The time I discovered that the best health and safety measure is looking where you’re going

Submitted this to a Lonely Planet travel writing competition recently. No prizes but I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

The time I discovered that the best health and safety measure is looking where you’re going

‘Shiv! STOP!’

My body was sailing forward over the threshold by the time I heard Lily’s shout. Momentum was carrying me into what should have been the next carriage of the train.

A split-second was enough to feel the breeze on my face and register the darkness. Fast-moving darkness in the shape of Ukranian farmland.

My right foot scuffed the top of the coupling plate.  I would have walked straight out of the train had it not been for the sharp yank on the hood of my jumper. I tumbled backwards in a heap onto Lily’s petite frame. Crash! – The heavy door slammed shut.

G’dun, g’dun, g’dun…

The motion of the rattling night train soothed my heartbeat as I rolled off my friend and lay still on my front for a few seconds, my nose uncomfortably close to the old wooden floor panels.

I should have guessed. The doors were never locked like that. It hadn’t even entered my mind as I turned the large metal bar that it would be possible to walk off the end of the train.

‘What are you doing?’ we heard, in Russian. The carriage manager, or ‘provodnitsa’, had come to restore order to the corridor. ‘That door’s not for passengers!’

‘Who is it for?’ I thought; and Lily helped me to my feet as I clumsily explained that we had been looking for the restaurant.

The no-nonsense provodnitsas are responsible for keeping passengers safe and orderly on the trains. A good night for a provodnitsa is not one in which a foreigner, with the habit of being mollycoddled by Health and Safety rules, fails to look where she’s going and ends up on the tracks halfway between Kiev and Sevastopol.

‘What do you want from the restaurant?’ she asked. I was a little thrown by the question but answered ‘pelmeni’.

Lily shook her head. ‘A vodka,’ she said. ‘We need a vodka.’

‘Well, you don’t have to go to the restaurant for that!’ replied the provodnitsa, and promptly herded us into her staff cabin, where there was a healthy supply of the good stuff.

‘Sometimes,’ the provodnitsa was recounting an hour or so later, ‘the men drink too much and wee out of the window. They can’t wait for the toilet…’

‘And what about that?’ asked Lily, pointing to the back of the train. ‘Has that ever happened before?’

The provodnitsa didn’t hesitate. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Nobody has ever been that stupid.’ It was deadpan. ‘I’ll be telling that story for years to come. And don’t remind me what country you’re from,’ she added, ‘or I’ll be telling them that, too!’


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