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Bob Sampson

Robert (Bob) Sampson was born in England in 1965. Since graduating in Biochemistry from the University of Dundee in 1988 he has worked for various chemical and pharmaceutical companies in north-east England. He writes 'as little as possible' these days, preferring to spend his spare time with his family. He lives in Guisborough, Cleveland with his wife Nina and son Victor.


Natasha had written the address at which I was to meet her, and beneath it the name of a nearby metro station, on a tiny and very battered fragment of card. To one side she had also written the figure 6, the hour of our rendezvous, and inscribed a circle around it, as though to emphasise its importance.

I pulled the map out of my hip pocket. The name of the metro station I had entered was one that I didn’t recognise and I needed to trace the route I had taken since leaving my hotel earlier in the afternoon. As I was fingering the avenues and boulevards I became aware of a thin, bespectacled figure by my side.

‘Where are you going?’ asked the man in English. I pointed to the station on my map, ‘BARRIKADNAYA’.

‘Barrikadnaya, Barrikadnaya,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Yes, I know that station. Follow me.’

So we joined the crowd of people cramming onto the escalator and plunged deep beneath the city. I now had a chance to observe my guide more closely. He was of average height and his hair was metallic grey and sleek. The spectacles he was wearing were thick and heavy and made of dark plastic, which made them look like some kind of makeshift disguise. Also, he was carrying a walking stick, even though he walked without a limp or any other outward sign of difficulty. On the contrary, it was all I could do to keep up as he headed first down one tunnel then another. But strangest of all was his long grey raincoat. Now that we were underground it might have almost passed unnoticed. But in the streets I had just left it was a warm and sunny afternoon. On a day like today all but the lightest of jackets would have been uncomfortable. That my guide should choose to wear a foul weather coat seemed extraordinary. Just then he turned to me with a mechanical movement and said, ‘Be careful. There are all types of people down here, strange people. The metro is a dangerous place.’

We jumped on a train. My guide held up his left hand with the thumb and little finger bent over and said, ‘Three stops. Then we change trains.’ There were more long passageways at our transfer station. The rush hour was now in full swing and there were hordes of Muscovites walking in both directions. Along the edges of the passageway were the usual little stalls selling sweets, books and lily of the valley, picked no doubt from the forests that surround the city. I let myself slip a pace or two behind my bespectacled guide. I realised that in this crowd it would be easy to lose him altogether. All I had to do was turn around and walk the other way - he would never find me again amongst so many commuters. But I was lost. I had no idea which station I was in, which train I needed to take, or even which district of Moscow was currently above my head.

I let myself slip further back. From the signs I had seen I deduced that this station was located at the intersection of three lines. So there were six possible directions of travel. But my knowledge of the Moscow metro was vague, in addition to which I’d somehow lost my map on the way. I quickly made up my mind to stay with my guide. After all, I had no reason to doubt his sincerity. No concrete evidence. But all the same . . .

I caught up with my guide again. He turned to me with his characteristic mechanical movement and said, ‘There is an animal park near the Barrikadnaya station. Perhaps you will go there.’

‘I should very much like to,’ I replied, ‘but I have arranged to meet a girl-friend at six o’clock. If I am late she might not wait for me.’ This was not entirely true because Natasha would wait for me until I arrived. But I hoped that my expression of urgency might in some way facilitate the termination of my journey, or at least of my association with my guide.

We suddenly arrived at two escalators that were ascending from platforms on a lower level. My guide exchanged a few words (in Russian, of course) with a stout woman in uniform and then in English said, ‘There is a fault. The line is closed for one hour. We’ll have to go by a different route. Now we need to take three trains.’ As we wove through the surging crowd I said, ‘I have only forty minutes until my rendezvous. Do you think I’ll be there in time?’

‘We must hurry. Keep close to me,’ he replied. ‘It’s busy here because it’s the rush hour and one line is closed. So everyone is trying to get on the other trains.’

When I arrived, Natasha was curled up on the sofa reading a thriller. As I went through to the kitchen to put the kettle on she called out, ‘It’s a beautiful evening. We should go for a walk in the animal park by the Barrikadnaya metro station.’


Red Square After Dark

The strange quietude
of Red Square after dark.
Lenin’s tomb

and the high Kremlin walls.
The beautiful curves
of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

This, the heart of Russia,
is tonight a point of calm.
The eye of a tornado.

Christmas Day, St. Petersburg

In Primorsky Park, the sun is already low –
a red glow amongst the winter trees.
The lakes are frozen; a slight mist hangs

in the still air. A girl skips along the path
in her thick green coat and shapka.
She smiles and laughs and looks very Russian.

In a cabin by the lake, men are playing games of chess.

Train from St. Petersburg to Maksatikha

It is possible to deduce more about a people
by taking a single train journey
than by reading any number of travel books.

The ice creams bought at a row of stalls
just outside the station. The lethargic porters
waiting for business. The lines of curious passengers.

Then on board the train, the music
and the shared sandwiches, the conversations
and the farewells. The fear of a missed connection

in a place where only three trains run each week.
(This train, which terminates in Samara,
takes 42 hours to reach its final destination.)

St. Petersburg
In the afternoon it begins to snow:
the entire sky suddenly crowds
with a million flakes of light.

4th January
The sound of the wind
in the forest

is something like a river
flowing over rapids,

or the rumble
of distant thunder.

Every now and then
snow slides

from the neighbour’s roof
with a whoosh and a thud.

Wood smoke rises cautiously
from warm chimneys.

The house is already silent.
Shadows dance on the pale bedroom wall
and on the huge stove, its tiles
still warm from the evening’s fire.

Beyond the window,
light reflected by snow
illuminates the Russian landscape.
  Big Cats in Snow Tuesday, July 11, 2000