ONLY after our plane took off from Leningrad did we realize that we still had with us a parcel of presents meant for our friends left behind in the beautiful city they all call Peter. We would have to post it to them from Moscow. As our Intourist bus drove away from Moscow airport, another discovery began to dawn on us: We were not heading as usual for the vast, ugly Belgrade Hotel with its scuttering cockroaches and countless scrabbling tourists. Instead we went wheeling on through the city, along the banks of the Moscow River, finally stopping opposite the mooring stage of the cruise ships Esenin, Gogol, and Valeri Brusov. Every hotel in Moscow was booked, overbooked, with conferences and tourists - there was only room for us out here.
Our fellow voyagers grumbled: What right had Intourist to dump us so far from the center? For our part, the longer we lived in the peaceful watery kingdom of the Valeri Brusov, the more we took to it. From our cabin we looked out on ducks paddling past, while sea gulls shrilled and swooped. Beyond lay willows where autumn mists twined, high grassy banks, woodlands, and farther still the Park of Friendship. On our first morning we were booked for a tour of the Kremlin and the Armory - there would be ampl e time before then to find a post office and send off our parcel.
We walked through the Park of Friendship, past silver birches, flower beds massed with roses, asters, and feathery gray rue. Hooded crows cawed, robins sang, children held out their hands to tame red squirrels that scampered down from the trees for nuts. Beyond this tranquil setting we found the nightmare landscape of the outskirts of all great cities - towering high-rise blocks, not a leaf, not a tree to be seen, only incessant traffic roaring along, and tense, unsmiling Muscovites hurrying past dreary shops. At least there was a post office.
Inside, it was even drabber than without. About it hung a musty, rancid smell of ink and glue, of grime and human misery. A long queue straggled at the counter while behind it a solitary lugubrious woman wearing dingy overalls dealt with customers. Pale as a cellar-grown mushroom, she might well have been born there, would spend all her days behind the counter, and finally perish under it, suffocated by lack of air.
We took our place at the tail end of the queue. It was our initiation into the workings of the Moscow mail. First a form was handed over to the comrade postmistress who grimly surveyed it, then the unassuming items, tins of fruit, jars of jam, honey, homemade cakes, tea, childrens' clothing and toys. With ponderous slowness she spread them out on coarse brown paper, weighed, then sealed them. ``Next customer,'' she called out hoarsely. It was like a glimpse into eternity.
At least we created a kind of diversion in the monotony of the system for we were obviously tourists. What tourist ever came here? They were more likely to head for Red Square or the Kremlin. An ancient bearded man was jolted out of silence to mutter ``Terpeniye - patience!'' with an ironic toothless grin.
Two housewives, Tanya and Ludmilla, wanted to know where we came from. Shotlandia - Scotland! The land of Burns and Scott and bagpipes! They would help us fill in our form when it came to our turn. When would that be? ``Next year!'' croaked the old man. ``Next century,'' said a young student. He tried out his English, blushed when we praised his accent. ``Quite no good at all,'' he said, but, encouraged, quoted a Shakespeare sonnet and wanted to give us his place in the queue.
They all began to joke. What else could you do - Shto delat? The phrase ran like a leitmotif through their talk. Hichevo ne podelaesh - there was nothing you could do. You had to laugh if you could.
There arose among us the solidarity of those who wait. Soon everyone knew what was in our parcel - a fur hat, a blue blouse, a mohair scarf, a shawl with a Paisley pattern. How to say that in Russian? We got our dictionary, the student hunted for his. What had they all cost? We had to write it in the form. We couldn't remember. We would invent prices.
By now we had quite given up any idea of visiting the Armory and didn't really care. We had entered a quite new world, full of the revelations that come to you in the most unexpected corners. When at last we submitted our parcel as to some last judgment, the drear-faced woman frowned, stared at it in horror as if it was a lethal weapon. What on earth was wrong with it? ``It is no use at all. You must have a container,'' she said.
