I am now into my second week of bachelorhood in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, my tsaritsa having fled to St. Petersburg and back to civilisation for a few weeks. So last night my Ossetian friend, also my landlord, took me to play billiards and drink a little. Why he did not have this idea on a Saturday evening I do not know, but I was wishing he had this morning when I wobbled my way around the apartment before going to work.
The first thing I realised is that I had never played billiards before. I’ve played a lot of pool, some snooker, and I vaguely remember playing some weird game in a country pub which involved a table with holes in the middle with little wooden mushrooms dotted about. Or perhaps I was on crack. Anyway, I’d not played billiards before. It is played on a snooker-sized table, and you are allowed to whack any of the dozen balls into any of the pockets in any order. You can even pot the cue ball. The balls are slightly larger than snooker balls, and heavier. What makes the game so difficult is the fact that the pockets are about 1mm larger than the diameter of the balls, so you have to knock them in straight. You can’t, for instance, pot a ball by rolling it down the cushion. Whoever has potted the most balls by the time there is only one left is the winner.
As things turned out, I wasn’t too bad at it. I lost the first game, but won the next two. My aim was getting gradually steadier with the aid of two glasses of Baltika 7 and a whole load of vodka. Admittedly between games one and two a small Korean chap named Valeriy stepped in and thumped me by eight balls, but apparently he was the second best billiard player on the island. Such a title is not to be sneezed at.
Between shots, I had a chance to look around. The bar of the billiard hall was staffed by two fifteen year old girls, supervised by an older woman. A gang of ethnic Koreans dominated one corner of the room, and the Ossetian introduced me to some of these when we first came in. They had spent considerable time working on their arms and upper bodies, presumably not to assist them in sinking billiard balls. A couple of older men played on the table beside ours, one of whom had brought some carpet slippers from home and wore them to play whilst his shoes waited patiently beneath a chair. Another couple of men sat in a dark corner eating, drinking, and not playing much billiards. They were joined briefly by a couple of women wearing denims and black kneeboots. Then two thirteen year old girls came in and spoke to the bar staff, appearing to be asking about work. After a few minutes conversation, they were told to come back once they’d reached puberty, refrained from wearing nasty tracksuits, and cut their fringes off. There was a little restaurant area off to the side, in which a few more Koreans were watching Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev making very heavy weather of beating up a man half his size on TV.
There was a man in his fifties who came in and immediately started annoying the bar staff by talking what seemed to be shite. He wore a bizarre pair of light brown leather trousers which were miles too big around the arse, and didn’t suit him one jot. He was having enormous difficulty keeping them up, and tried repeatedly to tie his belt around them. For reasons known only to himself, he didn’t thread his belt through the loops conveniently located on the trousers; instead he just tightened the belt around the top of the trousers over the pockets, leaving a large flappy section above. Then as he walked, the trousers would slowly slip from beneath his belt revealing stripey boxer shorts, and eventually he’d end up with the belt around his midriff, high and dry in relation to the trousers which were at this point somewhere in the region of his knees.
Later on, as it got dark outside, a few men came in wearing suits. Why the hell anyone would be wearing a suit on a Sunday evening in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a mystery to me, but there were a few of them. Maybe they were wanting people to think they were gangsters? One of these chaps in a suit came accompanied by a blonde woman in her early 40s wearing a lime green nylon suit with a skirt which was about six inches long. They sat togther for a while, then she inexplicably moved several barstools to the right and flashed her legs and knickers at everyone as she sat, whilst he got pissed and loudly applauded every successful shot on our table. Then one of my company’s subcontractors came in, a small Korean chap known as Igor the Thief, and shook everyone’s hand in the room before settling at our now-vacated billiard table and getting himself soundly beaten by a chap who looked as though he models his look on that of Jason Donovan. An interesting place indeed.
Once we’d finished playing billiards, we left the billiard hall and climbed into Valeriy’s tiny car and whizzed through the pouring rain to a small cafe attached to a shopping centre. We were being hit by a small typhoon up from Japan, and the effect of rainfall of this quantity on Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was the formation of bodies of water in the street which would interest a passing oceanologist. This affected the local driving style not one jot. In the cafe, the three of us ordered some food and the Ossetian and I a vodka and orange each. Drink driving laws seem to have had some effect in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, because I have seen quite a few people so far refrain from drinking because they are driving. However, the Ossetian and I were not restrained in such a way, and hence at about midnight Valeriy had long gone home and we staggered into the street with a freezing wind at our backs and rain teeming down to find a taxi. But before we could find a taxi, the Ossetian needed to find us a beer, so we lurched into a kiosk and got us a bottle each. Having walked about half a mile in the wind and rain clutching our beers, the Ossetian decided he wanted to eat something, so we crashed into another kiosk where he bought a packet of squid, or jellyfish, or something. In ths kiosk were a group of low-level criminals who the Ossetian pointed out to me with a nod of his head and advised I don’t speak, lest they saw I was foreigner and wanted to start some trouble. Any third person who was observing would have likely thought anyone looking for trouble with two Russian-looking men walking with beer bottles through the dark streets of Yuzhnii, eating squid from a plastic bag, would have needed their head looking at. Outside, we found a taxi which took us home.
Once home, however, the Ossetian hung his coat up, sat down, I gave him a beer and poured myelf a vodka, and we were off again. It was sometime around one o’clock before he finally stumbled out into the night with a cheery grin, and I crawled into my bed wondering why the hell I still do this on a school night.