Landing gear

  • 01 September 2017

December 1997

Moscow.

I’m sat in a plane thirty thousand feet above where Sheremetyevo Airport must be.

We’re swooping into what feels like a near-vertical fall.  It’s one at right angles to the earth. We drop through the sky like a stone, leaving my stomach thousands of feet away.  Oh, God, the effect of all that Aeroflot vodka is wearing off. And fast.

I’ve never met the man sat next to me before in my life. Haven’t even looked at him properly until now.

None of that matters anymore; it doesn’t stop me clutching onto his arm now as we fall through the sky. In fact, I’m holding onto him like my life depends on it, though I’ve no idea of his name.

Oddly enough, he seems to be okay with a strange woman gripping onto him like a life-line. And neither of us says anything about what’s happening. We just silently hold onto each other as we plummet.

Other passengers are screaming.

Me, I’m sending up silent prayers to God asking for our safety. I make a wordless pact with myself – if God sees me through this, then I’ll settle down when we get home, maybe even get married.  No more of this foreign malarkey.

Suddenly, abruptly, we skid onto the landing strip. We’ve landed safely. Thank God. I let go of the stranger’s arm. And feel oddly joyful to be alive as we land.

That distinctive smell of foreign cleaning products wafts over to me almost as soon as we land.  

The next ordeal is Russian customs. Nasty, but not life-threatening. Here we face hatchet-faced apparatchiks who look about eight feet tall. Involuntarily, I think of how the Russian intelligentsia were sent to Siberian labour camps. I’m here as a journalist; I’d better check my passport, make sure (yet again) everything is in order.

Maybe I’ve just been watching too much James Bond. But, God, I’m nervous; my knees still haven’t quite landed with the rest of me; it feel like they maybe got left behind somewhere thousands of miles away in the ether.  

The airport is full of shady types. Lots of them are wearing hats, but these are not the fashion statements they will later become for much of Western youth ten or so years later. This is the Wild West. Complete with guns, fur hats and gold teeth.

Are these men wearing guns? No, surely not. I’m so used to law-abiding England. But, Christ, that is a gun. No mistaking it. I don’t know where to look. It’s a cliché, but my blood runs cold.

It’s almost a year since I started as editor of a small magazine about Russia and the other countries she used to run too. Our job is to write about the embattled economies in this part of the world. But, already, crisis has hit. It’s not (yet) headline news back home. But we’re hearing that companies in Russia can’t get hold of money any more – well, not the legal and conventional kind, anyway.

Bankers are too scared to lend to many Russian clients. Things are looking bad in Russia. It’s still almost a year before the country’s financial troubles will become big news in the west. But already firms are having trouble getting hold of money. The banking system is seizing up.

It’s a while before I realize I’m facing a liquidity crisis of my own. One that’s making my central nervous system seize up. Fail to function. The neurons needed to fire messages from my brain to my body are also packing up.

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