The Steps

June 4, 1990.

They left the port and climbed the long flight of steps that lead back to the centre of town. From the bottom, looking up, they appeared to be a single, continuous flight; but in fact, they comprised a series of short flights, separated by broad landings, constructed in a straight line. The landings proved to be a relief for the day was very warm and what started as a desire to find refreshments gradually became a physical need as their ascent progressed. At the top, they paused only for a last look down the steps, where the landings were now clearly to be seen; then crossed Primorsky Boulevard and headed down Karl Marx Street in search of a café.

I don’t know why they passed the first café they came across, considering how thirsty they were; but just before the intersection of Deribaskovskaya Street they found a place that they liked, outdoors, set in a quiet courtyard, away from the traffic. Apart from two young men, probably in their mid twenties, sitting together at one of the tables, there were no other patrons in the café. They ordered drinks and snacks, with the intention of taking them away to eat while continuing their exploration of the town; but the waitress insisted that they sit to eat, and did so in such a polite and hospitable way, that they felt obliged to comply. The two young men watched their awkwardness with amusement but also with sympathy, smiling and nodding in their direction; and eventually asked the newcomers to join them at their table. The invitation was made with such kindliness and sincerity that, once again, they felt obliged to accept.

The conversation that ensued began with the young men asking the newcomers where they had come from. It was a phrase they had heard so often in their travels that they would have recognised it, even if it had been asked in the local language. But both young men spoke English and communication was not a problem. The newcomers explained that they were from Australia; and immediately, the young men became more animated, explaining that they would really like to go to Australia. One of them had been an exchange student in the US and had developed a taste for the Western lifestyle. The other’s appetite had been whetted by his friend’s stories; but Australia seemed even more appealing to them. “The Lucky Country, yes?” they intoned with great pride, thumbs up; “Sunshine, beaches, sport…”.  And now, in the company of two Australians, their dream seemed one step closer; although, they explained gravely, it was not so easy for them to leave their country. They needed papers. They needed permission. It could take a long time. Much bureaucracy. Much money. No guarantee.

One of the newcomers looked Chinese and they asked if she had been born in Australia. She replied that she had not. She had migrated. A veil seemed to fall across their faces as they realised that they were talking to someone who had achieved what they themselves longed for but had so far been denied.  They asked the same question of the other newcomer; and he replied that he too had migrated to Australia, but from Scotland. Gradually, the animation drained from their voices. Their questions now seemed driven more by desperation: “It is easy to leave your country?”  “It cost lot of money to go to Australia?” But what they were really asking was: why should it be so easy for some, but not for us? The newcomers found it difficult to answer. The truth was not what these young men wanted to hear. The frustration of their unfulfilled attempts to leave their homeland was just another reason for wanting to leave, to escape the stifling bureaucracy, the sublimation of the individual to the state, the denial of personal freedom, initiative, opportunity. In fact, they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to come here, even for a visit, even if they were free to leave. And the one who’d been to the US asked the obvious question: “Why did you come here?”

The newcomers looked at each other, not wanting to reply, not wanting to tell the truth, but the young men were staring at them expectantly, as though their future was hanging on the answer to this one simple but pivotal question. They tried to smile sympathetically, trying to soften the impact, but the two young men were holding them in their gaze, waiting for the answer. He could have lied. Perhaps it would have been the kindest thing to do; and he had every reason to be kind to them. But in the circumstances, he could not think of a plausible lie that would have satisfied them; so he said, truthfully: “We came here to see the steps.”

The young man, who’d never been outside his country, who dreamed of sunshine and beaches and sport, stared at them, mouth agape in disbelief, and tears began to well in his eyes.

When they finished their refreshments, they left the café and walked for a long time in silence.

The Richelieu Steps, Odessa

The Richelieu Steps, Odessa. June 4, 1990

The illusion of continuity

The illusion of continuity

Nearing the top

Nearing the top

One last backward glance

A last backward glance

June 4, 1990 was the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.


2 thoughts on “The Steps

  1. Hi Keith,

    I see your photograhs and read your words …
    I like the way you tell us stories with pictures or sentences.
    Thanks !

    PS: Sorry for my poor english …

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