“Do you want me to change it?”
I was sitting in a crowded pub on a Friday night with a well-done steak lying in front. A woman I met less than half an hour ago was leaning towards me, a maniacal glint in her eye.
“Do you want me to change it for you?” – she repeated. “What is it, well-done?”
I finally mustered a response, pulling myself out of my limbo state. “Yes, it’s definitely well-done. And I said I wanted it medium-rare”.
“Give it here” – she said decidedly, rose from the couch and disappeared into the crowd.
This capped an already eventful day, which started some 10 hours earlier when I woke up looking forward to my last day at work on December 23rd. It seemed nobody else was working that day, going by my Twitter feed. Or almost nobody else.
Guys over at Sky Sports definitely were, though, covering press-conferences ahead of Boxing Day football. They also went to club Christmas events for kids. I was assigned to accompany a reporter to Tottenham’s training ground. Which would have been alright, were I not an Arsenal fan.
Me recapturing the day was interrupted by Zak, who was sitting to my right. “So, what brings you to Surbiton?”
“Studies. Want to do a journalism degree, so here I am”.
“You look smart for a day at uni”.
I smiled. “Actually was at work today. Doing work experience before going back home for the break”.
“And where would home be?”
I don’t know what it is that mentioning my country brings about in foreigners. Actually, I do. Most view it through a prism of the media, and it’s like looking through a broken glass. But then we are all victims of stereotypical thinking, only the degree varies. My new-found mate was no exception to the rule.
“It is cold there?”
“Generally, it’s not.” – I said for what seemed like a 1000th time in the last three months. “However right now it’s roughly -5C. The weather presenters promised something around -30C on New Year’s day. Well, it’s winter.”
“Always wanted to go to Moscow.” – Zak said dreamily. “Been to most big cities, but not Moscow. Heard it’s dangerous there.”
I held back a sigh. In my 23 years of living in Moscow I have never been mugged on the street. Hell, I have never even got in a fist fight. A couple of my party-going friends did, but of their own free will.
“Depends on where you go and who you run into. Most big cities have unfriendly districts.” – I replied diplomatically, not wanting to totally shatter Zak’s perception.
“But Moscow is a European city. With a lot of cafes and clubs. You should go there some day. You’ll like it. I …”
I was interrupted by Tom. “Still, most Russians are crazy. I’ve heard stories about how they treat foreigners”.
I was bracing myself for another battle internally. I knew what would come next: vodka and vile Russian attitudes. Vile racial attitudes, if I’m particularly unlucky. However I was wrong this time.
“Russian guys protect their girls like crazy. You can’t talk to a girl without her boyfriend giving his blessing. You know, even the usual neighbour-to-neighbour chit-chat. Even my Welsh mates aren’t this overprotective. Russian guys are tough. They get into your face straight away”.
At least no mention of vodka. So I decided to thank the guy by batting the implied question away with a joke. Or what looked like a joke to him.
“That’s because Russian girls are the most beautiful in the world!”
He laughed. “True. Though Romanian girls are probably even more beautiful.”
Romanian … “I had a pub at Byfleet. Owned it. A lot of Polish, Romanian, Russian guys would come to the place. So I know a couple of Russian words.”
I inadvertently had a flashback of another guy I met just this evening. In unusual circumstances for me.
“Sorry, I can’t sell you a Guinness. You have to provide ID for that.” – a bartender girl with a pierced lip said.
“Oh, come on. I don’t carry a passport with me. I’m 23. I’ve been served here before.”
“Have you been served today?”
“No, it was a couple of weeks back.”
“I can’t get you a Guinness if I think you look under 21. I’m sorry.”
“This isn’t funny, you know” – I was starting to get angry. I had a long day and I didn’t just want a beer. I needed it.
“I can buy you a drink.” – a voice to my left suddenly said. I turned around to see a balding guy in a Christmas jumper and festive spirits.
My heart rose and fell again. “I don’t have cash on me.” I said dispiritedly, cursing my own forgetfulness to get some from the cash machine. But the guy wasn’t giving up on me that easily.
“It’s Christmas after all. I can buy you a drink. What did he order, miss?” – he addressed the bartender.
I was shaken out of my limbo again. “… party-goers?”
“Sorry?” – I looked guiltily across the table just in time to hear Tom finishing the question.
“I asked whether Russians are all crazy party-goers?”
“Depends. I’m not, but one of my university mates is.” (Or rather, was, I added under my breath. He’s alive and well, don’t get me wrong, just got himself into a steady relationship a couple of years ago.)
“I remember him going to a night-club straight after uni, staying there all night, then going back to uni the next day, without getting any sleep.” I smiled as I said the words. I recalled how he once showed up for legal translation completely unprepared, but surprisingly upbeat about doing a piece on real estate property on-the-fly. But then he was always upbeat, the heart and soul of any company.
“We do that every night.” – Tom said proudly, and Zak nodded his agreement. “We love it. In fact, we stayed up the whole of last night. Though Zak wasn’t upright the whole time.” – he winked at Zak.
“I’m the toughest guy you’ve ever met”. – he replied instantly. “Just ask my mates, they were there too.”
“Of all your mates you are the least tough” – Jac’s voice proclaimed unexpectedly from my left. I nearly jumped in surprise.
The next moment Jac entered my line of sight, a handful of cash clenched in her first. “I had to fight for you, Alex, you know. The manager put up a fight.”
“What did he say?” – I was still processing how a woman of her frame and age could win such a fight.
“That the steak was still cooking while lying on the plate. That they made a medium rare one, but by the time you started eating it, it turned well done.”
I just laughed. So much for a steak on a Friday night.
“But I couldn’t get them to make another. Only the money back”. – Jac said somewhat dejectedly. “So I guess I robbed you of a dinner.”
I downed the last drops of Guinness and picked up my coat. “They probably would have messed up another steak too.” – I said calmly. “I’d rather have a proper meal elsewhere.” I stood up.
“Are you sure you are alright? There’s a hotel next door, they serve …”
I cut her mid-phrase. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll figure it out. Have a very merry Christmas. And thank you.” I smiled for one last time, opened the door and stepped out into the rain.