To Run Like a Rabbit, You Need Balls

Оповідь українською

Story by Marichka Melnyk

Illustrated by Iryna Lysenko

“Hey, Nastia! Where are you? Why don’t you answer?

[angry emoji]

Masha and I are already here!”

Two young women holding umbrellas waited in front of the monument of a cannon near the Kyiv Arsenal metro station, shifting from foot to foot in an effort to keep warm. One of them, her fair hair gathered in a bun, was wearing a mint-green bomber jacket, pale gray flared overalls, and yellow Wellington boots, with a canvas bag emblazoned with the slogan “Book is my superpower” thrown over her shoulder. She had just posted a message on the “girls chat” and was now pulling her phone out of her pocket every two or three seconds to check if she had received a reply. The screech of car tires, the blaring of horns, the drumbeat of rain on the open umbrellas, and sloshing footsteps of passers-by on the wet asphalt created such a cacophony it was easy to miss the sound of the Telegram notification.

Meanwhile, her companion — in a long pale purple dress, a blue jean jacket, and white sneakers — was keeping her distance. To avoid her friend’s simmering annoyance, she was counting out the paces of the stone platform the monument rested on while she waited. With a transparent walking cane umbrella and an oversized handbag draped across her wrist, she looked like a modern, upgraded Mary Poppins. Albeit one thing distinguished her from the fairy-tale nanny who was known for her neatness — her hair. The humidity made it so frizzy it stuck out in all directions like the straw on a thatched roof.

The two of them were waiting for a third friend, who — unfortunately — was running late. Eighteen minutes late. So far.

“Wow! Daryna, did you see the memorial plaque was changed?” Masha called out in surprise. She was counting steps for the third time when she saw a new inscription under the cannon.

“On the monument?” Daryna, who had been standing with her back to the monument until then, turned to face her friend and, catching a glimpse of her nod, mumbled, “Yes, it’s been like that for a couple of years already. Or maybe more…” and turned back. Her attention was drawn to the bottleneck of commuters in front of the subway entrance.

Congestion during the evening rush hour at Arsenalna station was nothing new. There are only five turnstiles at this particular Kyiv metro station, and quite frequently some of them don’t work. On top of that, the rainy spring weather was causing people to slow down in front of the glass doors to fold away their umbrellas and put on masks, struggling to keep their bags and briefcases from falling into the puddles. Accomplishing all of this simultaneously was a challenge, and the other commuters, who wanted to get home from work as soon as possible, bore down on them, trying to hurry them along.

“Do you think it works?” Masha ceased her pacing and stopped next to her friend.

“What works?” Daryna asked absentmindedly and, realizing she hadn’t checked her messages for a long time (a minute and a half, in fact), reached into her pocket for the phone.

“This renaming. A cannon was standing here for a hundred years in honor of the organizers of the Bolshevik Uprising and now – BAM!” the woman stomped her foot, accidentally stepping into a puddle, “this same cannon, not changed at all, is now a monument in honor of those who fought against the Uprising…”

Daryna looked up from the screen of her smartphone, but didn’t have time to respond, because the person they were waiting for emerged out of the underpass on their right.

“Let’s go!” With a wave of her hand, a small figure in a black hoodie, black skinny jeans, gray sneakers, and a disposable transparent raincoat, bought, apparently, in the “Everything under 10 UAH” store, beckoned the other two to come along. In a person of average height, the cheap raincoat would probably reach to their knees, but on the newcomer, it stretched all the way to her ankles. The three girlfriends were all the same age, but one would think Nastia, all four feet ten inches of her, was thirty-one years old. Tired of convincing cashiers and bartenders she was no longer a teenager, she always carried her passport with her – otherwise she couldn’t buy alcohol.

“You’re the one who decided what time we should meet,” Daryna began, looking reproachfully at her friend, and Masha finished the sentence, “and yet you’re still late.”

“Wow, you’re finishing each other’s sentences already. I guess you really have waited for too long,” Nastia tried to joke around as they walked together to the pub where they planned to spend the evening.

Leading the way, Nastia swung open the massive oak door and, without looking at her friends, hurried down the stairs of the dark semi-basement. The sweet smell of hops and toasted garlic bread wafted through the air.

“Andriukha! Hey! What’s up? How’re you doing?” Throwing off the hood of her raincoat, Nastia approached the host, who was wearing a surgical mask and greeting the visitors at the bottom of the stairs. She held out her fist, anticipating a fist-bump. Masha and Daryna followed a few seconds later, having stopped in front of the door to shake off the rain and fold their umbrellas.

“Thank you, everything’s fine,” Andriy bumped fists with Nastia, his triple the size of hers. “Good evening,” the man said to her companions. They silently nodded in response.

“Where can we sit?” The women took a couple of steps forward and began looking around. Nastia was searching for a free table, because many of them, if not yet occupied by guests, sported wooden beer mugs with the inscription “Reserved.” The other two were sizing up the place their friend had taken them to.

Photos of football stars, fan scarves with logos of Ukrainian and foreign clubs, flags of different countries, big screen TVs broadcasting the “Sports.UA” channel — the décor did not convey this was a place for intimate conversations.

