In Yerevan, Artur and I walked down the long, sloping boulevard, three lanes wide in each direction, the pavements lined with brittle, empty trees. Frozen slush crunched beneath my feet, a grey mess of footprints captured by the plummeting temperatures of night.
I was talking to Artur about Andy, who I’d heard had gone back to Tbilisi from Yerevan.
‘I just don’t understand it,’ I said. ‘Why, when he’s got this . . . just this ultimate freedom – he could do whatever he wants, go off, cycle wherever, travel exactly how – in exactly the way that suited him . . .’
Artur listened. He was good at that.
‘. . . why, now, has he decided that the best thing he could possibly do is to get involved with another girl?!?’
I had only seen Andy a couple of times since arriving in Yerevan, as we’d stayed with different hosts. But Artur was a friend that Andy and I had made in common. So I felt able to voice my thoughts on my best mate’s latest movements, conquests and errors of judgement.
‘He is wanting to travel by bicycle again. With you. You know that, right?’ said Artur, eventually.
‘Yeah, I know.’ I sighed. Andy had said this in an email a couple of days previously, as part of a discussion about the ongoing sleeping-bag saga, which had now grown even more complicated. I’d arrived in Yerevan, alone, to find them impounded by the customs department. That had been over three weeks ago.
‘The thing is . . . I really don’t think I’m ready to do that. I mean, it’s not because of him, or our friendship, or Ride Earth, or whatever. It’s just . . . I feel like, right now, I’m doing what I want to be doing, making my own decisions. And that feels good. And I want to keep it like that for as long as it still seems right, and then . . . and then meet up later on. If it still feels like the right thing to do.’
We were passing the monolithic headquarters of the American University of Armenia, which sat like a massive window-filled brick at the top of a broad expanse of steps to our left.
‘The building used to be the centre for Communist Party conferences,’ said Artur. ‘Now it’s the centre for a capitalistic education system!’
The next plot was home to the British Embassy compound; a wall of pinkish stone topped with silver spear tips, housing a modest little Greco-Roman mansion with a wrought-iron maquette of the crown perched on its head. Tomorrow, one of the bureaucrats would resume work on the long-winded process of getting our sleeping-bag parcel re-addressed as diplomatic mail – thus avoiding the seven-hundred-dollar tax bill we’d received for their import into Armenia.
We arrived at Cheers, found a photocopied note on the wall outside, and deduced from it that there was a gay and lesbian party in full swing inside. Banging techno pulsed into the dark empty street, causing nearby windows to vibrate in protest, and this was soon joined by the sound of muffled screaming. The bouncer peered up at us as we stood in mild confusion at the top of the basement stairs, and slowly shook his head.
I asked Artur what he suggested. Snow had begun to appear in the air – the lightest kind of snow, almost imperceptibly fine.
‘I guess I got the wrong message,’ said Artur. ‘Wait one second – let me call some people.’
Our next stop was another basement joint called Red Bar. It was already late, as Artur kept strange hours, usually going to bed around dawn and then getting up again in the early afternoon. The peacefulness of the city at night, he said, was calming and relaxing, and suited him better than the rowdiness of the day.
We trotted down the steps into the crowded little bar. It was dark and the music was frantic and uncomfortably loud. The dark red walls seemed to suck the little remaining light out of the atmosphere. A bar counter lined with neon stood in front of the side wall, and in the space opposite a dozen shadows jostled for dancing space amongst sofas full of figures shouting into each other’s ears, desperate to make themselves heard above the din.
Three girls squeezed past on their way out. Their faces were vaguely familiar. But then they seemed a uniquely recognisable trio. One of them was so short that if I hadn’t looked down I’d have missed her completely, tiny even beside her dark-eyed, kindly-faced friend, who could barely have been five foot tall herself. And the third, a young, sweet-looking girl, towered above the two of them like a matriarch. They hollered something up at Artur as we moved aside to make room on the stairs. Artur shouted something back as they disappeared out through the door. A magnanimous blast of ice-cool air swept into the bar, dissolving instantly in the fog of sweat and smoke and spilt beer that permeated the room.
As my eyes adjusted, more familiar-looking faces began to surface – others who I’d half met or shared a self-conscious dance or a spot at the bar with during the many revelries of the previous month, and of whose names and circumstances I had lost track. I tried to make conversation. But I couldn’t hear a bloody thing.
