybe he hunt you."

The driver slowed up, but it was not a hotel they had arrived at, only a set of traffic lights that soon changed.

"Well, we check the rifles, we get the boat ready, we set off. Beautiful morning. In the taiga, clear days like you see nowhere else. The air is like... like..." Roy Jones quietly prayed that the fresh air of the taiga bore no resemblance to anything that would mean the driver lifting his hands from the wheel again. "Like honey," he said at last. "Air like honey." All ready for a big bear to come and steal, and without signalling, the driver took a sudden left in front of an oncoming lorry. Roy Jones braced himself, but the taxi easily avoided the approaching vehicle, whose horn blared as they left it rushing behind them.

"And the water," the driver continued, "it's like glass. Only few small waves on the wide river, it flows so slow. And the boat cutting through when we start the engine." He breathed in, as if tasting the honeyed air of the taiga; Roy Jones watched the driver breathe deeply, exhaling noisily before repeating the gesture, and then finally the driver's sickly face darkened. "Shit!" he murmured. "The air, to me, it's like a shit."

Roy Jones wasn't sure if this was Russian contradiction again, or else a comparison between the taiga and the city; but he didn't really care. "Then you took the boat to the hut?" he said, wishing to move things along to their conclusion, as if this might somehow bring them more quickly to his hotel.

The driver slowly shook his head. "No," he said. "We not make it to the hut. We not make it any place. The boat, it goes fine, engine run smoothly, and then my cousin, he says suddenly: Listen! So I listened, and I hear nothing. My cousin, he leans towards me in the boat, he says, it was another gunshot, you didn't hear it? Me, I reckon he's dreaming. But then, across the water, in front of the boat, there it was: pat-pat-pat-pat-pat!" The driver, using only one hand, made a motion like a flat stone skimming over the waves.

"My cousin, he get hold of me while I watch, he grab me and pull me down in the boat. I raise my head to look, and there it is again, in front of us: pat-pat-pat-pat-pat! Line of bullets hitting the water. A machine gun. Some guys in trees, they want a little fun, little sport. Maybe they sink the boat first, then they kill us. Or else they want the boat. My cousin and me, we're lying in the boat, terrified, and we hear bullets flying over our head: zip-zip-zip-zip!" A zooming finger illustrated this new torment for the benefit of Roy Jones. "We not steering the boat - I try to hold with my foot. And then: kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa! Little pieces of wood splinters all over us - a line of holes in the side of the boat. They getting serious. My cousin, he say to me: we gotta do something! And he reach the... the... what do you call the handle on motor you steer with?" Roy Jones couldn't remember. "The rudder?"

"No, not rudder I think."

"Let's just call it the handle," Roy Jones suggested. "Tell me what happened next."

"My cousin, he get the handle between his feet and he go THIS WAY and THIS WAY." The swerving of the boat was perfectly imitated by the driver's sudden lurching of his body to left and right, some of which was in turn transmitted to the taxi. "He make the boat spin all around." "No need to illustrate," said Roy Jones. "I get the idea."

"And for a moment, I think we gonna turn over in the water, maybe we hide under the boat or something - I dunno, it's crazy, but when a man's firing at you - pa-pa-pa-pa! - you gotta do anything you can. And the boat, it's going everywhere. My cousin can't control it. And then: bang! The boat's grounded at the side of the river. We gotta get out and run for it, while the bullets keep coming at us: za-za-za-za-za-za-za-za! I'm running into the trees, and I see a line of them right beside me, like a rabbit I'm chasing - only I'm the rabbit, and the bullets are chasing me. And I get behind a tree and look round to see the river bank. And there's my cousin lying on the ground, my own cousin in front of my eyes. My poor cousin."

The driver at this point kissed his fingertips, touched the small faded icon affixed to the car's battered dashboard, and crossed himself.

"Was he dead?" Roy Jones asked. Being a tribologist of international eminence, he was by nature a man of exactitude.

