Sleepers, or A Long Night’s Journey into Day

Tallinn, Estonia

Sleepers, or A Long Night’s Journey into Day

By Malcolm Sharps

In my time living in the Baltic I discovered the joy of sleeper trains. And, once discovered, I could not think of them ever again as just another form of transport. Why travel by sleeper? The best night’s sleep in a top hotel restores your body and provides you with a clear head for the day, but it brings you back to the place you walked in from the day before. The sleeper does a magical thing: it rolls space up in time and sets you down in a new day in a new place. You fall asleep and wake up to another land, like a dream realised and waiting for you beyond your dreams. The sleeper train takes you down a time tunnel at the end of which is a morning that was once tomorrow and has mysteriously become today, and it does it with inconspicuous stealth while you are still in your sleep. How could I not think the sleeper was more than just another form of transport?

Lying in the coupé compartment on the top bunk as we were about to pull out, I saw high above me the giant illuminated clock of Riga station’s ruggedly modernist tower. Above that was huge lettering on four sides of the tower. RIGA, RIGA, RIGA, RIGA, it read, leaving no one in any doubt as to where it was we were leaving. At first I was like some primitive who cannot read clocks, mesmerised by the massive hands over the unnumbered clock face and did not register it as time. When I did, the time on the clock matched our schedule so precisely, it seemed like the clock itself was controlling our departure. I eased back onto my pillow and closed my eyes, too sharply aware of everything to feel sleepy; the train suddenly made a forward lurch followed by a smaller countering movement and we were off.

We were well underway, and the stucco and redbrick streets of the Old Town, and the Art Nouveau buildings and the quaint wooden survivals of the nineteenth century of Riga were some way behind us by the time it dawned on me I was not alone in this compartment. On the shelves below me were two strange bodies.

Who were my companions? Ask a question and the stranger answering is not so strange any more. But it was the occupant of the middle shelf who introduced himself to me before the notion to speak had overcome my inhibitions.

‘Hi, I’m Holger. You must also be going through to Tallinn like me, where else, hey?’ He gave out a short laugh.

The lowest shelf was occupied by a woman who indicated with a turn of her body she didn’t want to be disturbed by the voice. So we complied and didn’t disturb her further, not once in all the three hundred and ten kilometres from there to our dutiful good-bye to her in Tallinn. She remains an unnamed stranger to this day.

But Holger had elected to be a figure in my memories for all time, though I would know him for only part of one night and a few hours of the following day. He was Danish but had more of an American accent than a Danish one when he spoke English as fluently as I speak it myself. These Scandinavians are incredible, but language is an unexceptional facility with them: just part of the common genius of the tribe.

‘It’s my first time in Tallinn. Are you familiar with the place? I hear that the women there dress like hookers.’

It was an odd way to begin but at least there was no lecherous leer in the way he said it, he was just settling something he’d heard.

Though there was some truth in what Holger said, I wanted to defend the more than fifty percent of the great cultural mix that was the population of Estonia’s capital.

‘It doesn’t mean anything, just inherited bad taste from the Soviet days. They’re not even aware of it. You’ll like Estonian women, Russian women. You can look them straight in the eye. And they look straight back at you. That’s what I like about them. You won’t find it hard making a friend.’

He answered more determined than dismissive of the idea.

‘Oh, I’m not staying that long. In fact, no longer than I need to. I just want Tallinn as my base. My destination is way further.’

Holger was a man like myself in his early forties. Any description of him would be likely to contain the word ‘average’ more than once: average height, average weight, average physical size, average apparent physical strength. Perhaps only his face was remarkable; there was a look of confidence that emanated from his eyes but seemed to illuminate his whole face and give out reassurance.

‘And where is your end destination?’

‘Kamchatka.’

I blew through my lips.

‘Some destination.’