I stared around the bar, fiddling uneasily with my hair. Swishing elbows and bouncing handbags hinted that I was taking up valuable room for groups of gyrating females who I didn’t recognise, and who, I noticed, were carefully ignoring me. Then, as my fingers traced the outline of my scar, I remembered what I must look like. An injured, bulbous eye peering through an overgrown hedge. A fleece riddled through by campfire sparks. A pair of navy nylon sports slacks. And enormous military boots.
‘Sod it,’ I said out loud to nobody in particular, nodded at Artur, and we trotted back out into the street.
Shamrock was one of those fall-back bars; the places you go when all other options have failed to deliver, and you just want to sit out the rest of the evening somewhere familiar and comfortable, where the bar staff at least know your face, if not your name, and you can relax and stop peering around the room so much. It was a short walk away, so that’s where we went.
I pushed open the door, dearly hoping for a full entourage of friends and acquaintances and attractive women to herald our entrance. Instead, there was nothing. The barman, tapping away at his mobile phone by the glass-washing machine, ignored us completely. The door swung closed, revealing the bar’s only three customers, sat at a table in the corner behind it. It was the three girls we’d briefly seen leaving the previous bar. They nodded, half-acknowledging our presence, before returning to their conversation and glasses of wine.
Artur headed over to the other side of the room and greeted the barman, who looked up in surprise, then smiled and reached out to shake Artur’s hand, glancing briefly at me as he did so with an expression somewhere between customary warmth and mild fear. I smiled back, again wondering whether I was actually fit for appearance in public at all.
I took a seat at the bar. A tall glass of beer arrived. Artur, who didn’t drink, was exchanging a few words with the table in the corner.
‘These girls are asking if we want to join them,’ he said, turning to me. ‘I know them.’
‘Sure – why not?’
The rectangular table was pushed up against the wall, across which two high-backed benches faced each other. One of the girls, who faced her two friends across the table, shuffled up the bench towards the wall, and I took a seat next to her in the space she’d made, immediately feeling thrust into the spotlight. Artur, meanwhile, was giving the girls a quick introduction to the world of Tom Allen in Armenian, and I watched their faces with amusement, waiting for the all-too-familiar moment at which he mentioned the words for ‘bicycle’ and ‘from England’, and the penny dropped.
At this point, I knew, the three listeners would each break into their own version of confused laughter, looking at each other for some kind of cue, and the most forthcoming of the group would quickly ask Artur for some point of clarification, checking that no misunderstanding had taken place and that this guy had indeed ridden through the mountains in the middle of the coldest winter for a generation in order to be here. Meanwhile, the shyest member of the group would dip her head slightly in embarrassment, covering the manoeuvre by taking a sip of her drink, and surreptitiously looking over the rim of the glass at the third girl for support, which would be delivered via an almost imperceptible raising of the eyebrows.
And this is precisely what happened.
Artur lowered himself onto the bench opposite me with a grin.
‘And . . . how . . . how long it took, this journey?’ asked the girl next to me, the kind-eyed, dark-haired one from the previous bar. She was curious; there was no hint that she was asking out of politeness. But she was obviously hesitant with her English, so I tried to keep my words simple and intelligible – easier said than done while speaking through a wall of moustache.
‘Erm . . . eight months,’ I said, ‘from England to Armenia.’
Her eyes widened in disbelief. ‘Eight months? Oh my god – I would die!’ And she repeated the sentiment to her friends opposite. At least, I assumed that was what she was saying, although she might have been making a hilarious joke about the fact that the missing link between modern man and early hominids was seated next to her. They all burst into laughter.
‘And are you continuing your trip?’ asked the girl opposite – the short one, Serineh, whose dreadlocks must have been an even bigger novelty than my own greasy mane. Calm and straightforward, she had the kind of perceptive manner that seemed to cut through any woolly language and see what was going on beneath.
‘Yes . . . I’m going to Iran. I’ve got the visa, so . . .’
‘Oh! We’re from Iran.’
‘We’re all from Iran.’ Serineh nodded towards her two friends.
‘You mean you’re Iranian? Persian?’
‘It means,’ explained my neighbour, ‘we’re from a small community – well, a big community – of Christians in Iran. Armenian Christians.’
‘So you speak Armenian – or Farsi?’