It was just then that, like a deus ex machina, Olga Ivanova came to our rescue. All the time this small elderly woman had been watching us with interest, standing beside the queue but not in it, in her shapeless coat and ancient felt hat, obviously a familiar of the post office. ``I will find you a container,'' she declared. ``Keep their place,'' she called to the student, and to us, ``Come!''
We had no choice in the matter. Firmly hooked on to our arms, she swept us out into the street, nodding to acquaintances, delighted to hold two tourists captive under her wing. She talked as if she had known us for years. She was 83, a doctor, her late husband had been one too, a very clever doctor. She might be retired now, but she was still active. We could hardly keep up with her. She freed an arm to wave toward a distant high building - there she lived. ``It is not beautiful, but it could be worse,' ' she said. ``Chto podelaesh? Life is not easy for us but with perestroika it must get better. Terpeniye!''
At the next block she whisked us into a shoe shop. Two small boys, whose mother was trying on felt slippers, were ordered off their chairs by Olga Ivanova. They gaped but obeyed. ``Now you sit,'' she commanded us. She darted off among boots, galoshes, and shoes, vanishing into the back shop. Soon she reappeared, triumphant, holding out a slipper box. ``See, it is the perfect container.'' It was. Into it slipped the fur hat, the scarves, and the blouse. Olga Ivanova ushered us out of the shop with a lofty wave to the boys, their mother, and the unsurprised assistants - they were used to her.
In the post office the queue remained frozen into immobility. Filling in our form with Tanya, Ludmilla, and the student helping became hilarious. The old man kept cackling ``Terpeniye!'' and winking at the post mistress who ignored him. In her daze of hopeless exhaustion, she had become convinced that if we came from Shotlandia, it followed as the night the day that our parcel must be heading in the same direction. An agonizing prospect of new forms for Britain, Scotl and, worse still, for a small country village, rose up before her, form upon form, reaching out into infinity. When we reassured her - ``Look, our parcel is to Peter!'' - relief creased her weary face into the nearest it could come to a smile.
For years we had been reading satirical tales of life in Russia by Voinovich, Shukshin, Abramov, Bulgakov, Zoshchenko - now we had the impression of having lived in them. Since Gogol's Dead Souls began it those writers have described the monotony of life, the appalling bureaucracy, the red tape, petty officialdom, the humor that survives in spite of it all. The weighing and wrapping of those pathetic parcels in their drear cocoon of brown paper assumed an awesome splendor, became a symbol of Russian pat ience. Future generations might benefit from the shaking of the foundations; the present one must wait. In the meantime, they still could laugh.
We shook hands with the student and the old man, hugged Tanya and Ludmilla. Olga Ivanova refused to be separated from us, we were her property. She would say farewell more fittingly in the Park of Friendship. Oh yes, she assured us, she had plenty of time on her hands.
There was a flower stall in the market near the metro station of Rechnoi Vokzal. We told Olga that we wanted to buy flowers and she entered into magnificent transactions with a fiery-faced flower-seller from Tbilisi.
``She'll not dare cheat me,'' said Olga. The Georgian glared at her as if she knew her of old. ``Too expensive. Wilted, withered,'' Olga exclaimed, prodding at blooms, sniffing roses, turning over the petals of carnations. Finally she chose purple and pink asters. ``These ones are fresh.''
``They are for you,'' we said. It was wonderful to see her pleasure. She laid them carefully inside a shabby black bag as if they were precious icons.
We had a vision of the long hours she must spend wandering around the park, in and out of the post office and the shoe shop, refusing to let life beat her. ``I wish you had met my husband,'' she said. ``He could talk English.'' She wanted to go with us as far as the Valeri Brusov, but it was a long walk even for Olga. Instead we took her photograph standing there under the silver birches, composing her face into a smile.
``Things will get better in our poor country, in our great country,'' she said proudly. ``We need to have patience - but something else too,'' she added with an indomitable gleam in her eye, ``Nadezdha - hope.''
We lingered to see her walk off toward the wilderness of high-rise blocks that was her home. As she went, turning every now and then to wave, we felt that we were watching a figure representing not only Russian fortitude but hope.