Galina never turned up.
I had landed in Saint Petersburg on a whim. I had work in Moscow, but it ended earlier than I imagined. Nothing important waited for me in Washington. I bought a ticket online and boarded the train for Saint Petersburg.
I had successfully located a copy of New York Times, the only daily I considered worth reading, in a Moscow newsstand, and now was a good time to read it. I had hardly reached the fifth page when there was an interruption. In a curious accent.
“Excuse me,” said the person sitting next to me, pointing to the other sections of the voluminous newspaper on my lap.
“You read English!” I said in surprise, redundantly, before adding, “By all means.” I passed her the bulk of the paper.
Now I noticed, for the first time, the person seated beside me. A young woman, in a yellow summer dress, her chestnut hair in a casual bun, a large black bag perched on her lap.
“You will ask these sections when you finish your section, right?” she asked. I nodded.
She wanted me to explain something in the science section about gene therapy. My science is worse than basic, and on medical innovations my ignorance is abysmal. I read the part that eluded her and tried to throw some light.
I must have said something stupid, for she laughed. It was a gentle, quickly-smothered laugh, but the meaning wasn’t lost on me. I confessed to being lost amid such therapeutic wizardry, when she divulged that she was a doctor. A pediatrician, with a special interest in medical oncology.
That is how our conversation started. By the time we arrived in Saint Petersburg, four hours later, we were friends. Galina was her name.
We had a wonderful stretch of two days in a city that I loved. Saint Petersburg is a charming city, redolent of history and studded with beautiful edifices. The companionship was even more charming. In spite of the fact that her English was limited and my Russian non-existent.
She had taken leave from her hospital, but told me that if an emergency came up, she could be called and she would leave. She had added firmly that her patients had to come first – always. Fortunately, no emergency occurred.
For two days she was the ideal guide for a charming city. She was knowledgeable, she knew the town inside out. And she loved it, its little streets and gorgeous palaces, its winding canals and soaring towers, its busy boats and charming, ubiquitous cafés. She was tireless, trying to show me all that I should see and admire, and fall in love with whatever she already loved. My legs would give way, but not her enthusiasm. With a stop for a quick aperitif, she would guide me to the next museum, the next fountain, the next historic site.
Then, unexpectedly, she narrated the story of a fire that had broken out in a children’s school in her village to the north of St Petersburg and how, as an untrained student volunteer, she had assisted the young local doctor trying to save the burnt children. Some died of smoke inhalation, but the others died painfully of their burns. She never forgot the young doctor’s futile effort to save the children and his agonized remark that he had neither the resources nor the training to save the ones that could have been saved. That was when she resolved to be a pediatrician. She struggled relentlessly to gather the money for her tuition, until the lucky day she won a government scholarship.
On my last night we took a boat ride along the Neva river and the many canals of the city. It was spectacular, for the many remarkable homes, palaces and historic buildings are on the embankments, often lit up gloriously in the summer nights. The day had been warm, but the evening was cool, made cooler by the river breeze. I saw her copper hair flying in the breeze, and, at one time, put out a hand to catch her scarf that was about to fly away. It was a wonderful leisurely voyage.
Our time together had run out. I thanked her, and she hugged me. I was about to say goodbye, but she said she would come the next morning to meet me in front of the Mayakovskaya metro station, near my hotel, whence I intended to leave for the airport.
I waited at the station expectantly. I wanted to see Galina again.
I waited and waited. Galina did not come.
Maybe she had an emergency or a patient that had to come first.