‘We speak Armenian, at home. And with friends we speak Armenian.’
‘But . . . you speak Farsi as well?’
‘Yes – we study at school. And it gets more and more, as we go to . . . higher classes. And then all the teachers are Muslim Iranians.’
‘Er – can you write down some phrases in Farsi for me?’ I asked, standing up to retrieve the notebook from my back pocket and knocking the table in the process, spilling wine and beer across the polished wooden surface. ‘Oh, crap – sorry!’
‘Doesn’t matter!’ said Serineh, jumping up to fetch a cloth from the barman. The tall girl, still shy to speak to me in English, said something to my neighbour, who translated:
‘Arpa is saying not to worry, because the wine is free. For women.’
‘Hold on – that’s not fair!’ I laughed, and realised that I didn’t know her name, and that I couldn’t remember whether or not she’d been introduced. But I wanted to know it. And so I entered that unfortunate state of semi-distraction when you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re waiting for an opportunity to slip into the conversation the line, ‘By the way – sorry – what was your name again?’
‘Have some of the cheese.’ She flashed a smile and pushed a little terracotta pot along the table, containing what looked like little crunchy breadsticks but were actually strips of rubbery cheese, which came apart in strings when you picked at them.
‘Oh – thanks!’
I nibbled at one of the bizarre cheesy wands with the feeling that I was being studied.
‘These are . . . these are weird.’
‘They were free also, so you might as well have some!’
‘Why do women get free stuff on Valentine’s Day, anyway?’
‘Don’t they get free stuff in England?’
‘Er . . . I dunno, really,’ I said, too quickly, realising how unromantic and ignorant I must have sounded.
‘Where in England are you from, then? I mean, which city?’ she said, taking a sip of her wine.
‘Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s a village, actually. Kind of in the centre of England. Only about five hundred people. It’s pretty small.’
‘A village!’ she said, seeming taken aback. ‘What is the name?’
‘Er – Middleton.’
‘Mmm,’ she replied. I guessed what she might be thinking.
‘I should just clarify – villages in that part of England aren’t really like the villages in Armenia. Or in Iran, I imagine.’
‘Yes, yes – I was wondering – you have . . . I mean, you have a normal life, in your village, right? Electricity?’
‘Oh, yes! It’s very comfortable. We have electricity, services, good roads . . . everything is very normal.’
‘Oh, good! I was thinking maybe you live on a farm, or something!’ And she laughed, clapping her hand to her mouth like a cartoon character.
‘No, no, no! Well, my mother grew up on a farm. And my granddad. And there are a couple of working farms in the village. But no – I’m not a farmer!’
I wasn’t sure quite what this young woman would make of my description of middle-class rural England. But she didn’t enquire further. Artur, Serineh and Arpa were chatting away in Armenian at the other corner of the table. I began to contemplate the bar snacks, slowly rotating the little pot and its contents between my fingers.
‘So, don’t you like the cheese, then?’ she asked.
‘No, yeah, I do! It’s just the flavour – it’s interesting . . .’
‘It’s, er . . . smo . . . sm . . . Serineh-jan – tskhvats, che?’ Serineh looked over, nodding. ‘Smoked?’
‘Oh – that’s what it is . . .’
I studied the ridiculous rubbery strand, pulling it apart and watching the tendrils unfurl from each other as they were separated.
‘They are not really . . . for eating. I mean, they are, but you have it with beer – it’s like . . . something to play with, or something to do while you are drinking.’
‘Delicious!’ I grinned, holding a stick aloft theatrically and snipping off a length with my front teeth. She laughed.
‘So . . . d’you reckon you could let me know a few useful things in Farsi?’ I asked again, tapping the cover of my notebook with my fingertips.
‘Er – excuse me?’ she replied. I looked at her quizzically. ‘Oh, no –’ she continued, worried I’d taken offence, ‘I didn’t mean . . . I have to say that . . . I really like your accent . . . but I find it a bit difficult to understand. But I really love it!’
‘Oh! Thank you! Er – well, I wanted to ask if you could write down some sentences in Farsi. So I can know a few . . . basic things . . . before I arrive.’
‘Yes! Of course! What do you want to know?’
‘Just . . . basic stuff. Like the words for “hello”, “food”, “water”, “thank you” – things like that. By the way – sorry – what was your name again?’
‘Tenny. I am Tenny.’