The driver shook his head. "My cousin not dead. Not quite. His leg was moving - he was trying to push himself along the ground. No bullets now, no sound anywhere, except my cousin, on the ground, trying to get himself to safety, and this kind of gurgling sound he make. Ah - shit!" The driver suddenly stopped the car. "Here is your hotel."

Roy Jones looked out and saw a huge building in which, right now, he had absolutely no interest. "I'd really like to hear the rest of your story," he said.

The driver glanced at his watch. "I have another delegate to meet from airport in forty minutes."

"Well, that gives you plenty of time to get to the end," Roy Jones suggested; but already the driver had got out and walked round to open the boot. Roy Jones also stepped out of the car, and took charge of the wheeled suitcase that was handed to him. The cab had been arranged by the conference organisers; there was nothing to pay, no more to be said. During much of the preceding story about the taiga, Roy Jones had been quietly wondering whether a tip would be expected; but he had no Russian money, and it seemed that this little episode was about to end and be forgotten - as such episodes always are - without any further resolution.

However, with a sudden burst of initiative, Roy Jones said, "Do you think you could help me inside with the suitcase?" The driver looked skeptical. Roy Jones said, "I could even buy you a drink."

"A drink?"

"Well, a coffee, I suppose. And you could tell me a little more about the taiga."

The driver smiled. "I help you then," he said, taking the suitcase by the carrying handle on its long side, rather than the extendible one for those weedier travellers such as Roy Jones who rely on trolley wheels, and the driver ascended the hotel steps, easily bearing the suitcase while Roy Jones made do with his briefcase, which contained the precious presentation - "Mixed-phase lubricants: a top-down approach" - that was still his reason for being here, and almost entirely the reason why he left the driver settling comfortably in the hotel bar while he went to check in. The girl behind the desk was perfectly groomed, but imperfectly trained. It all took a lot longer than Roy Jones would have preferred, and as he handed over his passport, he looked at his watch, wondering if it had really been such a good idea to invite the driver in. Roy Jones was a sucker for a good story, that was his problem. He was simply too impulsive, as his wife told him the other week, when he suddenly changed the habit of a lifetime and decided that their next car would not be a Rover after all.

"Enjoy your stay," the desk girl finally announced with a smile that clearly had had too much prior use. Roy Jones took his key and his luggage and went straight back to the bar, where the driver was sitting silently over a cup of coffee. Roy Jones sat down opposite him at the small wooden table and thought it best to get to the point.

"What did you do about your cousin?" Roy Jones asked.

"What would any man do?" said the driver with a shrug. "He was lying there in the dirt, trailing blood as he pushed himself along the ground with one foot, trying to reach the trees. At the other side of the river, a man with a machine gun, or two men, or a whole army, were waiting for me to make my move. As soon as I ran out to save my cousin, they would finish both of us."

"I see," said Roy Jones. Put in such straightforward terms, the whole matter became as clear as the most elementary problem of engineering. "So you left your cousin to die?"

The driver's eyebrows shot up. "To die! You think I'm a monster! No, I never leave any man to die. I take a deep breath, I say a prayer, I kiss the picture of my mother I carry here in my own head, and then I run - yes, I run out from behind the tree, faster than ever I run in my life. And the bullets, they come BA! BA! BA! BA! BA! BA!" The driver's hand chopped salami slices across the table, so loudly that heads turned in response. "The bullets tear the sleeves of my coat, they chew the leather of my boots. BA! BA! BA! BA! BA! BA! They rip my cousin's back to pieces, and right before my eyes his head explodes - SHAAH!"

Roy Jones gave a jump, and clutched the room key in his hand.

