Rumour

Simon McBurney's new play, A Disappearing Number, runs at the Barbican Theatre from 5 September to 6 October.

Who you hear it from

So keep your head down, murmurs my brother. We will be the only ones on this route. Probably among the first Westerners since glasnost.

Fine.

No, really.

I believe you.

And Tashkent is no picnic either. They're unafraid of anyone. In 1987 Andropov sent two Soviet agents down there to check what was going on. A week later he received two round brown parcels. Inside were their heads...

I look at him.

How do you know?

Heard about it when I was in Moscow, he replies. From the people I came out here with. I am sure it is true. It is a question of who you hear it from.

He looks out of the window.

And somewhere over there are the Soviet nuclear tests sites. Apparently they let off more than four hundred. And never told the tribal peoples in the area. People there with three heads.

I squint at him. Since we were children he was my chief source of facts and information. Although sometimes he exaggerates, I believe him.

We are travelling from Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, to Tashkent in Uzbekhistan. By bus. It is 1994. The route runs along the northern edge of the Himalayas and on our right is the steppe of Kazakhstan. 24 hours driving still to go.

Highest incidence of airplane crashes in the world, said Jos, it's well known.

Before I left to come here, he'd shown me a news item: "Tajik Air Yak-40; taking off from Khorog in Tajikistan; departing for Dushanbe. After an unsuccessfully aborted take-off, the aircraft overran the runway and fell into the river. All five crew members and 77 passengers were killed. The Yak-40 is normally configured for 28 passengers."

A successful rumour = believability/originality + fear + status x truth.

* * *

It is snowing when we arrive at Domodedovo, Moscow's internal airport. A crackling, almost inaudible announcement echoes through the vast cathedral-like hall.

Incomprehensible, I say.

Of course, replies my brother, you don't speak Russian.

We listen.

About littering, he says. And we continue to cast about to try and work out where we go to wait for our plane to Alma Ata.

Mongolian women squat huddled between big plastic-covered bundles tied with brown string. Their skirts form bowls to catch cracking nuts that tell of a long wait. Men are cleaning knives. Children run between them. Dogs too. Someone is selling very old fruit. They are queuing. How long they have been there is anyone's guess.

Days, says my brother.

The departures board features no information, everything is conjecture.

This way!

Why?

Because there is a sign saying "foreigners this way".

Ah.

We enter a doorway. Our passports are scrutinized. There is an endless delay to get to a waiting room where there is nothing.

Soon be on the plane.

When is soon?

Anytime in the next eight hours.

You sure there is a plane?

Yes. The man next to me. He's from China. He is convinced there is one. He heard it from an official. It's not what you know, it's who you hear it from.

Right.

I close my eyes. I hope it is not a Yak-40.

We are going to Alma Ata for a new music festival. My brother, a composer, is having his music played there. Having lived and studied for several years in the Soviet Union he knows what and whom to believe. And I believe my brother.

Six hours later, half asleep, we run across the tarmac to the plane. In the gloom I become aware of dozens of others. Also running. All carrying their string-knotted loads. The men with boots, the women with headscarves, children, pots and belongings.

Quick! Before they get here.

Where do we go?

Follow me.

We run up a stair in the belly of the plane. Past where all the luggage is stored. People pushing and shoving, some dumping their bundles before stampeding on up to the cabin above.

Go for a seat, yells my brother.

A fight has broken out further down the aisle. There are no announcements. The cabin attendants pay no attention to anyone. Above the noise my brother negotiates to sit next to me. Suitcases on our knees. I lean back and shut my eyes. Hot. I reach up to open the air vent and a swarm of flies hurtles out but no air. I reach for the dinner table slotted into the seat in front. It is attached to nothing and so I put it in the pocket where aircraft magazines are usually held. But the pocket is torn and the table thuds onto the floor. Reaching down, I notice the carpet is worn. On closer inspection I spot there is a hole in the chipboard floor and I can see straight through to the luggage hold.

