The only light in the cab came from the digital clock. There were no streetlamps outside, only the head lights and the white lines whizzing into view and past us. I spent most the night transfixed and concerned by Charmin’s drooping eyelids. They looked painfully heavy, bulging over his eyes. His head was nodding forward, his chin almost on the steering wheel. Blood-shot eyes squinted out into the darkness. My head would loll every so often, my brain thirsty for sleep, but I’d snap back upright again, in panic, as if it were me driving.
We stopped at a truck stop cafe every couple of hours through the night and drank tea. Tea is serious business in Azerbaijan. When parents are arranging matchmaking for their offspring, for example, the tea tray is a good indication of the state of negotiations. If it’s served without sugar, more negotiating needs to be done. But the sweeter the tea, the greater the interest in the wedding.
The tea on our journey tasted sweet enough to arrange 1000 weddings. Served in a pear-shaped glass, it was always drank with a fistfull of sugar cubes. Charmin and his friends would pop a sugar cube in their mouth, chew it a couple of times, before taking a swig of tea. Every gulp of tea would be preceded by a new sugar cube so they’d end up eating four or five sugar cubes every glass of tea, at least. In Kazakhstan, the copious quantities of sugar with the tea was claimed to combat the cold. The Azerbaijanis, however, claimed that the sugar helps them stay awake. My conclusion is that people like sweets, however they want to justify it. I just wished that Charmin had something a bit stronger than a tea and some sugar to help him stay awake. A line of speed, a redbull, a coffee, even a few slaps would have made me feel more confident.
As our journey went deeper into the night, Charmin’s blinks grew longer and heavier, his eyes smaller and his chin ever closer to the steering wheel. It was both impressive and torturous to watch but, just like the flames of Yanar Dag, Charmin’s focus remained inextinguishable.
At 3.30 am we stopped for a fish supper and swapped lorries. We said goodbye to Charmin and joined Rafeal who, it turned out, was driving all the way to the border. Rafael was a bald, portly man with a moustache like a carwash brush. He was a lot more gregarious than Charmin and we communicated a lot more with him, despite what time it was. By now Michael and I weren’t even surprised at how much of a conversation you can have with someone without sharing a word of each other’s language.
We arrived at a car park, in Balakan, 12 km from Georgia, at around 5am. Rafeal slumped over his steering wheel which we assumed meant that it was time for sleep.
Michael was in the back of the cab and I was in the passenger seat. The sun hadn’t come up yet. The tiredness gnawed at my nerves and I could feel shooting pains going up and down my back, having sat in the same position for the last 10 hours. I put my head against the cold window and looked at the colours of the early morning, too bright, like in a cartoon. I could feel grumpiness in my bones and I tried to shake it off. My skin felt sensitive and every sound was an irritation to me. Michael yawned a wide, open-mouthed yawn behind me. The last few seconds of the yawn brought forth a series of creaks and cracks from his throat, like someone was choking a baby dolphin.
I’m not proud of what I’m going to say next but when you’ve spent most minutes of most hours of most days of a year with someone, and if you are chronically tired, then a very small and innocuous thing from that person can set you off. I reminded myself that I loved him and my feelings were being contaminated by my discomfort. Michael knew me better than anyone else in the world and I, him. He was like a brother, but more than that. Brothers don’t choose each other, they’re born into their relationship; in any case, they don’t spend that much time with each other, except for twins in the womb but even that is only 9 months. We’d spend everyday together for 11 months, the last 80 days of which had been hitchhiking.
Michael yawned again. Wider and louder than before and I shuddered. Its only a dam yawn! I screamed in my mind. Michael, of course, was oblivious to my annoyance and think even if I’d turned around and told him to stop yawning like a squeaking dolphin he would have quite rightly told me to fuck off. I reminded myself that he too will certainly have been driven crazy numerous times by my plethora of bad habits. To take my mind off things, I turned my attention to Rafeal, slumped against his steering wheel, trying to get some much needed sleep after his long drive. I realised just how benevolent his actions had been. It would have made life so much easier for him to drop us off when we arrived at 5 am. He could have gone and booked in somewhere to sleep. But instead he had chosen to wait with us, so we could benefit from the warmth of his cab, until the border opened. The reverence I felt for this stanger’s kindness improved my sprits.
I reminded myself of how lucky I was to have Michael with me, how this experience would not have been possible with anyone else, how I certainly couldn’t have done it alone. I smiled as a renewed sense of love for my friend glowed inside me. But then he yawned again and I nearly jumped back there and strangled him with his seatbelt.
“Rich… Rich…Rich…” Michael spluttered. I was choking his neck as if I were changing the fixture on a pipe, a Jack Torrance look of deranged joy on my face.
“You’ve yawned your last yawn!”
I woke up
Michael was gently shaking my shoulder. I must have dropped off at some point, if but for a few minutes.
“Wake up, Rich. Time to go.”
“I was having the most wonderful dream,” I said.
Rafael was awake too and we said our goodbyes.
It was a cold morning and we were shivering and hungry. My spine felt like it had been used to floss a stegosaurus. Despite the cold, it felt good to be outside and moving again. We waved off the taxis that tried to offer us a ride and eventually they left us alone until all I could hear, marching through the town towards the border, was the sound of our footsteps and our teeth chattering.