"My cousin, there was no hope. And I never make it back to the trees. So I run to the boat in the water, I jump inside the boat, and the bullets are like crazy. And in all those thousand bullets, not one of them hits my body. I think to myself, I am like a saint. God has chosen this. As many bullets as there are leaves on a tree - as many bullets as there are trees in the forest. They've torn my sleeve, my boot. But not my flesh. And I throw myself in the boat - they can perhaps even see me there, but it was the closest place, closer than the trees where I was already safe. I land in the boat, and my head, it hits the wooden seat, real hard. So here I am, a bulletproof saint. And a piece of wood knocks me unconscious."

The driver raised his coffee cup and took a sip. "How long I lie there? I don't know: a minute, an hour, a day. Next thing, I realise I'm awake, and there's no shooting. They must have decided I was dead. No guns anywhere, except the two loaded rifles lying right beside me in the boat. I wake up, and I remember that my cousin is lying dead. I can't raise my head to look: I can't risk it. Perhaps only a minute has passed since I landed here - who knows? So I lie and wait. All I hear is the gentle wind in the trees, the river lapping against the boat, sometimes the birds. And then, after a while, I hear another boat, far away. I hear a motor boat, slowly it get louder, nearer. And now I know what happens. They come to see what they done. They find me, they shoot me - how can I play dead, when they go through my pockets looking for my wallet? How can I lie still, with my heart pounding and not a drop of blood on my body? I think to myself, this is the final test. I hear the motor boat getting closer, and I reach for the rifles, very slowly. I'm working it out in my head: one rifle or two? And I figure, I start with two, then I drop one when I got something to aim at. First, I'll get up and fire both of them at once, blindly. At least, if nothing else, I'll die shooting."

The driver drained his cup and stared into it. "Now perhaps a little vodka, my friend?"

"For you? But you're driving."

"Only a little one," he said soothingly. "And I have some mints that will clear my breath before I drive, so it's OK." He looked round towards the barman and called out his order, then said to Roy Jones, "The other motor boat, it's so near now. I hear the motor revving down, idling while it steers closer. I hear someone moving in the boat, sounds like someone walking on planks. I reckon any moment I'll hear a splash as he jumps into the shallow water and then it'll be my moment. I wait and then... and then..."

A glass of vodka materialised on the table.

"SPLASH!" the driver cried, instantly getting to his feet and from both arms spraying with imaginary gunfire the hotel bar and the startled, retreating barman. "GA-GA-GA-GA-GA-GA! And now I could see them, I dropped the rifle in my left hand and took good aim with the one remaining. The man in the water was on his knees - GA! - I finished him. In the boat, a younger man, who was still trying to cock his rifle when I got him - GA! GA! GA!" The driver sat down. Roy Jones was shaken. "You killed them both?"

The driver nodded. "The one in the water, he was face down, his chest caught on stones on the shallow river bed and his arms and legs swaying like reeds in the current. I went and turned him over, looked at his face. A man in his forties, perhaps. He had no gun. And in the boat, maybe this other one was the first man's son. That boy, I don't know how old. I got him in the face. All they had between them was their two rifles, same as my cousin and me. The boy's was in his hand, where he'd been trying to cock it. The father's rifle was lying with their fishing gear, unloaded. I checked it all afterwards. So you see, these weren't the ones who had fired at me." Roy Jones's mouth was hanging open. "You killed two innocent men!"

The driver nodded. "And on the river bank, my cousin lay in a terrible mess. And our boat was ruined by the gunfire - I congratulated myself that at least now I had a usable boat, thanks to the men I shot."

Roy Jones was horrified. "But they were innocent men! They were hunters like you, out on a trip."

The driver again nodded, drained his glass in one shot, exhaled vodka in his breath and said, "We too, my cousin and me, we were innocent men. But in the taiga, there is no law except survival. When I lay in the boat and heard them coming, what was I supposed to do? Was I to lie there like a frightened doe and let them shoot me dead? Was I supposed to be a good citizen and stand up, raise my arms in the air, and say, kill me now please? No. In the taiga, you live by the law of the taiga. The father and son in the motor boat, they knew that too. Or they should have known. A wild boar, it can kill you. A bear, it can kill you. A damned mushroom, it can kill you. And a man, he will certainly kill you, if he thinks that this is what he has to do. So my friend, I regret nothing, except that I ran a little too fast towards the trees, like a cotton-assed rabbit, when I should have been saving my cousin. But in the taiga, we are not asked to make choices, only to act."