“Relax!” Nastia caught Daryna’s skeptical look and seeing Masha was a little confused, she mollified them, anticipating their reaction. “There are no matches or fights on TV today, I Googled it ahead of time…”

“I can offer you two options. This one,” Andriy said pointing to a table just below the stairs, “or that one.” The women’s gaze shifted to where he was pointing and Nastia noticed a small table for two in the far corner of the pub. “We can pull up another chair… Well, you called a bit late,” he reacted to Nastia’s silent reproach, shrugging.

“Give us a minute, so we can decide” – the man stepped over to his desk, and Nastia turned to her friends with an inquisitive expression on her face.

“Well… we can sit under the stairs… There’s a draft here, but the table is bigger, and it will be more comfortable for us,” Masha said, trying to give way to a group of men descending the stairs.

“Or even find some other pub,” Daryna said, pressing herself against the wall as it was her turn to let the group pass.

“Good evening! Do you have a reservation? Under what name? Oh yes, here it is! Follow me, please.” Andriy was talking in the background to the new customers, while Nastia stubbornly tried to persuade Daryna to stay.

“No chance!” She snapped, unbuttoning the raincoat and shaking off the remaining drops of rain. “It’s Friday night! Remember? Finding a free table tonight anywhere downtown is as likely as… as…Kyiv Dynamo winning the Champions League.” Realizing her friends didn’t understand this metaphor, Nastia started throwing others at them like snowballs. “It’s like a professional photographer sharing their favorite photo locations” she said, taking off her raincoat, and lightly poked Masha in her side. Masha began fumbling with the buttons of her jean jacket. A wedding ring flashed on her right hand. “It’s like the publisher Folio springing for a high-quality translation…” Nastia continued, grabbing Masha’s wrist and leading her towards the far table.

“OK-OK, I understand!” Daryna interrupted her friend’s monologue, maneuvering between the tables and chairs following her friends who had left her with no choice. “It’s like you coming to a meeting on time,” Daryna tried to get a rise out of Nastia, but she didn’t take the bait.

“That’s right!” With these words the tiny Nastia enthusiastically brought a heavy wooden chair standing unused at an adjoining table over to their table, lifting it as if it was as light as a feather.

Masha walked over to hang up her jacket and umbrella on a coatrack standing against the wall 10 feet away, while Daryna draped her bomber jacket and bag on the back of her chair. As Nastia crumpled her raincoat into a ball, and stuffed it into her backpack, a waitress walked over to their table.

“Hi, Nastia!” The girl grabbed the mask covering her nose and mouth with her long bony fingers, pulled it down, showing her face for a moment, and put the mask back in place.

“Oh, Katia, hi! I see you have a full house. My friends and I could barely find a place to sit. This is Masha and Daryna, by the way…” Nastia carelessly waved her hand in the direction of her companions, at the same time struggling to place her backpack under her seat. It had already fallen three times and wouldn’t remain upright.

“Yes, I think people just missed going out to pubs…” The waitress took out a notebook from the pocket of the black apron that served as her uniform and was cut off in mid-sentence, Nastia impatiently interrupting her.

“We’ll have three pints of Dunkel, please,” she was already rubbing her hands together in anticipation, when her friends began protesting.

“I’d rather have wine. A glass of white, semi-sweet,” Masha said. She pulled a small bottle of hand sanitizer out of her bag, squeezed a few drops of liquid on her palm, and, passing the bottle to the others, rubbed the liquid all over her hands. The air was filled with the scent of strawberries and mint.

“Sorry, we only serve beer. Lots of different kinds of beer. Here’s a QR code on the table, you’ll find our menu there…” Katia was trying hard not to giggle as she explained the menu. Masha looked as if she had been electrocuted: her hair stood on end all over her head like a porcupine, and she had no idea how ridiculous she looked.

“And which light beer would you recommend?” Daryna spoke up, diverting the waitress’s attention to herself. Nastia ended the discussion by answering Daryna:

“Don’t show off! I would never order a bad beer. You’ll like it, I promise! Three Dunkels!” Nastia repeated the original order to the waitress, who nodded in response, wrote down the order, and moved on to the next table, having been called over by other customers. “Thank you, Katia!” Nastia shouted, but her words were drowned out by the background noise of the TVs, the chatter of customers, and the clinking of mugs of beer.

“There’s so much I want to tell you!” Nastia bounced up and down in the chair.

“Yeah, we see how excited you are. So, go on,” Daryna offered from herself and on behalf of Masha. She leaned back in her chair, surrendering to the unstoppable force that is Nastia.

“I flew to Germany. To Berlin, to be exact… Uhmm, is it the 14th today? So, it was more than two weeks ago. In late April, so…”

“I saw you posted a couple of photos on Instagram. How long were you there?” Masha interrupted her friend. She was scrolling on her phone, studying the menu offered by the pub.

“Four days. It was a four-day seminar on PR and communications in the public sector. And it was really cool! I’m so glad I went. I’m still in awe from the experience,” Nastia drummed her fingers on the table, ready to continue without stopping, but she couldn’t.

