by Nick Sweeney

Sergei was sure that he was the first to see the telephone token on the ground. He took a quick look up and down the street, peopled with lunchtime crowds from the steelworks, to see if anybody else had spotted it. Nobody had, it seemed, but as soon as he bent and enclosed the cold but comforting metal between thumb and finger, a voice said, almost in his ear, ‘Sergei! You found my token.’

He turned, saw his friend Arkady. ‘Arkasha?’ he said in greeting. ‘Yours?’ He rubbed a finger along its edge. He grinned, held the token out, but snatched it back at the last moment as Arkady went to take it.

‘Yes.’ Arkady waved a finger in friendly admonition, signalling his enjoyment and dislike of the joke. ‘And you’ve saved my life. I have an important call to make.’

‘Ah.’ Sergei studied the token, gave it a rub with his thumb. ‘I too have an important call to make.’

‘Gents,’ a voice called. ‘That is, in fact, the token I dropped not one minute ago.’ Their friend Gregor came marching across the street, one hand out, one pulling out a trouser pocket with a hole in it. ‘I was just on the way to the phone to make an important call.’

Despite fixing their eyes on the token, each man somehow managed to look sideways at the others.

‘I’ve not seen you for…twenty years.’ Sergei addressed them both.

He remembered one occasion with Arkady and Gregor as they wagged off school. It was a gloomy day—October, he thought—and there was a hint of the wind that came from the steppes to freeze them all the winter. Each afraid to admit to his unwise choice of choosing to spend the day with the others in this aimless way, they wandered the streets, eating potato chips. They had decided to head for the fields on the outskirts of the town, to see if the travellers, Cossacks or the military were exercising their horses, when a large man in a flowing dark coat had blocked their way. He had asked sternly why they were not at school. He had said, ‘If you don’t go to school, you will be here in twenty years’ time, walking the streets and eating children’s food.’

Sergei was amused at first, and then disturbed, to see that, like him, Arkady clutched a bag of potato chips. He saw that Gregor did, too – of course he did. Each man kept the memory to himself and yet, for a second, it showed in each of their faces.

Where have you been for twenty years, Sergei wanted to say, and why did we lose touch, and what have we been doing, aside from fighting a Great Patriotic War, and doing our part to be vigilant in a state full of fifth-column saboteurs and traitors, and how did we lose one another in this tiny town of no significance?

He had an important call to make, he remembered. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘It was… good to see you.’

‘The token.’ Gregor held his hand out.

‘It’s mine.’ Arkady also held his hand out.

When Sergei went to walk away, those hands restrained him. The warning cry he let out made them flinch, but only for a second. It seemed as if their resolve became stronger. Later, Sergei could not remember the moment it turned into a fight.

With each blow, each cry, each kick, each pull of an ear, each close-up of wide eyes and open mouths, the attentive circle around the three men grew. Even so, Sergei kept seeing one face among that of the granite-jawed steelworkers and their wives; it was a little fat, its eyes small and dark, its expression sad but resigned, and it belonged to the interfering stranger who’d told him, and Arkady, and Gregor, of their fate that day twenty years before. He wanted to call a truce—an interval, only—to ask the other two if they recognised the man, but the moment eluded him, all his breath needed for the fight.

When the business was concluded, Sergei stood tall, the token clutched in his hand, his two friends at his feet, bloodied, bruised, broken, unmoving.

The crowd was silent, even as it parted for two militia officers. They tutted, and shook their heads, and placed handcuffs on Sergei. He knew he ought to make a phone call, but realised that the only people he could have phoned, the only friends he had ever made in his life, through school, the pioneers and basic army training, lay dead below him.

As Sergei was led away, three boys, wagging off school, gathered up the discarded bags of potato chips, and began to eat them, pursued by a chubby man in a voluminous dark coat, his oracular business shining in his eyes.

Nick Sweeney’s stories are scattered around the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his novel of friendship, Poland, snow and vodka, was published by UK indie publisher Unthank Books in 2011. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives in London.