Journey's End

By Duncan, Karen | Hecate, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Journey's End


Duncan, Karen, Hecate


His shoes stuck out in her mind. She wondered if they were the very first thing she looked at. Her eyes were drawn to them because of the colour. A deep rich tan. They were expensive. They held his foot with the type of intimacy only money could buy. She noticed they were latticed in the front, but the quality of the leather was such that the effect was more embossed. A patina of tiny even squares. Around the heel and side of each shoe was a smooth surface, moulded not sewn. The polish was the boast of heights reached through a lover's hand. It was a clue that to the owner these shoes were a prized possession. Not something one came by every day. The fact that they were on the feet of an inspector in a train travelling through an Eastern bloc country provided its own clue. One with an inbuilt warning system.

He had appeared in the compartment only a few moments ago. His presence caused a tremendous amount of anxiety. Kathryn watched in amazement as people dived into their bags with an enthusiasm that was partly for show. They pulled out goods they had purchased in other countries, personal papers. Some had endless documentation. An elderly man towards the door stood up abruptly and started patting down his body with his hands as if he were suddenly attacked by an infestation of mosquitoes. He smiled and nodded constantly towards the officer who stood eying him with a degree of amusement. As the man was at the front of the carriage it was obvious he would be one of the first to be inspected. This knowledge and the quietness with which the guard had entered the carriage seemed to have thrown him into some sort of panic. It was obvious to Kathryn that he was nervous. She looked at him and thought to herself, 'Fool, if I were an inspector I'd gruel you for that performance alone.' A seasoned traveller, she wasn't easily unnerved by officials anymore. She always tried to blend into the local crowd and not stick out like a tourist. Even her usual denim attire would have made her look like a celebrity in this country. She had been careful to choose a rather tasteless pair of track bottoms to wear, with a fleecy tartan shirt on top. She thought she looked a little like her younger brother at home on the farm on a Saturday morning, when he had been elected to do some particularly unpleasant job.

The man by the door had been cornered. It seemed he had been in Italy purchasing goods to sell in the markets. There was a local boy sitting next to her, a student who had been trying to practise his English on her for most of the journey. It had been tiresome but now she was pleased to have a translator so close at hand. She didn't like to admit it to herself but she felt a little more at ease to have someone who understood how things worked in this country. The old man was made to pull all of his wares out of two large canvas bags and show them to the guard. Kathryn wondered why they didn't go elsewhere. Why it was necessary to conduct this sort of interrogation in front of everyone. Apparently he had paid a huge amount of tax on his purchases. The items didn't look as if they cost very much. They were the sort of things you would have trouble selling in the west. Velvet paintings with tigers and palm trees on them. Funny cheap looking rugs.

The man was obviously upset, he was pleading with the guard. Nicki told her the amount of tax he had to pay would not allow him to cover the expenses for his journey, let alone make any profit. Kathryn wanted to know why anyone would bother to go to all that trouble importing things if they knew they had to pay tax.

'Oh it is not a real tax,' he said.

'You mean it's a bribe?' Nicki looked at her and smiled.

'It is something to . . . So he can leave the country again. Mother time.'

'He should refuse to pay it even if it means he's never able to leave again.'

'Oh he will pay.'

She thought of the passport in her bag. New Zealand was a long way away. …

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