“How did you end up there? Was it a work trip?” Masha interjected, then went off topic. “Does anybody want ‘kulky-bulky’? It says here they are fried potato nuggets with mozzarella inside…”

“How did I manage to go to Berlin?” Nastia nodded at the suggestion of the kulky-bulky and in a deliberately monotonous and bored tone explained, “I saw the open call, filled out the application, wrote a cover letter, and had an online interview. After I was selected, I took time off and traveled at my own expense, because official business trips abroad are not for us working stiffs.”

“It’s good they even let you go,” Daryna said. Looking over her shoulder, she noticed the pub was almost full.

“Oh, come on, we’re not living in the Soviet Union anymore, are we?” Masha objected without taking her eyes off the screen of her phone.

“Aren’t we?” Daryna turned to her and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

“Ahem!” Nastia cleared her throat theatrically, reminding them of her presence.

“Okay, go on. We’ll be quiet.” The friends looked at each other and simultaneously moved their thumbs and index fingers across their lips as if closing their mouths with a zipper.

“The seminar consisted of several sections. One of them was about using humor, irony and self-irony when communicating with audiences on social media — and that was the best one of them all! We were presented a truly awesome case…” Nastia stopped for a moment to sip the beer the waitress had just put on their table. Masha decided to take advantage of her friend’s silence and order the snacks.

However, as soon as she opened her mouth, a loud screech pierced their ears, caused by the feedback of a microphone placed too close to speakers.

The girls turned to look at the source of the sound and saw three men and a woman actively setting up for a performance about ten feet away near the bar. They were arranging a set of drums and fiddling with the cables from the microphones and amplifier for their electric guitars.

“Oh, great… Live music!” Daryna said through gritted teeth with feigned enthusiasm and gave Nastia a reproachful look. But Daryna’s complaints were like water off a duck’s back to Nastia.

“Yes, every Friday and Saturday,” Katia the waitress said, oblivious to the sarcasm. “So, have you decided?” she shifted her attention to Masha.

“Kulky-bulky, cheese and garlic toasts, marinated pork ears,” Masha recited the list while rubbing her ears that were popping from the unpleasant sound.

“One serving of each, right?” Katia clarified. A network of barely noticeable wrinkles in the corners of her eyes indicated the waitress was smiling widely under the mask. After hearing a “yes” she walked away to place the order.

“Your friend gave me a strange look. Twice.” Masha said, leaning back in her chair.

“Well, of course she did. Your hair looks like a bird’s nest!” Nastia blurted out in response. Ignoring the fact her friend had pressed her lips together tightly, taking offense at her words, Nastia tried to continue with telling her story. But now she had to fight to be heard over the no-name Kyiv band playing covers of the music of the immortal Russian rock trio from the nineties: Valerii Kipielov, Spleen and Zemfira. Songs by Nirvana, No Doubt or Dolores O’Riordan were obviously out of their league.

“So. Almost all of Berlin’s land and underground transport is subordinated to the BVG.” Nastia had to practically yell to be heard by her friends.

“Decipher your Newspeak for us, please. BVG is…?” Daryna asked, surreptitiously watching Masha who was rummaging in her handbag looking for a pocket mirror she eventually found somewhere buried in the bottom of her bag. In response to Nastia’s comment about her hair, the woman tried to smooth it down with her hands; instead of getting better, her hair stuck out even more with the static electricity. Assessing her reflection in the mirror, she decided to gather the mass of tangled hair into a ponytail and end her suffering. With this problem solved, Masha silently went back to drinking her beer.

“BVG is an abbreviation of the Berlin transport company: B-V-G.” Nastia said. “It is owned by the city of Berlin. Like our Kyivpastrans. However, Kyivpastrans only operates above-ground transport. BVG also manages the metro. And over there, as opposed to Kyiv, there are no turnstiles at all. And never have been, as far as I can remember from the seminar. Because from the very beginning a completely different philosophy was put in place. The subway is a service provided by the city, and passengers are customers, not–”

“Potential violators of the law. In fact, all of them are suspicious by default,” Daryna finished Nastia’s sentence, then took a sip of her beer.

At that moment, the pseudo-Kipielov at the bar started wailing, “The siiiiilence is abooooove meeeee, the skyyyy full of raaaaain…” It became even harder to continue the conversation, because half of the pub began to sing the words to the song along with him at the top of their lungs.

“Yes! High-five!” Nastia was glad Daryna understood what she was trying to say and put out her hand for Daryna to high-five. “So, there are vending machines at the entrance to the stations, but nobody checks to see if you’ve actually bought a ticket. The city respects its residents, trusts them, and relies on them to obey the law.”

