One step to heaven

Dark side of London

english version
part 1
What is life like for the hundreds of Russians working illegally in this country? To find out, journalist Alexander Meshkov left his money, his family and his job and came over here for a month. This is a revealing story of the Britain hi encountered.

    Unskilled work abroad: Britain, Portugal, US, Greece, Spain, Italy. Newspapers and magazines bristle with such adverts. And the chances are that a lazy, dreamy Russian guy lies in his bed in a provincial town reading such adverts, and imagines scenes of a happy care free life abroad. For an ordinary working guy the temptation to see the world is great, to brush up on his foreign languages and to earn some money. Just choose a country to your taste and go and work and enjoy the good life. Of all the foreign lands, I chose good old! England. I am fond of their language. And even 1 if it doesn't work out, I thought, at least I'll listen to their music, look at St Paul's, stroll in Trafalgar Square and sit on a bench in Hyde Park. So, without much further reflection, I took a vacation and went to an agency that offered employment abroad. I called at about 10 of them.
    They all offered about the same deal. I had to present the same set of documents: my internal and foreign passports, certificate of marriage and certificates of the births of my children.
    The whole point is that from the outset we will try to cheat the Brits and the Brits will try to prevent us doing it. You have to produce a certificate from your work stating that your salary is at least $500 (around ‡375) per month. Obtaining such a certificate will cost you upwards of $100 in Moscow.
    At the British embassy, the first thing is to be neatly dressed. If you have a jacket that is not too crumpled and stained with sauce and a clean pair of socks, this is the right attire for meeting the British officials who will test your reliability . I borrowed a tie, a clean shirt, a pinstripe jacket, washed and shaved myself and after sitting just a couple of hours in the waiting room was summoned to the window. There a bespectacled old Englishwoman showered me with tricky questions. Why am I going to England? Why am I travelling without my wife and kids? Where are they? What's the matter with them? And my mother? Where is she? Who is Shakespeare, Benjamin Britten, Tony Blair? What do I want to see in London? What English artists and writers do I know? What is Covent Garden? Who will take me around London? Who rules Britain? Where will I stay? (The agency provided me with a fake hotel reservation).
    Exposed to the hail of the old woman's questions, I felt like a schoolboy -I grew pale and my answers became increasingly halting. I started mixing up Russian, French and English words. But I got my visa in the end. I then went back to the travel agency, paid ‡750 for a two-way ticket and filled in another contract for a job aon a farm in Britain.
    In order to make the experiment totally realistic, and to be fair to the hypothetical lad who sets out in search of a fortune, I decided to get rid of all the advantages that my job conferred on me. Before departure, I flushed down the toilet all the telephone numbers of my London friends and acquaintances. I didn't realise then what a folly that was.
    The first stab in the back I got in England was that the man named Yuris who was to meet me in London did not answer his phone. Imagine the stale I was in: I had arrived secretly to boost the British agriculture smitten by foot and mouth and I stood, forlorn, at Heathrow Airport without any addresses, with nowhere to go. What to do? Whom to call?
    I walked in Green Park, looked at English men (I hadn't seen them for quite some time), then sat down in a cafe called El Parata, dialling Yuris's number from time to time over the payphone on the counter. After a couple of hours' trying, Yuris picked up the phone. He apologised and said he would come over in 10 minutes. Ten, 20, 30 minutes passed. An hour passed. Yuris was still nowhere to be seen. I got up, furious, and started to walk away. I had walked some 20 metres before I clearly heard somebody call out my name. I looked back and saw a man in a white windbreaker. He had a Russian-looking face. He had probably been watching me to check whether I was alone and whether I was a snooper. He was very polite and considerate. We rode on the tube a couple of stops and then he led me up to a Jeep in which a husky, close-cropped guy was sitting.
    "My brother," said Yuris by way of introduction.
    "You owe me $600," the brother said in a businesslike way.
    "But we agreed on 400," I objected.
    "The prices are going through the rooftop! Everything's gone up!" the brother threw up his hands in despair.
    "Well, when shall I report for work?" I asked Yuris, with the simplicity of a child. "Well tell you for sure on Monday," he replied a little vaguely then added, after a pause: "Maybe…"
    They took me to Barking in the outskirts of London, to a flat inhabited by Hungarian Gypsies. The owner of the flat, Malkiados, spoke neither Russian nor English. He spoke a mixture of Hungarian, Romanian, English and Roma. Rent was ‡35 a week.
    My room, two metres by two, was bare except for a bed and a locker. Judging from some ineffable signs, the family was experiencing a lot of mayhem. The doors in my room were thin, with several bullet holes. One 9mm bullet stuck out of a hole.

    At the crack of dawn the following day I set out to look at the sights of the English capital. I wandered in St Paul's, listened to the famous choir there, took a leak in the L underground toilet in that l7th century cultural monument and sat in a cafe for a while. A motley assemblage of people from all countries lay on the steps of the cathedral munching biscuits, potato crisps, popcorn, smoking, drinking beer and enjoying the divine sense of history.
    Toward evening I felt hungry and dropped in at a small restaurant off London Street called the Wild Horse. I ordered a modest English supper. A man named Jerry introduced himself to me. I told him I was looking for a job as a guitarist and within half an hour all the people in the restaurant knew I was looking for a job as a musician. Various people landed at my table to chat about music and one young man wrote me the address of a theatre where he thought I should go — saying they were al ways in need of guitarists. Then he asked if I needed a girlfriend.
    "I can't afford a girlfriend," I objected feebly. "It doesn't matter," he said, and within a minute was back at my table in the company of a skinny woman of about 40 with bobbed hair. She wore a black trouser suit.
    "This is Julie," he said. "Talk with her."
    "Hello Julie," I said, and immediately lied: "I have nowhere to spend the night." "You can spend the night with me," she answered simply. Julie was divorced for five years. Her two kids, a boy and a girl, live with the former husband. Julie had rotten teeth and some missing. After the second glass she took off her jacket and remained in a T-shirt. She had a tattoo on her wrist: a chrysanthemum in a glass. She talked fast and not very coherently.
    I bought a kebab at an Indian restaurant and two bottles of wine. Then we went to Julie's.
    Her house was near the Barking railway terminal. It was a two-storey barrack-like structure with an iron balcony running along its side. There was drying linen on a clothes line in the courtyard. We climbed to the second floor. Julie had been less than sincere when she said she lived alone. In her flat half a dozen boys and girls sat on the floor. They didn't pay attention to me at first, but they became very friendly as soon as I produced the wine.
    "They'll be gone soon," Julie promised quietly. Some people, indeed, left. But others replaced them. A huge bearded guy by the name of Hugh was preparing marijuana joints. As an honoured guest, I was never passed over. After a few puffs I felt drowsy. These people had a lot of fun. Their way of having fun was to fart. That's the way English youths have fun. And they accompanied every fart with comments. One of them, for instance, announced like a provincial emcee "Johann Sebastian Bach. Brandenburg Concerto," and laid a great English fart. This rectal meditation had the whole company in stitches. Julie soon fell asleep curled up on the edge of the sofa. I was sitting in the comer fighting off sleep. We were smoking grass all night. The guests only left to ward daybreak. And then, without undressing, I cuddled up to Julie on the sofa — with no wicked thoughts on my mind. In the morning I left my platonic love without saying goodbye.
    I realised I had no money when the time had come to pay for my morning coffee in a small pub. I cleaned my pockets of all the small change to the last pence. I clearly remembered having had at least ‡50 on me, but then I remembered Julie caressing me in the night. Oh, naive Russian lad! You had such faith in love selfless and pure!
    I called Yuris. "We need to meet, it's urgent. I need to borrow some money. Ill pay you back as soon as I earn some."
    "No way," Yuris said. "You must have your own money."
    "It was stolen! I don't have much time!"
    "Just remember," Yuris said sternly, "no one is going to lend you any money in this country. Just no one. You hear me? This is not Russia. So, fend for yourself." "Well, then, when do I start work?"
    "Work?" Juris sighed heavily. "You'll have to wait a little." "How long is a little?"
    "A couple weeks because of the Easter. Perhaps, a little longer."
    "A couple weeks? But what am I to do? I don't have any money."
    "Just go out and find some. You still owe ‡40. Until you come up with the ‡40, don't call me. We have nothing to discuss."
I and Hindus     Barking is a mostly Indian-inhabited outlying part of London. You feel as if you are in Bombay or Madras. The Hindus wear their national dress, the place is full of Indian and Pakistani restaurants and cafes. I walked into just about every one of them and simply asked if they had any job for me: not for pay, just for a meal. But the Hindus shrugged guiltily. Hunger and illness made me bold and desperate. By noon I reached the Broadway theatre (located on North Street Broadway) and I walked straight into the manager's office and declared brashly that I was a virtuoso guitar player from Russia and I needed a job real bad. The manager, who gave the impression that he met virtuoso guitar players from Russia every day, explained to me that they hired new musicians only when they staged new productions. At the moment they had their repertoire full and they had nothing to offer me.
    Near a trash can I noticed two filthy elderly hobos and I approached them.
    "Good afternoon, gentlemen," I said. "I am from Moscow. I lost my way."
    The men seemed to be very pleased to hear that I was from Moscow. One was called Gary and the other Ronnie. Their purple noses spoke of interesting histories and rich spiritual life. Ronnie was an old man wearing a ginger-coloured raincoat, crumpled trousers, a snazzy vest that must have come from Oscar de Lorento collection. Gary was the proud owner of a bicycle and knitted gloves with holes in stead of fingers. They were sunny, mischievous and prankish tramps. We chatted about this and that for about 15 minutes.
    "By the way, gentlemen," I asked. "What would you recommend if I had nowhere to spend the night?"
    Learning how desperate I was, the hobos showered me with advice on how to survive in an advanced capitalist country. One of the easiest ways was to ask for a night's lodging in a church. All you had to do was to knock on the door of any church and utter the magic words: "I am Christian. I need a night shelter," and you would be allowed in and even fed. Inspired by hope I rushed to the Gypsy man to collect my backpack and say farewell to him. In 10 minutes Gary, riding his bike, caught up with me.
    "Wait a bit," he said, slamming on the brakes. Fumbling in his shabby clothes he fished out a purse. He lifted it and shook out a pile of small change and gave it to me. My nerves gave out and, rather awkwardly, I burst into tears. Not a manly way to behave. But I was really touched. At that moment Gary appeared to me to be a beautiful, somewhat weary angel who had made a not very safe landing. After the siring of mishaps this was the first stroke of luck that came my way on the ancient land. You were wrong, Yuris, there are good people in England, after all.

part 2

Alex Meshkov
Publish by Gardian, UK

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