Short Stories V: New Year

I’ll bring this little sequence of stories to an end here. This story was written almost exaactly a year ago – the first written after the completion of my novel, about which there will hopefully be more news in coming weeks. I wish you a very happy new year.

NEW YEAR

The Number 10 tram rattled through the last night of the year. August sat in the cab, his hand pushing the drive lever forward automatically. He was so used to the distances between the stops, the angles of the turns and the small variations in gradient that it no longer required any conscious effort to drive the tram.

It was good to leave the end of the line at Bisumuiza. There was always a wait involved before you could set off – the Number 10s may be the oldest and noisiest trams on the whole Riga transport network, but they had always been the most punctual as they traced their unusual route from the forgotten suburb of Bisumuiza with its abandoned manor house in a weed-tangled wood, through the other untidy suburbs on the left bank of the river before crossing the Stone Bridge and looping around to return at the vast Zeppelin hangars of the central market.

Right by the tiny wooden hut where the drivers drank tea while they waited for the precise minute to begin their runs was a small shop which the small number of local residents would sidle into to buy their supplies of vodka and – for tonight only – cheap, sweet “Riga champagne” with which to see in the new year.

Sick of sitting at home with relatives who had barely moved from the sofa since Christmas, a small huddle of drinkers had gathered on the stone steps into the shop, doing their best to look as if they would set off home at any moment while simultaneously making sure the raucous conversation never flagged so that they could remain chatting for hours.

Looking over at them through the dark window of the hut, August was reminded why he always worked on new year’s eve. It was not the first time August had volunteered to be on the drivers’ roster. The money was slightly better than on a regular night, and it helped morale in the depot if people weren’t conscripted to work when they would rather be celebrating, but the real reason August worked the night of December 31 was that he had never enjoyed new year’s eve parties.

He had nothing against the revellers, but for some reason always felt uneasy in the midst of a large group of people drinking, shouting and behaving in ways that they normally would not, all for the sake of celebrating something that was, after all, an inevitability. And there was the false friendship that went along with it – people who had abused and insulted you all year insisting on shaking you by the hand and telling you that they hadn’t meant it, as if they were making a magnanimous gesture for which you should be grateful. It would come as no surprise when a few days later, the same people would be whispering behind their hands as you waited in line at the depot canteen and a few weeks later their unimaginative insinuations would eventually reach your ears.

Looking at the drinkers with their broad grins and explosions of laughter, August wondered what sort of schemes and vindictive little tricks they would begin playing against each other as soon as their hangovers began to recede tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps they would remember odd excerpts of the very conversations they were now having, playing them back and taking offence at some comment they had interpreted differently at the time. Or perhaps as the vodka overpowered their minds completely, the whole of this friendship on the steps would simply be erased, their reconciliations and promises of neighbourly help forgotten as if they had never even happened.

He picked up the small bag he carried to work every day which contained his sandwiches, reading glasses, a bad, old Russian detective novel he had found lying beside the road one day plus a few other small items and climbed into the cab. After a quick check of the instruments and restarting the computer that announced the stops along the way, he started his final shift of the year.

As the tram rolled down the hill next to Arkadija park with the high, uneven outlines of empty textile mills on the other side of the tracks, the electrical connector that joined it to the overhead wires slipped out of place with a burst of white light like a flashbulb. The two carriages were plunged into darkness and the tram came to a silent halt. This happened two or three times a day, though for some unknown reason certain drivers seemed more prone to these sudden de-couplings than others. August was generally among the least affected by this phenomenon as a result of the smooth, steady driving style he took pride in and which was one of the reasons his fellow drivers nicknamed him “the Old Woman”. He always regarded losing his connector as a cause of embarrassment and his cheeks flushed slightly as he reached for the thick rubber-and-leather gloves that hung from a steel peg behind him in the cab like two partridges shot by a hunter.

The gloves gave his sensitive hands a clumsy, stupid feeling, like the hands of the Soviet Soldiers clutching their sub-machine guns over at the ugly Victory memorial which the tram would pass between the next two stops. August skipped down out of the cab – despite his age he remained slim and was more agile than most of the drivers twenty years his junior thanks to the long hours he had spent studying dance during his own youth. He stood with poise and walked in a way that seemed somehow to possess more clarity of direction than the messy shuffling and over-wound clockwork of the pedestrians the tram bisected when it glided past the stops and bus shelters of Riga.

The air outside the cab was fairly cold but was made to seem even colder by contrast with the temperature inside the tram cab where the air was supercharged by a heater that remained stuck on throughout the winter months. It was good to get outside and as well as the slight embarrassment of losing his connector, August always felt that these incidents happened for a reason, or rather that they offered some opportunity that would not otherwise be evident. This might be something as trivial as seeing a certain place at a certain time he had never before experienced. It did not have to be anything dramatic or beautiful, just different.

