This time, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich was to help me pass the time in the waiting room. It’s a fascinating book, a ‘long short story’ in the words of Ronald Blythe, whose extensive Foreword is almost as long as the novella itself. A synthesis of Tolstoy’s incapacitating awareness, and fear of death, it is gripping reading. One of the people waiting with me looked like a friend of my father’s, so much so, I could not help but keep glancing at him between turning the pages. He was elderly but sprite, with closely cropped grey hair. He had an aquiline nose and chiselled features. The newspaper he was reading was upside down to me, but I could decipher Cyrillic writing. Greek or Russian, I thought. His mobile rang, and he answered it in a quiet voice, yet loud enough for me to catch the language. Russian. The timbre of his voice was also eerily similar to that of my father’s friend.

I was lucky to catch the bus almost instantly on the way home, and swiping my card did not look at the driver. Once seated however, I was drawn to what sounded like a conversation coming from his direction, and I assumed he was talking to another rider. Not so. He was listening to some kind of recording, a radio perhaps. As I strained to listen, the melody of the language revealed itself, and again, I thought I heard Russian. Before disembarking I stopped beside the driver, a serious young man, and asked him – in English – if it was, indeed, Russian I was hearing. He nodded, with only a sidelong glance at me. I volunteered he must be tired – it was just past noon, the heat had been rising steadily, the shimmering asphalt in front of the bus was blinding. “No, it’s Nirvana,” was his (ironic) answer. I made a comment about the routine of his work. “I am not working. I am reading,” he said without taking his eyes off the road. I wonder what book he was ‘reading’/listening to? Maybe Tolstoy?

The Death of Ivan Ilych