I knew of its location, a Russian majority province on the eastern coast of Siberia, very sparsely populated owing to extreme natural local conditions. I knew that it was a peninsula, that its southern tip was close to the northern islands of Japan. The rest that I knew was more trivial and closer to my personal interests: it produced the most wonderfully succulent crab meat in the whole world and supplemented the Baltic’s insatiable need for cranberries with its own ubiquitously growing variety.

Holger seemed excited by the prospect of continuing his journey of what must be almost seven thousand kilometres in all; I sensed that he had a tale to tell and wanted to tell it. Perhaps that’s why he had chosen to speak to me. Anyway, I willingly became his audience.

‘Have you ever heard of the Lend-Lease program of the USA during the Second World War?’

I had only a sketchy idea of the program, it was not much more than a name to me.

‘It was a program to assist an ally, Russia, with the supply of much-needed goods it couldn’t produce enough of itself. America made a transfer of squadrons of fighter planes to the Soviet Union all the way through the Second World War, thousands of them in all. The majority of planes went in the final stage of the journey via Alaska, then on to Siberia. But the War ended, the last batch of planes went no further, they were never in combat but not returned to the USA either, and they ended up parked in fields in Kamchatka, Siberia, just left out there abandoned and in time forgotten.’

Holger didn’t raise his voice above a heightened whisper. His eyes, however, were mobile and bright, notable even in the gloom.

‘Just think, vintage planes, some perhaps in near flying condition, but others anyway are a store of spare parts for the ones which can be made to fly. Have you any idea what a single one of those planes is worth today?’

I couldn’t fill the short excited pause with even a close guess.

‘Believe me, it’s an open treasure, worth big, big money to the taker and it’s just standing there rotting.’

Holger explained that he was going to Kamchatka to select the best planes he could find, perhaps a fairly complete, perhaps a cannibalised, plane or several planes. He didn’t seem clear on that point himself. The profit would be a million dollars plus, minus costs. He would bring the planes to Western Europe and America and offer them mainly to museums specialising in military vehicles. Planes worth a fortune, just for the taking. It all seemed too good to be true, and a dozen questions – or would it be truer to call them doubts? – assembled quickly in my mind, and these were additional to the question of why it had taken so long for anyone with the same knowledge to come up with such a scheme.

‘And do you know the condition of these planes? They’ve stood for fifty years in…how cold does it get?’

‘Cold, not as cold as you might think, not all the time. Winter mean temperatures of minus 30. So regularly down to minus 45. I’ve seen some recent photographs and the planes look in pretty good shape. Amazingly so. A little green, but the bodies are intact.’

He sounded buoyed up by the fact he’d seen recent pictures of the planes and the elements hadn’t eaten them away. It didn’t dispel all the doubts on my side.

‘And will they just allow you to fly the planes out? And what if the planes aren’t nearly so undamaged on the inside?’

I’ve no idea how great the doubts in his own mind were, but he managed to sound unperturbed.

‘I’ve got plans if the planes can’t be flown, and maybe it’s just too risky to flight test a plane that has been parked in the frozen North for over 40 years. Anyway, Confederation law restricts the flying of military planes to their own military. I want them as little involved as possible. I’m already bargaining on having to ship them out. That means transporting them to the port on trucks, then they just become normal cargo. It gets around a heap of red tape about using Russian air space too. Less room for fatal misunderstandings.’

‘And then where will you ship them?’ I hoped this wasn’t beginning to sound like an interrogation; but I was suddenly curious. Intensely and inexplicably so.

‘There are many possibilities. I’ve also left that question open. If you know anything about cargo boats, you know that there are scheduled tariffs and official ship’s manifests and there are also deals you can make with the captain of a less scrupulous setup to fill some cubic metres of unfilled space in the hold. And who knows or cares who that money goes to? The point is, it comes one hell of a lot cheaper.’

Everything that sprang from such ingeniously simple schemes always ended far more complicated than at first it seemed. Put it down to the unlaid ghost of the former system. Even deciding on who to do business with was problematic, like everything Soviet and post-Soviet, a lack of a responsible party made things happen slowly – or not at all. That much had probably saved the planes from being traded as scrap long before now.