“We’ll never have anything like that! Our metro is a legacy of the old, closed Soviet system, that saw its citizens as obedient slaves, or worse yet, as criminals who should be sent to the Gulag. That’s why all we can do is replace the old three-foot-high turnstiles with new six foot tall ones…” Daryna’s response was so pessimistic all three of them fell silent and took a few large gulps of beer. “Sorry, that’s Orwell speaking, I’m currently working on a translation…” She tried to make light of her comment by joking, “So — everything you just said, Nastia, could be seen as a verrryyy serious Thought Crime…”

“Wow, and I haven’t even made my main point yet,” Nastia smiled and gestured to the waitress to bring them another round.

“Wait,” Masha spoke up, tired of being quiet. “Are you saying all Berliners always buy tickets?”

“No, not even close. Those who don’t buy them are caught by inspectors who randomly ride different routes. And even with that, their annual loss from ticketless travel is about twenty million euros. But,” Nastia held up her index finger to preempt Masha from commenting. “In Paris, where they have turnstiles, the revenue loss is ninety million! Most likely, the issue is not whether there are any physical barriers like turnstiles, but the fact that there is a certain proportion of people who tend to break the rules…” The singer was belting out endless repetitions of the chorus: “At last I’m freeeee – like that bird flies in the skyyyyy, at last I’m freeeee…” So Nastia turned up her volume.

“And actually, that’s what the case presented at the seminar was about. BVG was exploring how to communicate the problem of fare jumping to its passengers. But they wanted to do it in an understandable way: in simple words, perhaps with humor, without intimidating or accusing those who buy a ticket every time…”

No one paid any attention to them in the noisy pub, except Katia, who chose this moment to approach the table with a large tray in her hands. She deposited the mugs of beer and appetizers on the table and, having overheard part of the conversation, joined in, imitating the stern impersonal voice of the announcer in the Kyiv metro:

“Attention! Dear passengers, we would like to inform you in accordance with the resolution dated so-and-so, the law of whatever-you-call-it, and the something-or-another code, we call a curse down upon you…” Nastia, Daryna and Masha burst out laughing, “…and if we catch you without a ticket, you’ll be lynched!”

“No, it wasn’t like that at all,” Nastia had to sit forward in her chair and almost shout for the women to hear her. “As luck would have it, the BVG was tagged under a video where a young guy boasted about his accomplishments, writing something like ‘See how cool I am! I’m riding the subway for free. Ha-ha-ha!’ The metro’s communications people commented under the post, writing ‘To be a rabbit (a fare jumper) you need balls!’”

“To be a rabbit (a fare jumper) you need balls!

By some strange coincidence, it was at this exact moment the band sang its last chorus of “I’m freeee” and the music abruptly stopped. In the unexpected pause, Nastia’s “balls” rang out so loudly about half of the pub’s customers turned to look at the table where the girls were drinking beer, wondering what the meaning of the unusual toast was.

Katia was the first to act: she picked up the empty mugs and scampered off toward the kitchen. Daryna giggled, smothering her laughter with her hand. Masha blushed and turned away to face the wall. Nastia was the only one who calmly reacted to the few seconds of unwanted glory. She sat straight up in her chair and looked around defiantly, conveying to those who had turned to look at them she was not ashamed of having yelled out the word “balls.”

The customers’ interest in the girls faded as quickly as it appeared. The crowd’s attention was drawn to the improvised stage, where the inexplicable phrase “She chews sugarless gum” blared through the speakers. Daryna and Masha started eating their kulky-bulky, and Nastia continued telling her story.

“Most people thought it was funny. The BVG’s comment got way more likes from social media users than the video itself. But the BVG didn’t stop there. The rabbit was fined for not paying the fare. What’s even more interesting is if he’s caught again, he’ll face up to a year in prison, because not paying a fare is considered a crime in Germany. By respecting passengers, the BVG also expects respect in return.”

“A bit much, I think,” Masha said.

“I don’t think so,” Daryna piped in, shaking her head. “That kind of policy is entirely in line with the theory of broken windows, when you face charges for minor violations to prevent other, perhaps more serious, crimes they may provoke. The windows are repaired in order to reduce theft.”

“I can imagine the scandal if the Kyiv metro wrote something about balls,” Masha added, chewing a mozzarella ball and mulling over the story. She stumbled a little when saying “balls” and muttered it in a softer tone.

“I agree! But it turned out to be OK in Berlin. Huge banners appeared at the metro stations after a while. They showed two men dressed like Conchita Wurst. Remember the Austrian drag queen from Eurovision 2014? And next to them a caption read ‘To be a rabbit, you need balls! And 60 euros’.”

“And how did people react to that?” Masha continued her cross-examination, now munching on the garlic toast.

“It varied. BVG claims 95% of the reviews were positive. Although there were also some complaints. Some people didn’t like the photo. However, BVG has been a member of the Alliance Against Homophobia for about ten years. So, any accusations on that front missed their mark. Some critics pointed out the humor could have an opposite effect, daring potential violators to act. But that kind of effect would be impossible to trace.” Nastia stopped her monologue to take a sip of beer and grab at least one garlic toast before Masha polished off the whole serving. “But, now there are rumors the slogan will be abandoned. So as not to offend anyone. ‘To be a fare jumper’ in German translates to ‘schwarz fährt’. Literally something like ‘black rider’.”