His breath curled up in front of him like rolls of white birch bark shrinking from a fire. A few dark shapes loomed through the windows of the two carriages as passengers took a half-hearted interest in what was happening. Most of them would have seen this process almost as often as August as they rode ceaselessly between Bisumuiza and the Central Market.

Stopped as they were halfway down the hill, it looked as if the usual painterly perspective had been skewed. Combined with the already angular lines of the old Soviet-era tram machinery and the silvery steel of the twin sets of tracks shining in a mixture of moonlight and sodium bulbs, the scene had a peculiar, almost constructivist atmosphere. It was very dark in the park opposite, apart from two tiny orange traces that glowed like beastly eyes. People must be sitting on the benches, smoking and drinking while they debated whose house to drop by unannounced next. no cars could be heard but somewhere in the shunting yards on the other side of the park the deep bass note of a diesel locomotive complained about having to move trucks on new year’s eve.

August gave a sudden start as he moved past the grimy windows toward the back of the tram. A large dog jumped over the connector between the carriages, landing within a few inches of him. Instinctively he jumped back with his dancer’s grace, raising the ugly work gloves to his face. The dog looked half feral and had lost one eye which now resembled a white marble but it took no notice of August and disappeared through a gap in the wire fence outside one of the old textile mills. A young voice laughed from inside the rear carriage. August did not look to see where it came from and still regaining his composure, reached up to grasp the length of rope which hung from the side of the connector, checking first as all the drivers did, to make sure he was not standing on the tram rail.

He pulled the long, spindly connector arm down and swung it around and back towards its place on the overhead wire. It looked like an articulated leg pulled from some enormous insect trapped on a long spider’s web of electric cabling. The diesel locomotive’s engine had faded to nothing. There was no sign of the dog and the cigarette ends in the black park were no longer visible.

August walked back to the cab, his rubber soles squealing quietly with every step. As he climbed back into the seat which smelled of other drivers’ stale cigarettes despite the woollen blanket he always draped over it he thought he could hear heavy footsteps approaching down the hill. It was possible someone was running from the Tornakalns Station tram stop to try and get on board. Drivers were strictly forbidden from picking up anyone between stops, on pain of dismissal. In any case, the people who ran more than a few yards to get onto a bus or tram were often trouble – it was a fact well known amongst the drivers.

Even though he disliked new year’s eve, August thought for a second about letting the unseen runner climb on board. It was supposed to be a season of goodwill, after all, no matter how insincere. He pressed the orange button which opened the rearmost set of doors, then thought better of his act of charity and pressed it again almost immediately to close them.

A dial showed the current was flowing properly and the lights in the carriages had returned with their yellow glow. August pushed the drive level forward and the tram responded with its usual sigh, picking up speed quickly as it reached the bottom of the hill and turned right towards Victory Park.

He applied the brakes as he rolled onto the Stone Bridge, seeing the blue lights of a police car ahead. The tram stopped ten metres from the police car, beside which a couple of officers were stopping all traffic in both directions. The walkway on the left side of the bridge was thick with people standing and looking out across the river and sometimes the outlines of people in ones and twos would flit across the road and the tram tracks from the other side of the bridge. The police had closed it to prevent an accident until after midnight struck.

Circles of friends passed bottles to each other, young children perched on their fathers’ shoulders and their older brothers and sisters peered between the iron railings as the reflections of the city lights shimmered up at them.

Another tram – the Number 2 from Agenskalns – pulled up right behind August’s Number 10. The driver, who was only slightly younger than August and wore a thick brown moustache tinged with yellow above his thick lips, climbed slowly out and lit a cigarette as he paced back and forward, then began talking on a mobile ‘phone.

August vaguely recognised him but while he wondered about getting out and making small talk, there was a huge red explosion a hundred metres to his left. Almost immediately it was followed by a crack of sound and a gasp from the crowd of people, who leaned forward over the edge of the bridge as one.

The fireworks followed one then another with increasing speed, ripping the purplish sky open with blooms of green, white and orange. August watched the municipal display, which was joined by dozens of smaller explosions from private parties along the banks of the River Daugava in both directions. The cheaper firecrackers of the teenagers ignited with hollow snaps along the walkways, while wealthier residents of Riga displayed their largesse via skyrockets that rivalled the city’s own display.

