How they say goodbye in Russia (from an old notebook)

It begins about an hour before the moment. You leave the compartment for them to pack their luggage, place their winter clothes nearby in readiness, and surrender their sheets to the attendant. Then you all sit together nervously and talk about the weather, or the Black Sea. Perhaps a round of vodka is drunk. About fifteen minutes before arrival we all get up and move the luggage into the walkway, and stare out the windows. The train stops, but it is a false alarm - a timing stop. Then it creeps slowly forward, and we gather the luggage and crowd towards the exit, which is completely unnecessary since it is the middle of the night and hardly anyone will board the train.

The train stops a second time and the attendant opens the door and carefully dusts off the ice from the steps. Then we all gingerly step down onto the platform, passing down the heavier luggage. We stand for a moment, grinning sheepishly at each other, not knowing what to do, and then, realising that the train will leave in a few minutes, all start talking hurriedly at the same time. Our smiles are the smiles you give someone who, despite knowing you'll never meet again, you're glad to have met them anyway.

The women kiss and hug each other and the men look each other in the eye and shake hands like they mean it. By this time the attendant is rather annoyed since someone left open the door and cold air has rushed into the carriage. Plus, we're taking our sweet time and it's affecting her routine: removing the ice from the toilet outlet and suspension, cleaning out the walkway, gathering coal for the hot water, etc. So those of us who continue our journey hop back on and go to the nearest window. Those on the platform are gathering their luggage slowly, making sure it is comfortable for the walk to the taxi rank or bus stop or wherever. A quick smile, and they walk slowly away. The attendant closes the door as they walk from view, and a few minutes later the train pulls away slowly.

Of course, you are still at the window as the platform shifts past slowly, expecting. And of course, after a few moments, there they are, luggage on the ground and straining to see into the windows. They haven't made it far down the platform, and as we catch sight of each other we start waving happily, our peaceful smiles mirrored in our hearts, in the quiet Siberian woods, and in the stars above.

To the south stands Orion and his retinue, Taurus with crimson Aldebaran, and above them the Seven Sisters, of which I can make out six if, impolitely, I stare long enough. Perhaps they are wondering if this is the usual goodbye strangers give each other, despite only meeting two days previously, and sharing those two days with a mixture of broken English and a few choice Russian words. Perhaps they are wondering, just as I am wondering about the stars, as the train rattles onwards into the night.