“Hold that thought, I’ll be back in a minute to tell you how I was a rabbit the other day,” Masha pushed back her chair, squinted around the room in search of a sign with the letters “WC” — vital information when drinking beer — and spotted the door at the opposite end of the pub and walked towards the bathroom.

“Did you hear that?” Nastia leaned toward the table, speaking in a conspiratorial tone. “Our Masha said the word ‘balls’,” and fell back in her chair with a flourish, laughing out loud.

“Yeah!” Daryna tried to skewer a piece of the pigs ears cut into thin strips with a long yellow plastic toothpick. “She didn’t say it as boldly and brashly as you did, but I agree: this is progress.”

“And she didn’t ask her husband to let her go out today, like she usually does, but let him know she ‘will be late’. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw it in the chat when we were making arrangements to meet. Someone put a spell on her…”

“That’s all Bill Gates and his microchips!” Daryna shot back.

“100%!” Nastia confirmed, laughing.

At this point Masha returned to the table and the joking repartee broke off. The determined expression on Masha’s face when she flopped into her chair signaled the story she was about to tell would be interesting.

“Well, go on! We are waiting for your ‘Two Minutes Hate’,” Daryna said, once again channeling Orwell, and was bouncing in her chair with anticipation.

“I’m not sure I can fit it all in two minutes,” Masha said suggestively, and took a few sips of beer not to have to pause in the middle of the story to drink her beer. “Here it is. The day before yesterday I had an evening photo session. As always, I packed all my stuff in my backpack. Camera, tripod, a few lenses, spare batteries, flash drive, selfie stick, light reflectors…” she was counting the items on her fingers as she was naming them until she ran out of fingers. Her friends nodded along, sipped their beer and not interrupting. “A blanket, a compact raincoat, mini first aid kit, a needle and some thread, superglue, tissues, a cosmetic bag with a basic collection of makeup, a bottle of water, five granola bars and a pack of gummy bears. Well, you get it! Columbus packed less when he set out in search of India.” At this point in Masha’s story, Daryna had already rested her chin in her left hand, and Nastia started clinking her nails on the glass tapping out a steady rhythm. “Anything can happen during a photo session. You can’t anticipate all the possible problems, but I’m always ready for a torn button, a broken nail or a subject’s bad mood because of a missed breakfast. Although you can’t fill up from a granola bar, you can stave off hunger. And gummy bears, which suddenly appear out of nowhere, somehow can bring out a smile on even the gloomiest of faces.”

“Stop!” Nastia was the first one to lose patience. “I think Columbus here is sailing off course. Stay closer to the shore.”

“So, I put the heavy bag on my shoulders, a baseball cap on my head, a fanny pack with my phone and wallet around my waist, and sandals on my feet. I wandered over to the tram stop. I had planned my time out in advance. The sun sets at 7:50PM. To capture the golden hour, you need to start the photo shoot at about 6:30PM. I agreed to meet with the client at 5:45PM at the site. By the way, I found a great location on Trukhaniv island!” Ignoring the rolling of her friends’ eyes, Masha waved her hands in the air front of them, imitating the ravines and a path snaking between them. “It’s incredibly beautiful there now, as the slopes are covered with grass like a carpet…”

“This is sure taking a long time,” it was Daryna’s turn to spur Masha to move along. “My glass is already empty. Shall we order another round?”

“Should we switch to white wine? Or some light beer?” Nastia winked, teasing, then nodded, and Daryna waved her hand to get someone’s attention.

“What are you drinking?” asked the waiter whose name tag pinned on the left side of his chest read ‘Anton,’ and who had approached them instead of Katia.

“Dunkel. Three,” Daryna replied, handing him her empty glass. “Well, c’mon, go on! Are we at least getting warm?” she prompted Daryna, referring to the children’s game of Hot and Cold.

“The lamp isn’t lit, the calendars lie, and if there’s something you want to tell me – then…” Another hit song sounded from the stage, which was immediately picked up by the choir of customers.

“Be patient!” Masha was a little indignant. Two pints of beer had loosened her tongue and there was no way back. “You’re just making me lose my train of thought… So, you know, it takes me two hours to get to Trukhaniv Island. And I have to transfer to another line. That’s why I gave myself plenty of time, leaving early. I waited for tram №12 that goes from Pushcha to Kontraktova. I boarded and took a ticket out of the fanny pack. One of four I had bought two days before on the same route,” she emphasized. “A lady in a red vest punched it for me. It even made me smile: the holes weren’t the normal ones; they were in the form of a heart – it was so cute! I thanked her, put the ticket back in my fanny pack, and sat down in the only empty seat at the back of the tram. The door creaked shut and we moved on. I sat there breathing in my favorite aroma of fuel oil and admiring the sparks cascading down from the overhead electric wires, just like sparklers on New Year’s Eve.” Then Masha turned sideways, grabbed the edge of the table with one hand and the chair with the other, and began to rock from side to side like a boat in a storm. “Priorka, Kurenivskyi Park, Spartak Stadium were flashing before my eyes, while I’m being thrown from side to side with all of the other passengers trying to hold on. I felt like Ellie in ‘The Wizard of Emerald City’ when a hurricane hit her house. Only instead of Totoshka I hugged a backpack with my cameras. It seemed like at any moment we would take off and fly somewhere… How old are those trams and rails? That’s a rhetorical question, I’m just saying…”

“Why is it rhetorical? They’re about as old as the fairy tale you mentioned. I guess you know Ellie is actually Dorothy, and the book was called ‘The Amazing Wizard of Oz’? The Soviet author simply pretended it was his own idea…” Daryna started but bit her tongue when she saw Masha’s frown.