Permission is needed for every little move even in a western democracy, but in the Russian Confederation there was the additional complication of the official and unofficial system working side by side; at every step everyone down to the guy handling the oil can needed his sweetener to make it all run smoothly. I knew already from Estonia it required at least a chocolate bar for the girl in the passport office to hurry herself along looking at your papers. It was soft bribery but still a kind of bribery. But I have to say, when you knew what pay these minor people were on, you felt ashamed and regretted that you hadn’t brought the poor girl a box of Swiss chocolates gift-wrapped with a silver bow at the corner.

As if he had been reading my thoughts. Holger’s tone was concessionary, almost apologetic.

‘I know, I know, it looks as though I’ve left things rather late but you have no idea how hard it is arranging anything at a distance, finding out any information for sure when you’re not in the place and that place is controlled by Russia. I tried. I tried for months. There were too many ‘noes’. So I’m taking a chance now going out there, staking all my hopes on it, in fact.’ He took a breath.

‘I’ve been told ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no’ with Russians, not on their side, not on yours. But you have to work the personal thing. The funny thing is, Russians like to see who they are saying ‘no’ to, otherwise it isn’t likely to ever become a ‘yes’.’

Holger had learned something valuable which I also had learned. For good or sometimes far from good, Russians were prepared to modify a decision that seemed fixed, in situations where a Brit or Dane would remain dug in. Answers could change on what seemed like a whim, and it was often impossible to work out why. Perhaps exercising real choice was so restricted in their world, it was a kick for them to use that power when it was available to them. Or perhaps they just liked your face.

‘The impossible is never impossible, that much I’ve learned in the last six months. Six months ago everyone told me that war planes could not be taken out of the Confederation. I hit up against a stone wall. Then I discovered the planes could somehow be de-registered as fighting vehicles. But I was given the runaround when I tried to set that up. Then a helpful clerk at Defense told me they might instead be written off as depleted equipment, damaged or expended and fit only for disposal as trash. It sounded like a likely solution, but I got no further because I couldn’t find anyone who accepted responsibility to do that. It’s another reason I have to go to Kamchatka personally. Use my personal charm on the locals.’

I was feeling sleepy now but wanted to ask Holger one more question.

‘Why in particular did you choose Tallinn?’

I thought of the city myself as a surviving architectural gem, a fairy tale city on the edge of Europe still unknown to most Europeans, which by a freak had hardly been touched during the war, but that would scarcely affect Holger’s choice.

‘It was a matter of chance, as long as it was somewhere within the old Soviet block. But I read that more people spoke English here than in the other republics and I figured this might not be such a lightning operation, so I’ll keep a base going and come back here when I need to chill. In the Soviet days there was a cheap network of Aeroflot flights covering the whole of the Union. It’s one thing that comes as a gift from the Russians, perhaps the only one, I don’t know. The flights into Siberia were at Toy Town prices and didn’t near cover the costs, but it was really a way the most distant parts of the Union were made viable, a hidden travel subsidy. For the moment, that network still runs on old time prices; it’s one reason I chose Tallinn. It won’t be like that forever but it’s worth making use of it while it holds.’

Holger was suddenly hit by a wave of realisation of where he was and what he was about. His voice and posture became purposeful.

‘Hey, let’s get some sleep. We arrive around seven in Tallinn, that only gives us a few hours.’

We were received on our arrival by the empty snow-dusted streets of Tallinn. We walked from the station through an area of modest wooden buildings that hardly seemed like a district of a capital city at all. Tallinn was a provincial city at heart and the winter scene it provided was straight out of the most cornily sentimental Christmas card. The snow was clean, fresh, and our feet left behind us the first tracks to pattern the pavement since a new fall overnight. The sleeper’s night work of providing us with a morning pristine and sparkling and full of promise had been well performed.