It seemed to Roy Jones that the story had now come to its dreadful end. "What about the ones with the machine gun?"

The driver shrugged. "They went away. They watched me lying in the boat for an hour or a day, and they got bored. I don't know. Perhaps the father and son really were the killers, and left their machine gun on the opposite bank of the river while they came to take some trophies. Who cares? You kill a bear, you don't go asking afterwards what it had for dinner. You shoot, you kill, you go to sleep and you move on. This is law of the taiga. And you see, my friend, I am a man of the law."

The driver reached inside his coat - Roy Jones wondered if a gun might emerge, or perhaps a photograph of the lost cousin. It was only a packet of cigarettes that came out, and a cheap lighter. "Relax," the driver said with a smile. "It was all a long time ago."

"Did you bury those people? Did you tell the police?"

"Relax." The driver lit a cigarette. "The dead are in heaven, it's we who have to live on earth. I am a husband, a father. I drive a taxi, I write poetry."

"You're a poet?"

The driver nodded. "I've published books, won a few prizes. Perhaps you think I demean my art by driving a taxi. But I have to earn a living. This is law of the city. And I promise you, since the last time in the taiga, I kill no more people." He chuckled. "Killing, it's bad for you, like smoking. Too bad I can't give up smoking like the doctor says I should, and the vodka. Doctor says I have a heart attack in next two years. He can see it like a clock. I say to him, OK." The driver looked down at his empty vodka glass, and the empty cup beside it. "Thanks," he said to Roy Jones.

"Like another?"

"No, I die soon enough in any case." He stood up to leave. "Enjoy your stay," he said to Roy Jones. The two men shook hands, then the taxi driver walked briskly across the hotel foyer, giving a final friendly wave before disappearing out through the heavy revolving door.

Two hours later, Roy Jones was in his room, showered, changed and sufficiently refreshed to begin the next part of the day. It was still only lunchtime: he understood that he was due to be collected by someone from the conference, who would presumably also take care of feeding him. He was at the mercy of whoever should happen to appear.

The telephone rang. Roy Jones went to the chipped wooden desk where it sat, and lifted the receiver.

"Mr Jones?"

"Speaking."

"I am here to take you to the conference."

"Splendid."

"You had a safe trip?"

"Absolutely."

"Good. Please be in the foyer in five minutes."

"Of course." Roy Jones hung up. His briefcase was ready, and he checked once again that the text of "Mixed-phase lubricants: a top-down approach" was safely stored there. He put on his coat, then took the elevator to the lobby, where a man in a long grey coat paced conspicuously to and fro.

"I'm Dr Jones." He reached out his hand for the other to shake.

"Hello sir. Now let us go." And he led Roy Jones outside to his car.

This was to be a journey of the strictly no-nonsense kind, in contrast to the earlier taxi ride. Attempting to make conversation out of his habitual sense of politeness, Roy Jones asked, "Are you a tribologist yourself?" The driver merely gave him a look of incomprehension, remaining silent until they reached their destination.

"Here is conference centre," said the driver, suddenly pulling up. They both got out, and Roy Jones followed him inside. Everything seemed so colourless in comparison with the earlier taxi driver's story of the taiga. That alone had been real: the wrong men, shot innocently for daring to approach a man's boat.

Roy Jones followed his escort upstairs, where he was deposited at a desk whose occupant smiled and gave him a badge with his name on it: Mr N Jones. They hadn't even got his initial right this time, never mind his title. A bearded man came over, and the next thing Roy Jones knew, he was being shaken by the hand; embraced, even.