Anton brought three mugs of beer to their table.

“Here’s to the Kyiv tram!” Nastia exclaimed. She and Daryna raised their mugs and clinked for the first time that evening, but Masha did not join the dubious toast.

“I stared out the window watching ravines flickering by before my eyes: one frame, a second, a third … And then my reflection in the window was obscured by a shadow. I didn’t even manage to turn my head to look what was blocking the light, when a deep male voice asked, ‘Your ticket, girl!’ assaulted my ears.” As the confidence in Masha’s voice began diminishing with every word, her friends realized she was finally getting to the point. “I missed the moment when the inspectors had gotten on the tram and were checking the other passengers’ tickets before they came up to me.”

“Are you sure they were real inspectors?” Nastia asked cautiously.

“Yes, they wear uniforms now: smoky-grey trousers and T-shirts with blue stripes on their chests and forearms with the word Kyivpastrans written on them and a branded patch on the left pocket. Two men and a woman. They looked like they were well past fifty years old. The inspector showed me her ID later. There was a photo from the time of her ‘long forgotten youth’ as my mother likes to say,” Masha said.

“It’s good they can be identified now. When we were students… Wait, is it fourteen?” Daryna asked, narrowing her right eye in thought, and did some arithmetic from elementary school in her head: 2021-2007 = ? “Yeah, fourteen years ago, when we entered the Academy and some of us had to travel from Pechersk and the others from Troieshchyna all the way to Kontraktova, it was difficult to distinguish an inspector from a conman. And I can’t explain why, for some reason, it never occurred to anyone to demand an ID card or ask for a receipt: you bowed your head guiltily, reached for your wallet, scraped up and handed them half of your scholarship money and were glad you weren’t kicked off the tram halfway to your destination. And then you mulled over whether you had paid a fine or was it something else… these kinds of pleasant memories need to be drowned out as soon as possible,” and, without waiting for anyone else, Daryna gulped down the rest of her beer.

“And what’s more, it was hard to distinguish inspectors from 90s-style small-time crooks! They looked exactly the same — guys in Abibas sneakers (a Ukrainian knock-off), worn-out leather jackets full of holes, and baseball caps on their heads, who would follow women walking alone on quiet streets and…” Nastia didn’t need to continue.

The girls’ imaginations painted the rest of the picture: a tough-looking guy dressed the way Nastia described, smoking Prima no-filter cigarettes, leans his back against a news stand. He slowly slides his appraising gaze over the passers-by, some in pairs, some in larger groups, skimming past them all, until he spots a lone well-dressed woman from Kyiv sporting an elegant handbag rhythmically swinging on her elbow in sync with her steps. The man waits for a few seconds, scratching his forehead with the same hand holding the cigarette. Then, the butt of his cigarette pinched between his yellowed fingers, black dirt caked under his fingernails, he lowers the cigarette down to his lips and takes the last long deep drag. He pushes himself off from leaning against the stand and, as if signaling someone with the gesture, he flicks the cigarette butt to the curb, exhaling a cloud of smoke. Pulling his cap down low on his forehead, he shoves both hands deep into the pockets of his leather jacket and follows the woman, carefully keeping at a distance of ten to fifteen paces behind her. As he walks, he peels sunflower seeds and throws the shells into the wind. Two minutes later while passing by an archway with chipped walls connecting two pre-revolutionary buildings and serves as the entrance to a courtyard, the man puts his thumb and index finger together, raises them to his mouth and gives a quick and shrill whistle, attracting the attention of his accomplices hanging around in the archway. At this point everything happens very quickly. He catches up with the woman before the next turn, and as if by accident bumps into her and shoves her off the sidewalk. He and his three friends surround her, a few threats are made, a small push, grabbing hands; all-in-all, 30 seconds later she continues her journey without her handbag, coat, and jewelry, which she gave up to her new acquaintances practically without a struggle.

“Exactly!” Masha brought her friends back to reality, tightly squeezing the handle of the beer mug. “Although I do not approve of rabbits and dodging fares in any way and, for the record, I – unlike some of those present,” she took turns pointing her finger at each of her friends, who then lowered their eyes with feigned guilt, “always, always paid the fare, still that kind of behavior by the inspectors is not at all acceptable!”

Putting aside her beer and ignoring the commotion in the pub, Masha plunged headlong into the story of the day-before- yesterday’s confrontation in the tram, as if reliving the experience.