Somehow it was the fireworks furthest away that seemed more interesting to August. Down behind the docks towards Sarkandaugava the detonations could barely make it over the horizon and appeared silently, like roses tossed by the wind in a distant field. In the other direction, rockets surged towards the freedom of the skies from the tall, uneven buildings of Maskatchka, pleased to die away from the cramped apartments and dark alleyways. Further away still, the fireballs launched from square suburban gardens in Katlakalns and Kekava were tiny, like berries being crushed.

The main display finished with a final huge explosion, as if the moon had been punctured with a pin and a small ripple of applause moved through the onlookers like an echo as they drifted away from the railings and back towards the end of the bridge.

August waited in his cab, counting off the seconds of the new year and wondering by how much the delay on the bridge would make him late. Probably he would have no time for a cup of tea when he returned to Bisumuiza and would have to take the tram straight out again for his final loop of the shift.

The police waved him on. He moved the drive lever forward again and the tram eased ahead, with the impatient Number 2 almost touching the back of the second carriage. Why do that? It was not as if he could overtake. August was glad he hadn’t talked to the other driver and concentrated on keeping a close watch for any revellers loitering near the tracks, clearing them away with a short blast of his bell which sounded like the wake-up call of a worn-out alarm clock.

Hardly anyone got on board at the Central Market and it was with an almost empty tram that Augusts started the final loop which would finish not at Bisumuiza but the depot on Typography Street. Before leaving the Central Market he propped a sign up in the windshield saying “To the Depot”.

As he passed the spot going up the hill beside Arkadija Park at which the tram had come uncoupled, he slowed down even more than usual. There didn’t seem to be any slackness in the wires or a branch fallen from one of the tall lime trees at the edge of the park that could sometimes cause that sort of thing to happen.

A few seconds later he halted at the Tornakalns Station stop and opened the doors. He glanced in the mirror that gave him a clear view down the side of the tram with the doors but no-one was getting out. Just has he was about to press the orange button to close the doors, he heard the sound of running footsteps. It sent a chill up his spine and he seemed to be standing outside again in the clumsy gloves, breathing the cold night air. Feeling uneasy, as quickly as he could he pressed the orange button and accelerated away from the stop with a speed even of one of his younger colleagues would have considered rapid.

For some reason it seemed important to get away from that spot but up ahead the lights at the corner of Freelander Street and Ulmanis Avenue showed red. He slowed down but kept the wheels rolling until the last possible moment and he was forced to stop. His ears strained and though there was no sound of footsteps, he was afraid he might hear them approaching from the distance at any moment. Thankfully the ligts turned green at last and he sped across the carriageway of the main road, even overshooting the next stop slightly, an unheard-of indiscretion.

Twenty minutes later he was climbing out of the cab and handing his control box back to the duty manager who smelled of beer and wished him a cursory new year greeting. With his bag slung over his back he walked not in his usual direction towards his small flat in Ziepniekalns. He had made sure the cats had plenty to eat before he left. They would be fine and in any case a party was probably taking place somewhere in the building that would keep him awake anyway.

Instead he headed down the hill beside the Island Bridge that stretched away across the river in a long charcoal line. The concrete sidewalls always made the cars seem louder than they really were, an effect doubled by the fact that everything else was so quiet. By the time he had looped beneath the bridge’s crumbling grey legs and made his way slowly along the broken road of Lucavsala island, taking care not to twist his ankle in the deep potholes opened up by years of ice and cars too heavy for the old surface, the first intimation of sunrise was edging the eastern horizon in a deep crimson.

Soon he reached the river’s edge next to a children’s playground with a broken swing. The sand pit was strewn with empty bottles of cheap champagne and the crows had already picked their way through the bins to spread the remains of wrappers and boxes across the frosty grass. Cardboard discs and fragments of coloured tube showed where fireworks had been let off.

August breathed in the fresh morning air deeply and looked up at the soaring tripod of the television tower on the next island across the river. The sun arrived, timidly touching the top of the antenna before sliding quickly down the structure to the bottom of its curved legs. It was a nice morning with just a thin film of ice formed along the water’s edge, much less than last year then the whole scene had been white.

He placed his pack on a wooden bench that sloped where one of its legs had given way. Undoing the buckle, he pulled out a rolled-up towel, a small bottle of Riga Black Balzam and a thick-walled vodka glass. He unrolled the towel and extracted a pair of swimming trunks from its rough cotton, then peeled off his coat, sweater, trousers, underpants and socks, stacking them neatly inside the bag so they would retain at least some warmth.

Augusts looked at the bottle of Balzam as he stood there in only his swimming trunks and wondered if he should take a shot beforehand, to fortify himself. But then he remembered all the times he had swum before. He had never taken a drink first.

Nodding approval at his correct decision he turned towards the river and walked slowly and silently into the cold waters on the first morning of the year.

BEIGAS

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