Holger had an address from a travel guide and though neither of us knew this part of Tallinn, a sort of combined instinct drew us to a brightly-lit coffee shop already open and serving breakfast. It was cosy and had heavy bare wooden tables that gave it a pared-down village simplicity. I am normally not hungry in the morning but I wanted to eat. Holger stood me breakfast: two coffees and two sweet Estonian pastries called sai, which I didn’t want to take from him but I accepted and reflected it cost him less than one coffee in his own country, and besides, Holger was set to be a future millionaire.

I looked out of the window as I ate. Snow had begun falling again. Snow! Even more doubts occurred to me. Why would Holger go to Kamchatka as the worst season was coming on us, and it would be much worse when he experienced it in Siberia. Was this all a dream? Just a deluded quest? Was Holger mistaking an open cast mine for a crock of gold? Holger’s eyes that had glowed assuringly in the gloom of the coupé compartment were still glowing but with a love for life which had brought him this far on his adventure. I knew that would not be enough. Having the idea alone was almost nothing, if maybe a crucial part of it: the spark. But determination and a refusal to be beaten, making a sort of enemy of the resistance of the world to the changes we plan for it, that was the greater part.

Perhaps Holger would stay in base arranging things until the winter passed. Then why hadn’t he done that back in Denmark? Why come out this far? Why make his move at the point where the winter was about to dictate the terms of the action? I thought I had thought it through but still nothing made sense, nothing except that Holger had had a wonderful idea, a transforming vision. Planes brought to life, being made to fly again after being kept on ice for almost fifty years. Perhaps to have wonderful ideas counted as some sort of triumph if the whole plan fell through later. Holger, in spite of everything, would have lived through the glory days of his unrefuted convictions. There would remain the evergreen anecdote of what might have been to be retold and retold. It was a tale worth listening to even if you didn’t quite believe it all added up and made sense; a tale you might tell to a casual stranger on a sleeper train. And most of us in the whole of our lives will never have as interesting a personal tale to tell as that.

5 Responses to Sleepers, or A Long Night’s Journey into Day

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    Reminds me of those great 19th century tales of Chekhov or Maupassant. A chance encounter… and thereby hangs a tale, a speculative mystery which leaves us wondering over the fate of Holger.

  2. Peter Bendall says:

    Malcolm Sharps has produced, in his usual stylish and insightful way, a marvellous account of a weird and wonderful adventure that has probably never taken place, even though it cannot be said to be fictional in the ordinary sense. At the beginning of the narrative, as Sharps settles into his bunk bed on the sleeper from Riga to Tallinn, the expectation is that he himself will become involved in strange happenings, but it is Holger the Dane on the lower bunk, with his extraordinary plan to ship some ancient fighter planes from the other end of Russia to Europe or America, who provides the narrative excitement. Sharps’ questioning of various aspects of the plan does not dim Holger’s fervour nor, strangely, does it entirely disperse the reader’s belief that it might just possibly come off. By some indefinable sleight of pen, Sharps leads us to have faith in Holger’s dream, even as he casts doubt on it.

  3. James says:

    Great piece of writing again Malcolm. There are some absolute gems which really awoke memories of night train trips across Europe. And some tremendous dry humour sleeved in.

    I wonder what became of Holger’s dream. I checked the internet for the Kamchatka lend lease planes but not much luck. What a lot of get rich quick schemes and scams there must have been across that region then. Most lost for ever.

    You seem to have avoided one horror of communal night-time train travel: snoring. It’s even driven me to changing trains at Munich at 3am.

  4. Malcolm Sharps says:

    My nostalgic memories of sleepers in the Baltic/Warsaw region seem rather doleful now when I consider that in the 25 years since those times the sleepers were withdrawn one by one. The one I’ll miss most was the Vilnius to Klaipeda, which brought travellers from the Lithuanian capital to the coast, arriving in time for an early morning walk on the beach.

  5. Louise Peloquin says:

    What a transfusion of hope is your “glory days” account of “unrefuted convictions!”
    And your entire 1st paragraph evokes my night train experience from Paris to Venezia.
    Thank you.

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