"It is so good to meet you, Mr Jones - we are delighted that you will be speaking at the seminar - and you are just in time! We were a little nervous that you would not be here!"

Roy Jones's stomach rumbled as he was swiftly introduced to four or five people whose names came from the impenetrably unmemorable world of Tolstoy. One was a woman whose handshake was like touching polished ivory, and whose eyes curved and slanted like a message from a distant wilderness. She certainly didn't look like your average tribologist.

Barely able to take in his surroundings, Roy Jones was then escorted to the seminar room, where rows of chairs, mostly filled, faced a desk with a microphone on it, and an empty seat behind. This was where he was led, and as Roy Jones sat down, it occurred to him that it was just as well he'd brought a print-out of his talk as well as the PowerPoint file, since there wasn't an overhead machine in sight.

And so there he was at last, sitting with the text laid neatly before him, ready to embark on a voyage of discovery through the multi-faceted world of mixed-phase lubricants. His bearded host intended first to say a few words in Russian. Some of the audience members, Roy Jones now observed, were wearing headsets, of the kind a diplomat might sport in a United Nations debate. There was one lying on Roy Jones's desk; and at the back of the room, he could see a well-dressed woman neatly encased in a glass-walled booth, whose role was evidently that of interpreter. Roy Jones put on his headset, and immediately heard the woman's smooth, authoritative voice as she translated what the Russian was saying.

"...has done some very significant work, which I have followed with considerable interest. Mr Jones occupies the boundary, I might say, between fantasy and reality: he repeatedly asks us to consider the question, what is true, what is false?"

Roy Jones weighed this comment up, finding a pleasing balance between flattery and accuracy. Yes; his work on mixed-phase lubricants had questioned some of the most familiar assumptions of the subject.

"And Mr Jones has developed a system of ideas that are in some ways challenging. When he says, for example: 'the greatest adventure we can undertake is to cease to be ourself'. I understand here something we find also in Chekhov..."

What the devil did that mean? When did Roy Jones ever say that?

"In his most recent book, The Truth About My Wife, Neville Jones exposes the dilemma of people trapped by convention, who long to live a more spiritual life, but can find this only through the most terrible acts of depravity..."

Suddenly it all began to make terrible sense to Dr Roy Jones, tribologist. Listening to the translated words of the portly, bearded intellectual as he described the literary works of Neville Jones, novelist, his hapless namesake realised why the audience so little resembled the international congregations of engineers whom it was his life's work to address, and with luck to impress. This array of Russian poets, dramatists, literary critics and assorted book-lovers hadn't come here to listen to a story about forces in mixed-phase fluids. And somewhere, in some other conference centre in Moscow right now, a poor bastard called Neville Jones was being introduced to a bunch of structural scientists, having made the same mistake as Roy when he got off the plane and saw a taxi driver holding a sign reading "Mr Jones". This great writer - winner of all sorts of prizes, according to the introduction now being offered in his absence - was the other half of a glorious mix-up, and now would be preparing to sell his wares to an assembly of engineers. Would he pull it off? Would he be able to stand up in the boat with a gun in each hand, and save the day?

Roy Jones would. With growing confidence, he listened to the eulogy being offered him. He was wise, far-sighted, profound in moral perception, deft in linguistic invention. He was shocking, at times even disgusting; yet always pure. And above all, said his host, invariably surprising. Yes, he'd surprise them all right.

The audience were applauding. The bearded intellectual had said enough about the glory and importance of Neville Jones. Now it was Roy's turn to preserve the reputation of his ancient tribe. All fell silent: the interpreter was waiting for his words, ready to convey them in Russian to those unable to comprehend him directly.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began. "I want to tell you a story. It's up to you whether or not you want to believe it. Some years ago, my cousin and I went on an expedition to the taiga..."

With thanks to Peter Aleshkovsky


©Andrew Crumey