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Getting There


Every novel I’ve ever written owes its very existence to a journey.  It may be a visit to a particular shop or art gallery or sporting event, and a conversation with a stranger en route.  It may be something more substantial, a snatched holiday to somewhere exotic.  Or, in the case of Lin and I, it may be one of the many expeditions we’ve undertaken, largely by train and bus, to any number of far-flung destinations that took our fancy. 

We’ve been doing this for a while, and have a decent track record as railway nomads.  Couple a sense of adventure with a rucksack, a window seat, a bunch of railway tickets, and a decent bottle of red wine, and the world is the fattest oyster you’ll ever taste.

I’ve lost count of the novels that have shaped themselves thanks to month-long journies like these, and Last Flight to Stalingrad, with Kyiv to follow, was no exception.  It was a couple of years back. We were headed for Baku, on the Caspian Sea.  En route we had calls to make at Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, Odessa, Batumi, and Tiblisi, as well as a Caucasian peak called Kizbeki.  My wife is an artist.  I love stories.  We both have a fondness for the nightly comparing of notes over bowls of spicy food and something interesting to drink. Show us the way to a railway station, and fate takes care of the rest.

Berlin and Warsaw were both tributes to the reviving powers of capitalism, troubled recent histories softened by wealth, but Kiev was where the darkness began to descend.  Kiev is a huge city, the language impenetrable, and everywhere the sense of something edgy about to happen, especially after dark.  We rented a top floor apartment,  itself a novel in the making, and prowled the city for day after day trying to marry the current war against the predatory Russians with grotesque images from the Thirties famine on display in the biggest of the many museums.  This was sobering stuff, and our last morning brought would-be intruders to our reinforced steel door, but we made it intact for the train to Odessa, and thence joined a hunch of drunken truckers for the three-day journey across the Black Sea.

Georgia, after the Ukraine, was full of sunshine and a different kind of mischief.  The further east the train takes you, the less English you feel, a welcome release from the suffocation of nationality.  But then came the moment that sparked Last Flight to Stalingrad, and nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Picture the scene.  We’re standing in the sunshine on an empty platform in a Georgian city called Kutaisi.  Thanks to a Brit TV series about railways fronted by an ex-Minister of Defence, we’re expecting a state-of-the-art super express to speed us to distant Tiblisi but instead we descend to the tracks and pick our way towards a solitary carriage hauled by an ancient diesel.  We have booked tickets in one of those eight seat compartments with threadbare moquette, cracked mirrors, and a view through the window curtained by decades of dirt.

Two seats in the compartment have already been taken by a young Polish couple, who turn out to be delightful.  They speak perfect English and offer us a helping or two of their sizeable breakfast.  This includes a bottle of locally-distilled plum brandy, and we’re definitely friends by the time the train judders into motion.  Then, barely minutes later, the door slides open and another figure steps in from the corridor.  He’s wearing jeans and a Dinamo Tiblisi football top.  He’s lean, pale, fit-looking, cropped hair, quiet smile, and carries his few possessions in a supermarket bag.  I judge him to be early thirties.

By now, our little compartment has the makings of a party.  Naturally, we try and involve the stranger in our midst but his English is very limited and none of us speak either Georgian or Russian.  None the less, he does his best, offers cigarettes, accepts a plastic glass of plum brandy
‘Good,’ he lifts the glass in a toast.  ‘Very good.’
After a while, I ask him where he’s going, where he’s come from.  The latter question raises the hint of a smile, and he crosses his two thin wrists.  At first I don’t understand the gesture, which is one of the many reasons I love travelling with my wife.
‘You’ve been in prison?’ she asks.
‘Da.’  Yes.
‘How long?’ 
He holds up nine fingers.
‘Nine years?’
‘For what?’  I spread my hands in a gesture of bewilderment.
He looks at me for a long moment, then one finger slips across his throat.  I stare at him, uncomprehending.
‘You killed someone?’  Lin again.
‘Da.’  Two fingers, this time.
‘Two people?’
This is the kind of scene you’d only conjure in a novel.  We’ve exchanged glances, we’ve studied our hands, we’ve gazed out of the window, but no one really knows where to take the conversation next.  Tiblisi is six and a half hours away.  And we’re sharing the compartment with a serial killer.
In the end, of course, we all start talking again.  Patience and a degree of guesswork – coupled with a raging curosity – jigsaw the rest of our new friend’s story.   His name is Bacha.  He grew up in a town called Svaneti in the mountains, famous across Georgia for its tribal feuds.  He killed two enemies to settle a family debt, and he’s the living proof that prison food in Georgia is the worst in the world.  He went in a fat man.  Now – he patted the flatness of his belly – he’s a ghost.
Journies breed the strangest friendships.  When we said our goodbyes amongst the crowds on Tiblisi Central station, Bacha pressed a scribbled phone number into my hand.
‘Any trouble.’ He gestured.  ‘Call me.’
I remember watching him disappear into the evening rush hour crowds.  Within days, he’d made himself at home in my subconscious and become a fictional figure – Werner Nehmann – who siezes Last Flight to Stalingrad on the first page and never lets go.  Werner’s real name is Mikhail Magalashvili.  He’s Georgian, he comes from Svaneti, and he makes a special friend of the evil genius of the Third Reich, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
Did Werner Nehmann ever kill any one?  And was he partial to plum brandy?  Read on....