“Your ticket, girl!” A stocky man with slicked back, graying hair, a few days’ growth of stubble on his face, big hairy hands, and patches of sweat under his armpits had spread in semicircles onto his crumpled T-shirt loomed over her.

“Here it is,” Masha unzipped her fanny pack, took out the ticket, showed it to the inspector and automatically started to put it back into her pack. She was sure all of their communication would be over in a few seconds. In the past, she had always silently showed her student travel or punched ticket – and goodbye, baby!

“Stop! Show it to me again,” the Yeti in the Kyivpastrans uniform commanded. The first thing that came to Masha’s mind was the inspector’s attention was drawn to the shape of the punch hole made by the conductor. A heart instead of the usual round holes. A small thing, but it certainly puts a smile on your face. Like the gummy bears she always has for her clients. However, who knows: what if the hearts are a violation of the rules? Masha assumed the admissible sizes and configurations of holes are probably defined in some regulations or instructions. And snowflakes, Christmas trees, bears or hearts are definitely not listed there.

But what happened next took her completely by surprise.

“It’s a fake,” the man said with undisguised pleasure, peering more closely at the ticket. These words made Masha jump out of her seat, knocking her backpack off her knees. She turned a bright shade of red and was rendered speechless for a couple of seconds. Meanwhile the inspector was as pleased as the cat that got the milk.

“That’s impossible,” she repudiated the accusation when the shock eased a little. The thought she was being deceived crept into her head.

“No, it’s true,” the man’s colleague, a stout woman with a dyed brunette bouffant hairdo and blue eyeshadow extending all the way to her eyebrows, piped in. She had already inspected her section of the tram and joined her colleague to confront the newly found rabbit, physically blocking the aisle to deny her any opportunity to get away without paying the fine. “Here, look at this.” Without the usual niceties, she stretched her claws with chipped nail polish toward the passenger standing next to her holding the handrail, and perfunctorily barked “May I?” and snatched his ticket out of his hands to show it to Masha.

Masha’s hands were sweating from nervousness, and she had trouble focusing her eyes:

“They look the same,” Masha said, trying to spot the difference between the two small pieces of paper in the palm of her trembling hand.

“No!” The female inspector bellowed.

“They look the same!” Masha insisted, as the game of ping-pong continued.

“No!”

“You’re trying to trick me!” Masha accused.

“Take a closer look at the inscriptions. It says ‘Kyivkabulanabis’ on your ticket instead of ‘Kyivpastrans’ and the font is slightly different. But the most important thing is the security strip. This silver one, at the bottom. What does it say here? ‘Authentic’ and in even tinier letters ‘Ukrspetspolihrafia’. Is it there on yours? No! It’s a fake!”

Confused, Masha looked at the two tickets: the real one and hers with a heart. She took out three more tickets from her fanny pack: one already used, which she had forgotten to throw away, and two unused ones. It turned out even the serial numbers on them were the same. Forgeries for sure. All doubts evaporated like dew in the morning sun.

“For the future — always check the strip, it is impossible to forge,” the female inspector said in a false soothing tone, while Masha was looking for her jaw that had dropped somewhere on the floor of the tram. After picking it up, her jaw dropped again when she heard what followed. “And now you have to pay a fine for riding without a ticket. Twenty times the cost of the fare, that is: 160 hryvnias,” the woman took the real ticket and with a dry “Thank you” handed it to its owner Masha, who had already managed to move a few steps away.

“Why? I didn’t break any rules. I am the victim here. I paid for the trip. It’s not my fault, I was sold fakes on this same route two days ago. In fact, I was robbed. I had no idea these tickets were forgeries,” the longer the argument dragged on, the more space opened up around Masha. One by one, to move away as far as possible from the “sin,” other passengers hurried to leave the radioactive zone and moved to the front of the tram, where they were now crowded like sardines in a can.

“Yeah. Only that’s not a reason for a free ride.” The third inspector, a subhuman, ape-like man, joined the conversation, taking out a book of detachable receipts from his shoulder bag and rummaging for a pen among the papers stuffed in there.

“And the conductor, punching it, didn’t say anything either,” Masha continued, surprising even herself, still defending her position.

“Hey, leave me out of this! Do you know how many tickets go through my hands in a day? They all look the same to me!” The ‘lady of the tram’ hurried to distance herself from the situation and, pushing her way through the crowd of passengers, also moved to the front of the tram. The short-lived delight she had felt when she punched a heart on the ticket vanished into thin air.

“And to start with: is it written anywhere a passenger should be able to distinguish fake tickets?” Masha rebooted her argument.

“Here we go again…” the inspector sighed. Rolling her eyes, she turned and walked to the railing in front of the steps, giving way to the third person in their group. Now two men loomed over Masha, and the siege certainly did not improve her self-confidence.

“What are you trying to say?” Masha asked, clutching her backpack tightly.

“We are saying, lady, you’re not the first one to try to get out of paying the fine by making us feel sorry for you. It’s like a broken record. Let’s shorten your performance and get to the point. Do you refuse to pay the fine?” The first inspector, who had caught Masha red-handed, was gradually losing his temper.