My brother looks at me. We start to laugh. Out of the window a rickety ladder is leaning against the wing. Out of one of the four engines that are to lift us into the sky sticks a pair of legs. The man appears backwards, jumps onto the ladder and disappears down it holding what looks like an enormous saucepan lid.

Good god.

Against the cold, suggests my brother.

And this is the right plane?

So I was told. I am pretty confident.

I shut my eyes and grip the seat. Not such a good idea as the armrest threatens to detach in the same way as the table.

Down the runway, I am aware of people still standing in the aisles with huge packs of luggage. "The Yak-40 is normally configured for 28 passengers." I am sure somewhere I can hear a goat.

And you are certain there is a music festival?

But my brother is gripping my arm. And as we rush down the runway, the engines roaring louder and louder, I do something I have never done. Something I do not believe in. Something which is more preposterous than the rumour of the miracle at Lourdes... I pray.

* * *

Fly fucker?

Yes flyfucker.

Blimey.

Well it is the direct translation of Mukha Yob. Mukha is fly. Yob is fuck. Often used.

We scream with laughter.

We did not crash. We arrived. And flyfucker brings us to a hotel.

We meet with Dima Yanov Yanovsky and his father Felix. Both Uzbek Jews. Both composers of extraordinarily haunting music. We are there for a week. Four times we go to concerts where we understood that my brother's music would be played. Eventually a Mongolian flautist is found to play his piece for the flute and a small orchestra to accompany it.

Mukha Yob had arranged for us to be driven to Tashkent. In a minivan. But the odds had it that when we'd get out of town we would probably be dumped beside the road. There was one alternative. The bus.

* * *

At four in the morning, my brother and I try to dress inconspicuously. Still it is not possible to reproduce that very special quality of Soviet clothing in which leather is made to look plastic and a coat is cut in way that removes all possibility of discerning the shape of the body beneath. At the bus stop, we feel as inconspicuous as a couple of ferrets in a hen house. For some reason we seem to have huge neon signs over us saying "New Suitcases Bought in London Full of Expensive Shit".

My brother and I shift uncomfortably in the slight drizzle.

Where's the fucking bus? I whisper.

Over there, he replies.

For fuck's sake let's get on it.

We have to wait.

But look at the queue. We'll never get on.

They haven't been speaking to the right people. According to Dima, they are operating a new scam.

How does he know?

He heard it in the bus station. Watch.

I watch as everyone on the other side is handing over money for their places and settling down for a long haul. Half an hour later, the bus moves from one side of the station to the other. And suddenly another driver gets on. He checks all tickets. No one has one as they simply paid the first driver in cash thinking they were jumping the queue. They file off slowly in silent resentment. We slither on. In possession of information someone had not imparted to the people now waiting in the rain with even less money than before.

We are soon out onto the motorway.

I need a piss.

Apparently we will stop.

A group of people beside the road watch us pass. Since glasnost many have gone back to the land. And they believe no one now. More than four hundred tests were made. The British were no better. Three nuclear weapons at Maralinga in late 1957 and they continued to use that range for the so-called "minor trials" until 1963. They told few. The place was left rife with plutonium and beryllium particles. Many aboriginal people must have been obliterated.

Half an hour out of town, about where we would doubtless have been dumped by the minivan driver, we pull into a motorway stop.

Keep a low profile, says my brother, you'll be fine.

It is not what you know it is who you hear it from.

So I wander out into the service station. An immense area of gravel with a vast chaotic shoal of cars. All like our bus with cracked windscreens. All with their engines running. A pall of fuel hangs over us and in one corner I see a huge fire. I shuffle over, discreetly. Half a lamb is stretched out over the coals with skewered meat occupying the rest of the heat. Only men are gathered around this only service in the service area.

As I get up back into the bus I look out over the plain that is beyond the parking gravel. And I see the latest arrivals. Four tribesmen riding up over the grasslands. Their horses trotting, wind blowing their manes. The hats of the riders are wool, embroidered with silk strings, and their jackets are baggy, red, blue, turquoise and yellow. Their reins are loose. 100 yards away from us, from the cars, the bus, the chaos of people around the fire, they stop.

They stop and watch. On their horses.

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