An empty bottle slid down the length of the luggage rack, clinking on the metal struts as it progressed. Every time it passed directly above him. he flinched at the thought of it slipping through the netting and falling on his head. At one point he even considered getting up and catching it as it went by, but his legs were so numb from the cold inside the bus that the task seemed beyond him. Also, the rest of the dozen or so passengers were unconcerned, and he saw no reason suddenly to get up in front of them all while they were sitting so quietly.
Meanwhile the winter afternoon was growing dark, and soon he could no longer see the bottle at all, only hear its menacing rattle. After an hour of this he could think of nothing but the bottle, and by concentrating on its clatters and silences tried to visualise its exact location and whimsical behaviour.
Finally he felt he was going mad: he could not understand why nobody else on the bus seemed to be bothered. It was as if they were deliberately ignoring the bottle! He resolved to put an end to this silly farce. When he heard the bottle getting nearer, he quickly stood up and reached out for it. But the bottle was not there: it must have stuck above the seat in front of him, just beyond the metal support. As he groped around feeling for it, his left leg pressed against the girl sitting next to him. She had irritated him earlier by choosing to sit beside him instead of somewhere else on the half-empty bus. He still could not find the bottle; his embarrassment became more acute, and he sat down. His buttocks sensed how much colder the seat had grown while he had been standing.
There was a rattle as once more the bottle passed over his head. Now it was surely just behind, him. Leaping up, he wheeled around and snatched for it. The bus accelerated and the bottle rattled beyond his reach, to the rear of the bus. In the light from a passing lorry he noticed how the hem of the girl's coat had been pushed slightly above her knee. "Excuse me. . . the bottle. . . I. . ." he spluttered, grateful that in the darkness she could not see how flushed his face was. She seemed not to mind.
He determined to pay no more attention to the bottle. It rolled by twice, clinking on the metal bars, just a foot above
him. He resisted the temptation to do something about it. A third time it stopped right above his seat, and looking up he could see its blue glint reflecting the white snow outside. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the girl was smiling. For the next ten minutes he sat quietly, watching the bottle, wishing that it would move away; he began to perceive clearly the curves of its outline; he could even see a few drops of liquid which remained in it. The bus came to a stop in front of a railway crossing. He sprang up and grabbed the bottle. The bus jerked suddenly into gear, and he tumbled, clutching the bottle, right onto the girl's lap.
She gave a warm throaty laugh. "Are you all right?" she asked. He had fallen sideways, and to prevent him from tumbling into the aisle she put her left hand over his shoulder. Her right hand was pinned under his knees; she wiggled it free and, as if she did not quite know what to do with it, rested it on his knee.
The touch of her hands was nice; her lap under the small of his back was warm; with his right shoulder pressed against her body he could feel the tautness of her breasts. He clutched the back of the seat in front of him and yanked himself into his place by the window.
"Bravo", she said, taking the bottle out of his hand. "It's 'Moscow Vodka', but it's almost empty".
"I didn't mean to drink it", he stammered, "I was afraid it might fall on somebody's head".
"Whose head, yours? There's no other head under this rack". "So what if it's only minewhy shouldn't I protect it?" "Anything there to protect?"
"More than you might think".
"What, for instance?"
"Thoughts and ideas".
"What sort of thoughts and ideas, for instance?" "About acting in films".
"Are you an actor then?"
"Not quite yet I've just been in a couple of films".
"Oh! What films?"
"Well. . . you wouldn't have heard of them. . . You see. they haven't been released yet. I've just finished in them. Only last week, in fact!"
"You must be at Mosfilm then?
"Where else? I've been there for years!" "Really? But how old are you now?"
"Eighteenbut I look much older, everyone at Mosfilm says so. How old are you?"
"How old do you think?"
"Oh. . . about, say, twenty five?"
"Not a bad guessI'm only twenty".
"I didn't mean to. . . what I meant was that you looked a little like my older sister. She's an actressthat is, also an actress. . . And what do you do?"
"Oh, nothing special. I'm just a seamstress. . . But it must be very exciting to be at Mosfilmyou must meet lots of interesting people and see lots of great films. Do you like Eisenstein?"
"O yes, very much. We often chat together in the canteen you know, the commissary. Actually, I bumped into him just yesterday afternoon and had a drink with him".
"I didn't know he was still alive".
"You didn't know he was still alive?" "No, I didn't".
"I didn't myself. . . But it's quite understandable why. . . He is, of course, a very old man. . . almost dead. Many people I've met thought the same thing as youas I did. . . I mean, you know, thought he must be dead by now. . . When I first got thereto Mosfilm, I meanand met him in the commissary, I was quite shocked to see him alive!. . . I can see him now as he was thengiving directions to his crew, carrying his movie camera, an old wrinkled face against the background of the falling snow all around him. . . Oh. why are we stopping?"
"I don't knowcould be the rest-stop".
As if in confirmation the driver announced that there would be a half an hour stop. It would be the last chance for passengers to take a little walk, if they wanted to.
The girl leaned across him. so that her hair brushed against his cheek and he caught her perfumed scentlike trees in a forest. He followed her glance out of the window. Apart from a dark wooden shackpresumably the stationand a single lamp-post next to the highway, there were only mounds of soundless snow.
"I wonder why anyone would want to take a walk out there?" he said. "Where would one go?"
The girl, still leaning over him, turned away from the window and stared at him.
"Hmm. . . you don't look like an actor, but you have wonderful eyesso big, so strange".
"Look out of the window", he said, trying to get away from her eyes. "All the other passengers are going to the station-but it looks closed!"
As she moved even closer to the window, she accidentally poked her elbow into the pit of his stomach. It wasn't really a poke but more of a nudge, and in a couple of seconds he began to feel a bit crowded. His bladder seemed about to burst.
"Excuse me. . . You must excuse me, but I think I would like to take a little walk, after all. Just to stretch my legs", he said, bending forward, as if to stand up. Stirring, the girl raised her head and inadvertently cracked him on the chin.
She laughed and asked whether she had hurt him; he replied he wasn't at all hurt, he had scarcely noticed the blow. Then, having been assured by her that her head was all right, he got out of the bus.
Some of the other passengers were already coming back. The driver was standing alone by the lamp-post at the entrance to the station, smoking a cigarette. The young man hesitantly approached him and asked whether he still had time to use the toilet. At the mention of the word toilet the driver spat into the snow and flicked the end of his cigarette benevolently in the direction of an out-building. The young man turned and walked towards the shack outlined in black against the snow-
drifts. As he waded through the snow, a couple of passengers passed him by on their way back. Arriving at last at the dilapidated wooden shed and seeing no sign on the door, he walked around the building. There was no other door. He came back again to the front and hesitated, thinking that he should perhaps knock before entering: it might be a ladies' toilet. The door opened and, to his relief, a man stumbled out, gave him a sullen look, and made his way to the bus through the snow-drifts.
The floor-boards creaked as the young man stepped in. The place was lit by a feeble light-bulb dangling from the ceiling, and there was no one there. Torn-up newspapers littered the floor. There were three cubicles: one without a door altogether, one with a door off its hinges; the door of the third was full of cracks and holes. On the other side a long low trough served as a urinal. He took off his leather gloves and came up to the trough. His fingers were so numb that it took him awhile to unzip his trousers.
Suddenly he heard light footsteps outside, and at the same moment it came to him that this toilet might well be for both sexes. A woman might come in! He ducked into the cubicle with the door that closed.
Someone walked into the toilet, as he fumbled with the door which had no latch. From the stall next to him he smelted the perfume and heard the voice of the girl from the bus. "At least yours is on its hingesI have to do it in the open", she said.
"Oh, it's you! It's me from the busfrom the bus where we sat together! Is there still time?"
"Oh hi! You're here tooso we've both taken 'a little walk'. Don't worry, there's plenty of timeI asked the driver".
"Would you like perhaps to change cabinets with meso that you could have more privacy?" he suggested, thinking of her having to take down her clothes openly.
"I just came to put on another pair of tights, but thanks anyway".
He heard, just to his left, the rustle of clothing.
"Why can't they make tights in this country? Yesterday I heard from Katyamy girlfriend at workremember, a seamstress always gets this sort of news firstanyhow, she told me that the Central Department Store had just got some thick coloured tights from Czechoslovakia. I rushed there at lunch time, but you can guess what happened. They had sold out within ten minutes! I'm lucky I at least have thesefrom Poland. But they say that the best tights come from Hungary."
A few inches away came another rustling sound.
"I nearly froze in that bus with these tights!"
It suddenly dawned on him that the plywood separating them had cracks in it. It was so easy to peep through the one just opposite him!.. She had her back turned and was bent over her travelling-bag, fumbling with its contents. Her skirt was off. Her jumper reached down her back, just to the top of her buttocks. They were covered by semi-transparent tights and looked to him like a big rosy peach.
"Where is that damn thing? You can't see anything in this light!" she said impatiently, bending further over her travelling-bag. "Here it is!" She pulled something out of her bag and turned round to face him.
Through the tights he could see the patch of reddish-brown hair where her legs came together. Hopping on one foot, she slipped the thicker pair of black tights over her right leg. Then she shifted feet and put her left foot into the other hole. Unbending her knee, she pulled the garment up over her parted legs.
"These are really warm, you know. I got them from Masha another friend at workwhen she came back from Poland". She put her skirt on. "Shall we go back? Are you ready? Oh look at all those cracks!"
He backed away from the partition and tried to zip up his fly, but he 'couldn't do it.
She walked out of her cubicle and stood outside his door. "Are you ready? Let's go!"
"Wait! My fly is stuck!" he said. "It never works properly!" he added disingenuously.
"Let me have a look at it. That's what I do at work".
And before he could protest she walked into his cubicle.
This took him totally by surprise; he began to open his mouth but she was already fumbling with his zip.
"Please", he finally forced himself to say, "please, I can do it, I can do it!"
"Can you really?" she said, pressing herself against him.
"I'm sorry. . . this zip is. . . I mean. . . I can't. . . it's. . . so. . . awful", he faltered, putting his hand on her forearm.
"Don't worry. Wait a second, now".
She reached out of the cubicle and turned off the light.
Back on the bus the driver swore at them for being late. The other passengers who had already settled down did not look up as they found their place by the bottle on the seat.
The bus started to pull away from the station, and was already out of the light of the lamp-post.