“Why are you having a discussion with this stupid cow? We’ll take her off the tram at the next stop and sort everything out then!” bellowed the second male inspector, who had been silent until now. He was a scrawny guy wearing a cap with a gold cross half the size of his hand hanging around his neck. It peeked out from under his crumpled long sleeve golf shirt.

Focusing on the story, Masha hadn’t noticed Daryna and Nastia weren’t the only ones listening to her. Their missing-in-action waitress had been standing next to their table for a while.

“I remember five or six years ago; they were barraging us with the message: ‘A new service of polite and friendly inspectors has started working in Kyiv’ at every turn.” Holding the notepad where she writes down the customer orders in front of her, Katia, who had imitated the voice of the Kyiv metro at the beginning of the evening, now pretended to be a news anchor reading from her notes. “A city agency is hiring people who want to be actively involved in the life of their community, who feel inspired and are eager to contribute to improving the quality of transport services…”

“Katia, you should do stand-up comedy, seriously,” Nastia showed her appreciation for the spot-on parody.

“Yeah,” Masha muttered under her nose and reached for her glass of beer to wet her dry throat. “Right. ‘New service,’ ‘actively involved,’ ‘improving quality blah, blah, blah,’” she sarcastically repeated Katia’s words. “And what do we get? The same old crooks in new uniforms.”

“By the way, you’ve just answered your own question about the cannon in front of the metro station,” Daryna said, recalling their unfinished conversation, interrupted when Nastia showed up. “Masha was wondering if the new plaque on the monument could change its essence,” she explained to the others. “So, how did it all end?” Daryna turned back to Masha.

“I had no idea how to get out of this mess. I couldn’t count on any help from the other passengers. Those who hadn’t escaped to a safe distance had glued their eyes to their phones, burying their cowardly heads in the sand like ostriches. And in the end, the prospect of being alone with this trio somewhere on a lonely street and surely being late for my photo session were not pleasant thoughts. While I was wondering what to do and whether the guy who called me a stupid cow was bluffing or not, the tram stopped, the door squealed open – and this jackass grabbed my arm here with his sticky paw,” Masha grimaced in disgust and pointed to her right arm above the elbow, “and yanked me towards the exit. I could barely hang on to the back of my seat. You can’t see it here in the dark, but his fingers left marks…”

Daryna moved her chair closer to her friend and soothingly stroked her back while Masha finished recounting the dialogue between her and the inspector from this motley crew.

“Well, write out your fine, I’ll pay!”

“You’ll pay, alright. You can’t get away. We’ll dial 102 and you’ll tell the cops not only how to be a rabbit, but also about the manufacturing and distribution of fakes…”

“I gave them those stupid 160 hryvnias. The first man, the one who looked like a Yeti, wrote out a receipt and the three of them got off at the next stop.” Masha finally relaxed.

“That’s why I haven’t bought tickets for quite a while now, I use a card or QR codes. Because to deal with such assholes, you need balls this big,” said Katia, still standing at their table, spreading her fingers wide to show how large the balls need to be. She suddenly came to her senses and asked the three women, “Oh, can I bring you something else? I’m going to get in trouble for standing by your table for so long.”

“The bill, please,” Nastia responded. The waitress nodded and headed for the bar. Turning back to her friends, Nastia asserted, “I would not have paid anything. You didn’t forge the ticket. You should have called the police and had them figure it out.”

“Sasha told me the same thing,” Masha twisted the wedding ring around her finger. “Only you weren’t there. And I had a session starting in half an hour! I couldn’t calm down until I picked up my camera and started working.”

Along the way to deliver an order to another table, Katia left the women a wooden beer mug with the bill inside. Daryna and Masha reached for their handbags and Nastia leaned down to get her backpack.

“I read somewhere, in two months from now, on July 14, paper tickets will be officially withdrawn from circulation,” Masha looked at the check, folded her three 100UAH notes in half and put them in the mug. “After all this my first thought was whether it would be better to leave things as they are…” she got up and walked over to where she had hung her jacket.

“But those inspectors won’t simply disappear!” Nastia protested, laying out her share of the bill they had racked up in the pub.

“My mom says no one will listen to me and my complaints,” Masha returned with her jean jacket and umbrella, then sank back into the chair.

“Typical words of a person with the syndrome of learned helplessness. The Soviets instilled it in our parents,” Daryna interrupted, checking if the bill reflected the correct number of beers before adding the rest of the money.

“One day she’ll talk herself into a position where no one will need her.” Masha snapped bitterly. “But I will still write a complaint to Kyivpastrans: about fake tickets sold by their conductors and inspectors who are engaged in extortion.”

“Absolutely, right! Storm that Bastille!” Nastia exclaimed.

“Sounds like a toast,” Daryna and Nastia raised their glasses, with a bit of Dunkel still sloshing about at the bottom. And this time Masha joined them.

Other stories written by Marichka Melnyk

Other stories illustrated by Iryna Lysenko

Subscribe to The Arc!

Subscribe to The Arc today and you will have access to three extraordinary stories every month.

MORE FROM №2: