Under a Blood Red Sky
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For Norman With my love
I would like to thank Joanne Dickinson and all at Little, Brown for their wonderful enthusiasm and beautiful artwork. I am particularly grateful to Emma Stonex for casting her eagle eye over the manuscript with such expertise.
Special thanks to my agent Teresa Chris for wisely curbing my excesses and for her invaluable insight into the heart of the book.
Thanks also to Alla Sashniluc, not only for providing me with the Russian language but also with a greater understanding of the Russian way of life in a Urals village, and for correcting my blunders.
Finally my love and thanks to Norman for his constant encouragement and advice. It means everything to me.
Davinsky Labour Camp, Siberia February 1933
The Zone. That’s what the compound was called.
A double barrier of dense barbed wire encircled it, backed by a high fence and watchtowers that never slept. In Sofia Morozova’s mind it merged with all the other hated lice-ridden camps she’d been in. Transit camps were the worst. They ate up your soul, then spat you out into cattle trucks to move you on to the next one. Etap, it was called, this shifting of prisoners from one camp to another until no friends, no possessions and no self remained. You became nothing. That’s what they wanted.
Work is an Act of Honour, Courage and Heroism. Those words were emblazoned in iron letters a metre high over the gates of Davinsky prison labour camp. Every time Sofia was marched in and out to work in the depths of the taiga forest she read Stalin’s words above her head. Twice a day for the ten years that were her sentence. That would add up to over seven thousand times – that is, if she lived that long, which was unlikely. Would she come to believe that hard labour was an ‘Act of Heroism’ after reading those words seven thousand times? Would she care any more whether she believed it or not?
As she trudged out into the snow in the five o’clock darkness of an Arctic morning with six hundred other prisoners, two abreast in a long silent shuffling crocodile, she spat as she passed under Stalin’s words. The spittle froze before it hit the ground.
‘There’s going to be a white-out,’ Sofia said.
She had an uncanny knack for smelling out the weather half a day before it arrived. It wasn’t something she’d been aware of in the days when she lived near Petrograd, but there the skies were nowhere near as high, nor so alarmingly empty. Out here, where the forests swallowed you whole, it came easily to her. She turned to the young woman sitting at her side.
‘Go on, Anna, you’d better go over and tell the guards to get the ropes out.’
‘A good excuse for me to warm my hands on their fire, anyway.’ Anna smiled. She was a fragile figure, always quick to find a smile, but the shadows under her blue eyes had grown so dark they looked bruised, as though she’d been in a fight.
Sofia was more worried about her friend than she was willing to admit, even to herself. Just watching Anna stamping her feet to keep the blood flowing made her anxious.
‘Make sure the brainless bastards take note of it,’ grimaced Nina, a wide-hipped Ukrainian who knew how to swing a sledgehammer better than any of them. ‘I don’t want our brigade to lose any of you in the white-out. We need every single pair of hands if we’re ever going to get this blasted road built.’
When visibility dropped to absolute zero in blizzard conditions, the prisoners were roped together on the long trek back to camp. Not to stop them escaping, but to prevent them blundering out of line and freezing to death in the snow.
‘Fuck the ropes,’ snorted Tasha, the woman on the other side of Sofia. Tasha tucked her greasy dark hair back under her headscarf. She had small narrow features and a prim mouth that was surprisingly adept at swearing. ‘If they’ve got any bloody sense, we’ll finish early today and get back to the stinking huts ahead of it.’
‘That would be better for you, Anna,’ Sofia nodded. ‘A shorter day. You could rest.’
‘Don’t worry about me.’
‘But I do worry.’
‘No, I’m doing well today. I’ll soon be catching up with your work rate, Nina. You’d better watch out.’
Anna gave a mischievous smile to the three other women and they laughed outright, but Sofia noticed that her friend didn’t miss the quick glance that passed between them. Anna struggled against another spasm of coughing and sipped her midday chai to soothe her raw throat. Not that the drink deserved to be called tea. It was a bitter brew made from pine needles and moss that was said to fight scurvy. Whether that was true or just a rumour spread around to make them drink the brown muck was uncertain, but it fooled the stomach into thinking it was being fed and that was all they cared about.
The four women were seated on a felled pine tree, huddled together for warmth, kicking bald patches in the snow with their lapti, boots shaped from soft birch bark. They were making the most of their half-hour midday break from perpetual labour. Sofia tipped her head back to ease the ache in her shoulders and stared up at the blank white sky – today lying like a lid over them, shutting them in, pressing them down, stealing their freedom away. She felt a familiar ball of anger burn in her chest. This was no life. Not even fit for an animal. But anger was not the answer, because all it did was drain the few pathetic scraps of energy she possessed from her veins. She knew that. She’d struggled to rid herself of it but it wouldn’t go away. It trailed in her footsteps like a sick dog.
All around, as far as the eye could see and the mind could imagine, stretched dense forests of pine trees, great seas of them that swept in endless waves across the whole of northern Russia, packed tight under snow – and through it all they were attempting to carve a road. It was like trying to dig a coal mine with a teaspoon. Dear God, but road-building was wretched. Brutal at the best of times, but with inadequate tools and temperatures of twenty or even thirty degrees below freezing it became a living nightmare. Your shovels cracked, your hands turned black, your breath froze in your lungs.
‘Davay! Hurry! Back to work!’
The guards crowded round the brazier and shouted orders, but they didn’t leave their circle of precious warmth. Along the length of the arrow-straight scar that sliced through the trees to make space for the new road, hunched bodies pulled their padded coats and ragged gloves over any patch of exposed skin. A collective sigh of resignation rose like smoke in the air as the brigades of women took up their hammers and spades once more.
Anna was the first on her feet, eager to prove she could meet the required norm, the work quota for each day. ‘Come on, you lazy…’ she muttered to herself.
But she didn’t finish the sentence. She swayed, her blue eyes glazed, and she would have fallen if she hadn’t been clutching her shovel. Sofia reached her first and held her safe, the frail body starting to shake as coughs raked her lungs. She jammed a rag over Anna’s mouth.
‘She won’t last,’ Tasha whispered. ‘Her fucking lungs are-’
‘Ssh.’ Sofia frowned at her.
Nina patted Anna’s shoulder and said nothing. Sofia walked Anna back to her patch of the road, helped her scramble up on to its raised surface and gently placed the shovel in her hand. Not once had Anna come even close to meeting the norm in the last month and that meant less food each day in her ration. Sofia shifted a few shovels of rock for her.
‘Thanks,’ Anna said and wiped her mouth. ‘Get on with your own work.’ She managed a convincing smile. ‘We’ll be home early today. Before the white-out hits.’
Sofia stared at her with amazement. Home. How could she bear to call that place home?
‘I’ll be fine now,’ Anna assured her.
You’re not fine, Sofia wanted to shout, and you’re not going to be fine.
Instead she gazed hard into her friend’s sunken eyes and what she saw there made her chest tighten. Oh, Anna. A frail wisp of a thing, just twenty-eight years old. Too soon to die, much too soon. And that moment, on an ice-bound patch of rock in an empty Siberian wilderness, was when Sofia made the decision. I swear to God, Anna, I’ll get you out of here. If it kills me.
The white-out came just as Sofia said it would. But this time the guards paid heed to her warning, and before it hit they roped together the grey crocodile of ragged figures and set off on the long mindless trudge back to camp.
The track threaded its way through unremitting taiga forest, so dark it was like night, the slender columns of pine trees standing like Stalin’s sentinels overseeing the march. The breath of hundreds of women created a strange, disturbing sound in the silence, while their feet shuffled and stumbled over snow-caked ruts.
Sofia hated the forest. It was odd because she had spent most of her life on a farm and was used to rural living, whereas Anna, who loved the forest and declared it magical, had been brought up in cities. But maybe that was why. Sofia knew too well what a forest was capable of, she could feel it breathing down her neck like a huge unwelcome presence, so that when sudden soft sounds escaped from the trees as layers of snow slid from the branches to the forest floor, it made her shiver. It was as though the forest were sighing.
The wind picked up, stealing the last remnants of heat from their bodies. As the prisoners made their way through the trees, Sofia and Anna ducked their faces out of the icy blast, pulling their scarves tighter round their heads. They pushed one exhausted foot in front of the other and huddled their bodies close to each other. This was an attempt to share their remaining wisps of warmth, but it was also something else, something more important to both of them. More important even than heat.
They talked to each other. Not just the usual moans about aching backs or broken spades or which brigade was falling behind on its norm, but real words that wove real pictures. The harsh scenes that made up the daily, brutal existence of Davinsky Camp were difficult to escape, even in your head they clamoured at you. Their grip on the mind, as well as on the body, was so intractable that no other thoughts could squeeze their way in.
Early on, Sofia had worked out that in a labour camp you exist from minute to minute, from mouthful to mouthful. You divide every piece of time into tiny portions and you tell yourself you can survive just this small portion. That’s how you get through a day. No past, no future, just this moment. Sofia had been certain that it was the only way to survive here, a slow and painful starvation of the soul.
But Anna had other ideas. She had broken all Sofia’s self-imposed rules and made each day bearable. With words. Each morning on the two-hour trek out to the Work Zone and each evening on the weary trudge back to the camp, they put their heads close and created pictures, each word a colourful stitch in the tapestry, until the delicately crafted scenes were all their eyes could see. The guards, the rifles, the dank forest and the unrelenting savagery of the place faded, like dreams fade, so that they were left with no more than faint snatches of something dimly remembered.
Anna was best at it. She could make the words dance. She would tell her stories and then laugh with pure pleasure. And the sound of it was so rare and so unfettered that other heads would turn and whimper with envy. The stories were all about Anna’s childhood in Petrograd before the Revolution, and day by day, month by month, year by year, Sofia felt the words and the stories build up inside her own bones. They packed tight and dense in there where the marrow was long gone, and kept her limbs firm and solid as she swung an axe or dug a ditch.
But now things had changed. As the snow began to fall and whiten the shoulders of the prisoners in front, Sofia turned away from them and faced Anna. It had taken her a long time to get used to the howling of a Siberian wind but now she could switch it off in her ears, along with the growls of the guard dogs and the sobs of the girl behind.
‘Anna,’ she urged, holding on to the rope that bound them together, ‘tell me about Vasily again.’
Anna smiled, she couldn’t help it. Just the mention of the name Vasily turned a light on inside her, however wet or tired or sick she was. Vasily Dyuzheyev – he was Anna’s childhood friend in Petrograd, two years older but her companion in every waking thought and in many of her night-time dreams. He was the son of Svetlana and Grigori Dyuzheyev, aristocratic friends of Anna’s father, and right now Sofia needed to know everything about him. Everything. And not just for pleasure this time – though she didn’t like to admit, even to herself, how much pleasure Anna’s talking of Vasily gave her – for now it was serious.
Sofia had made the decision to get Anna out of this hell-hole before it was too late. Her only hope of succeeding was with help, and Vasily was the only one she could turn to. But would he help? And could she find him?
A quiet and thoughtful smile had crept on to Anna’s face. Her scarf was wrapped round her head and the lower part of her face, so that only her eyes showed, narrowed against the wind. But the smile was there, deep inside them, as she started to talk.
‘The day was as colourless as today. It was winter and the new year of 1917 had just begun. All around me the white sky and the white ground merged to become one crisp shell, frozen in a silent world. There was no wind, only the sound of a swan stamping on the ice of the lake with its big flat feet. Vasily and I had come out for a walk together, just the two of us, wrapped up well against the cold. Our fur boots crunched satisfyingly in the snow as we ran across the lawn to keep warm.
‘“Vasily, I can see the dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral from here. It looks like a big shiny snowball!” I shouted from high up in the sycamore tree. I’d always loved to climb trees and this was a particularly tempting one, down by the lake on his father’s estate.
‘“I’ll build you a snow sleigh fit for a Snow Queen,” he promised.
‘You should have seen him, Sofia. His eyes bright and sparkling like the icicle-fingers that trailed from the tree’s branches, he watched me climb high up among its huge naked limbs that spread out over the lawn like a skeleton. He didn’t once say, “Be careful” or “It’s not ladylike”, like my governess Maria would have.
‘“You’ll keep dry up there,” he laughed, “and it’ll stop you leaping over the sleigh with your big feet before it’s finished.”
‘I threw a snowball at him, then took pleasure in studying the way he carefully carved runners out of the deep snow, starting to create the body of a sleigh with long, sweeping sides. At first I sang “Gaida Troika” to him, swinging my feet in rhythm, but eventually I couldn’t hold back the question that was burning a hole in my tongue.
‘“Will you tell me what you’ve been doing, Vasily? You’re hardly ever here any more. I… hear things.”
‘“What kind of things?”
‘“The servants are saying it’s getting dangerous on the streets.”
‘“You should always listen to the servants, Annochka,” he laughed. “They know everything.”
‘But I wasn’t going to be put off so easily. “Tell me, Vasily.”
‘He looked up at me, his gaze suddenly solemn, his soft brown hair falling off his face so that the bones of his forehead and his cheeks stood out sharply. It occurred to me that he was thinner, and my stomach swooped when I realised why. He was giving away his food.
‘“Do you really want to know?”
‘“Yes, I’m twelve now, old enough to hear what’s going on. Tell me, Vasily. Please.”
‘He nodded pensively, and then proceeded to tell me about the crowds that had gathered noisily in the Winter Palace Square the previous day and how a shot had been fired. The cavalry had come charging in on their horses and flashed their sabres to keep order.
‘“But it won’t be long, Anna. It’s like a firework. The taper is lit. It’s just a question of when it will explode.”
‘“Explosions cause damage.” I was frightened for him.
‘From my high perch I dropped a snowball at his feet and watched it vanish in a puff of white.
‘“Exactly. That’s why I’m telling you, Anna, to warn you. My parents refuse to listen to me but if they don’t change their way of living right now, it’ll be…” he paused.
‘“It’ll be what, Vasily?”
‘“It’ll be too late.”
‘I wasn’t cold in my beaver hat and cape but nevertheless a shiver skittered up my spine. I could see the sorrow in his upturned face. Quickly I started to climb down, swinging easily between branches, and when I neared the bottom Vasily held out his arms and I jumped down into them. He caught me safely and I inhaled the scent of his hair, all crisp and cool and masculine, a foreign territory that I loved to explore. I kissed his cheek and he held me close, then swung me in an arc through the air and gently dropped me inside the snow sleigh on the seat he’d carved. He bowed to me.
‘“Your carriage, Princess Anna.”
‘My heart wasn’t in it now, but to please him I picked up the imaginary reins with a flourish. Flick, flick. A click of my tongue to the make-believe horse and I was flying along a forest track in my silver sleigh, the trees leaning in on me, whispering. But then I looked about suddenly, swivelling round on the cold seat. Where was Vasily? I spotted him leaning against the dark trunk of the sycamore, smoking a cigarette and wearing his sad face.
‘“Vasily,” I called.
‘He dropped the cigarette in the snow where it hissed.
‘“What is it, Princess?”
‘He came over but he didn’t smile. His grey eyes were staring at his father’s house, three storeys high with elegant windows and tall chimneys.
‘“Do you know,” he asked, “how many families could live in a house like ours?”
‘“No. Twelve families. Probably more, with children sharing rooms. Things are going to change, Anna. The Tsarina’s evil old sorcerer, Rasputin, was murdered last month and that’s just the start. You must be prepared.”
‘I tapped a glove on his cheek and playfully lifted one corner of his mouth. “I like change.”
‘“I know you do. But there are people out there, millions of them, who will demand change, not because they like it but because they need it.”
‘“Are they the ones on strike?”
‘“Yes. They’re desperately poor, Anna, with their rights stolen from them. You don’t realise what it’s like because you’ve lived all your life in a golden cage. You don’t know what it is to be cold and hungry.”
‘We’d had arguments before about this and I knew better now than to mention Vasily’s own golden cage. “They can have my other coat,” I offered. “It’s in the car.”
‘The smile he gave me made my heart lurch. It was worth the loss of my coat. “Come on, let’s go and get it,” I laughed.
‘He set off in long galloping strides across the lawn, leaving a trail of deep black holes in the snow behind him. I followed, stretching my legs as wide as I could to place my fur boots directly in each of his footsteps, and all the way I could still hear the wind tinkling in the frozen trees. It sounded like a warning.’
Sofia sat cross-legged on the dirty floorboards without moving. The night was dark and bitterly cold as the temperature continued to plummet, but her muscles had learned control. She had taught herself patience, so that when the inquisitive grey mouse pushed its nose through the rotten planks of the hut wall, its eyes bright and whiskers twitching, she was ready for it.
She didn’t breathe. She saw it sense danger, but the lure of the crumb of bread placed on the floor was too great in the food-less world of the labour camp, and the little creature made its final, fatal mistake. It scurried towards the crumb. Sofia’s hand shot out. One squeak and it was over. She added the miniature body to the three already in her lap and carefully broke the tiny crumb of bread in two, popping one half of it into her own mouth and placing the other back on the floor. She settled down again in the silence.
‘You’re very good at that,’ Anna’s quiet voice said.
Sofia looked up, surprised. In the dim light she could just make out the restless blonde head and delicate pale face on one of the bunks.
‘Can’t you sleep, Anna?’ Sofia asked softly.
‘I like watching you. I don’t know how you move so fast. Besides, it takes my mind off…’ she gestured about her with a loose flick of her hand, ‘… off this.’
Sofia glanced around. The darkness was cut into slices by a bright shaft of moonlight, slipping in through the narrow gaps between the planking of the walls. The long wooden hut was crammed with a hundred and fifty undernourished women on hard communal bunks, all dreaming of food, their snores and coughs and moans filling the chill air. But only one was sitting with a precious pile of food in her lap. Though only twenty-six, Sofia had spent enough years in a labour camp to know the secrets of survival.
‘Hungry?’ Sofia asked Anna with a crooked smile.
‘Don’t fancy roast rodent?’
‘Nyet. No, not tonight. You eat them all.’
Sofia jumped up and bent over Anna’s bunk, breathing in the stale smell of the five unwashed bodies and unfilled bellies that lay on the bed board.
She said fiercely, ‘Don’t, Anna. Don’t give up.’ She took hold of her friend’s arm and squeezed it hard. ‘You’re just a bundle of bird bones under this coat. Listen to me, you’ve come too far to give up now. You’ve got to eat whatever I catch for you, even if it tastes foul. You hear me? If you don’t eat, how are you going to work tomorrow?’
Anna closed her eyes and turned her face away into the darkness.
‘Don’t you dare shut me out, Anna Fedorina. Don’t do that. Talk to me.’
Only silence, save for Anna’s quick shallow breathing. Outside the wind rattled the wooden planks of the roof and Sofia heard the faint screech of something metal moving. One of the guard dogs at the perimeter fence barked a challenge.
‘Anna,’ Sofia said angrily, ‘what would Vasily say?’
She held her breath. Never before had she spoken those words or used Vasily’s name as a lever. Slowly Anna’s tousled blonde head rolled back and a smile curved the corners of her pale lips. The movement was barely there, a faint smudge in the darkness, but Sofia didn’t miss the fresh spark of energy that flickered in the blue eyes.
‘Go and cook your wretched mice then,’ Anna muttered.
‘You promise to eat them?’
‘I’ll catch one more first.’
‘You should be sleeping.’ Anna’s hand gripped Sofia’s. ‘Why are you doing this for me?’
‘Because you saved my life.’
Sofia felt rather than saw Anna’s shrug.
‘That’s forgotten,’ Anna whispered.
‘Not by me. Whatever it takes, Anna, I won’t let you die.’ She stroked the mittened fingers, then pulled her own coat tighter and returned to her spot by the hole and the crumb of bread. She leaned her back against the wall, letting the trembling in her limbs subside until she was absolutely still once more.
‘Sofia,’ Anna whispered, ‘you have the persistence of the Devil.’
Sofia smiled. ‘He and I are well acquainted.’
Sofia leaned against the hut wall, shutting her mind to the icy draughts, and let Anna’s words echo quietly in her head.
Two years, eight months ago. Sofia pulled off the makeshift mitten on her right hand, stitched out of blanket threads and mattress ticking, and lifted the two scarred fingers right up to her face. She could just make out the twisted flesh, a reminder every single day of her life. So no, not forgotten.
It had started when they were taken off axing the boughs from felled trees and put to work on the road instead. It was progressing fast. The prison labour brigades were not told from where it had come nor where it was headed, but the pressure was hard and unrelenting and it showed in the attitude of the guards, who grew more demanding and less forgiving of any delays. People started making mistakes.
Sofia had reached such a state of exhaustion that her mind was becoming foggy and the skin on her hands was shredded, despite the makeshift gloves. Her world became nothing but stones and rocks and gravel, and then more stones and more rocks and more gravel. She piled them in her sleep, shovelled grit in her dreams; hammered piles of granite into smooth flat surfaces till the muscles in her back forgot what it was like not to ache with a dull, grinding pain that saps your willpower because you know it’s never going away. Even worse was the ditch digging. Feet in slime and filthy water all day and spine fixed in a permanent twist that wouldn’t unscrew. Eating was the only aim in life and sleep had become a luxury.
‘Can any of you scarecrows sing?’
The surprising request came from a new guard. He was tall and as lean as the prisoners themselves, only in his twenties and with a bright intelligent face. What was he doing as a guard? Sofia wondered. Most likely he’d slipped up somewhere in his career and was paying for it now.
‘Well, which one of you can sing?’
Singing used up precious energy. No one ever sang. Besides, work was supposed to be conducted in silence.
‘Well? Come on. I fancy a serenade to brighten my day. I’m sick of the sound of your fucking hammers.’
Anna was up on the raised road crushing stones into place but Sofia noticed her lift her head and could see the thought starting to form. A song? Yes, why not? She could manage a song. Yes, an old love ballad would-
Sofia tossed a pebble and it clipped Anna’s ankle. She winced and looked over to where Sofia was standing three metres away, knee-deep in ditch water, scooping out mud and stones. Her face was filthy, streaked with slime and covered in bites and sweat. The summer day was overcast but warm, and the need to keep limbs completely wrapped up in rags against the mosquitoes made everyone hot and morose. Sofia shook her head at her friend, her lips tight in warning. Don’t, she mouthed.
‘I can sing,’ came a voice.
It was a small, dark-haired woman in her thirties who’d spoken. The prisoners close by looked up from their work, surprised. She was usually quiet and uncommunicative.
‘I am an…’ The woman corrected herself. ‘I was an opera singer. I’ve performed in Moscow and in Paris and Milan and-’
‘Excellent! Otlichno! Warble something sweet for me, little songbird.’ The guard folded his arms around his rifle and smiled at her expectantly.
The woman didn’t hesitate. She threw down her hammer with disdain, drew herself up to her full height, took two deep breaths and started to sing. The sound soared out of her, pure and heart-wrenching in its astonishing beauty. Heads lifted, the smiles and tears of the workers bringing life back into their exhausted faces.
‘Un bel dì, vedremo levarsi un fil di fumo sull’estremo confin del mare. E poi…’
‘It’s Madame Butterfly,’ murmured a woman. She was hauling a wheelbarrow piled high with rocks into position on the road.
As the music filled the air with golden enchantment, a warning shout tore through it. Heads turned. They all saw it happen. The woman had dropped her barrow carelessly to the ground as she’d stopped to listen to the singing, and now it had started to topple. It was the accident all of them feared, to be crushed beneath a barrow-load of rocks as they plunged over the edge of the raised road surface. You didn’t stand a chance.
‘Sofia!’ Anna screamed.
Sofia was fast. Knee-deep in water she was struggling to escape, but her reflexes had her spinning out of the path of the rocks. A great burst of water surged up out of the ditch as the rocks crashed down behind her.
Except for one. It ricocheted off the rubble that layered the side of the new road, it came crunching down on Sofia’s right hand, just where her fingers were clinging on to the bank of stones.
Sofia made no sound.
‘Get back to work!’ the guard yelled at everyone, disturbed by the accident he’d caused. Anna leapt into the water beside Sofia and seized her hand. The tips of two fingers were crushed to a pulp, blood spurting out into the water in a deep crimson flow.
‘Bind it up,’ the guard called out and threw Anna a rag from his own pocket.
She took it. It was dirty and she cursed loudly. ‘Everything is always dirty in this godforsaken hole.’
‘It’ll be all right,’ Sofia assured her, as Anna quickly bound the scrap of cloth round the two damaged fingers, strapping them together, one a splint for the other, stemming the blood.
‘Here,’ said Anna, ‘take my glove as well.’
There was an odd chalky taste inside Sofia’s mouth. ‘Thank you,’ she muttered.
Her eyes stared into Anna’s and, though she kept them steady, she knew Anna could see something shadowy move deep down in them, like the first flutter of the wing of death.
‘Sofia,’ Anna commanded, thrusting the injured hand first into her own glove and then into Sofia’s wet one for greater protection against knocks, ‘don’t you dare.’
Sofia reclaimed her hand and looked at the bulky object as though it didn’t belong to her any more. They both knew infection was inevitable and that her body lacked sufficient nutrition to fight it.
‘Back to work, you two!’ the guard shouted. ‘And no talking.’
‘Don’t dare what?’ Sofia asked under her breath.
‘Don’t you dare even think that you won’t come through this. Now get on that road in my place and haul stones. At least they’re dry.’ Anna seized the shovel from where it had fallen and set to work in the water.
Sofia scrambled up on to the road and for a second stared down at Anna’s blonde head, as if she were memorising every hair on it. ‘One day, Anna, I’ll repay you for this.’
After that, Sofia became ill. They’d both known she would but the speed of it shocked them.
‘Tell me something happy, Anna,’ Sofia had said. ‘Make me smile.’
It was gone midnight and they were sitting on the floor of the barrack hut, backs to the wall in their usual place. It was only four days after the accident and Sofia could sense Anna’s concern like something solid in her lap.
Neither said much but they weren’t fooling each other. The injured hand was worse, much worse, and Sofia’s skin had grown dry and feverish. Her cheeks were so flushed that Anna told her she looked almost healthy, which made Sofia laugh, but what little flesh she still had left was melting away, leaving just bones and sharp angles behind. Her work rate was too slow to earn anywhere near the norm and, even though Anna fed her friend pieces of her own meagre paiok, Sofia couldn’t always keep it down. The fever made her vomit.
Sofia cradled her throbbing hand against her breast and said once more in a low whispery voice: ‘Tell me something happy, Anna.’
From somewhere nearby came the popping sound of thumb-nails crushing the plump, grey bodies of lice, but when Anna started to weave her words, all else, including the pain, began to melt away into the darkness. That was the time Anna told her about when Vasily taught her to ice skate on the frozen lake. At the end of it Sofia had laid her head on Anna’s shoulder and chuckled.
‘I believe,’ she said softly, ‘I am falling in love with your Vasily.’
‘I’m going to lose my hand.’
‘You’ve seen it, Anna.’
‘Go to the medical hut when we get back to the Zone.’
They looked at each other. Both knew that was a stupid statement. The feldshers wouldn’t bother with a bandaged hand. Besides, infections were so rife in the medical hut that if you were well when you went in there, you would almost certainly be dead by the time you came out. TB was endemic in the camp, bloody lungs eaten up with it and spreading the disease with every cough.
‘I was planning,’ Sofia said calmly, ‘on getting hold of Nina’s saw and asking you to cut off my hand.’
Anna stared hard at her. The punishment for self-mutilation was a bullet in the brain. ‘No,’ she said sharply, ‘we must think of something better than that.’
Anna did think of something else but it wasn’t something better.
At the time the hut was full of uneasy rumours. They rustled in the air like wind in the forest as the ragged prisoners huddled on their bunks and told each other it was the woman’s own fault. That stupid woman. They were talking about the opera singer.
She’d been shot. A quick bullet in the back of the brain. You don’t break the rules, not where everyone can see. The guard learned the same lesson but his was a harder one: he was forced to face an execution squad made up of his own colleagues. That way they all learned the lesson. Sofia shuddered when she recalled how close Anna had come to bursting into song that day on the road.
‘Here, this will help.’ Cradling her friend’s hand gently, Anna had started to unwind the slimy piece of rag that bound it.
Sofia didn’t even open her eyes. She was lying on the bed board, her breath fast and shallow, her skin splitting wherever it was touched. She felt that she had already sunk beyond reach. She hadn’t worked for days and in this camp if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat.
‘Sofia,’ Anna said harshly, ‘open your eyes. Come on, show me you’re alive.’
The blonde eyelashes fluttered but not enough to open her eyes.
‘Try harder,’ Anna insisted. ‘Please.’
With a huge effort, Sofia opened her eyes.
The sight of the hand was almost too much to bear. It was a black and swollen piece of rotten meat with great splits between the fingers, wounds that oozed foul-smelling pus. Each time Anna bathed it, strips of flesh floated away.
‘My poor Sofia,’ Anna breathed. She brushed a hand over Sofia’s burning forehead, sweeping the hair off her face. It was soaked in sweat. ‘This will help,’ she murmured again, ‘it’ll make you well.’
She wrapped a poultice of green and orange lichen around the hand, working it in between the fingers and up the skeletal wrist. As she did so, though she was gentle, Sofia shuddered and a trail of bile trickled from the corner of her mouth. Anna slipped a strip of shredded leaves mixed with butter between Sofia’s cracked lips.
‘Chew,’ she ordered. ‘It’ll help the pain.’
She watched like a hawk as Sofia’s jaw slowly attempted movement.
‘Anna.’ A raw whisper.
‘Tell me… where did this come from?’
‘It doesn’t matter, just swallow it. There’ll be more tomorrow, I promise.’
The leaves were followed by a nugget of pork fat. Sofia’s cloudy blue eyes had fixed on Anna’s face with an expression of confusion and then, as understanding abruptly dawned on her sluggish mind, it changed to one of despair. She moaned, a deep, bone-aching sound that made Anna flinch. There was only one way a woman prisoner could lay her hands on the guards’ pork fat in this camp and they both knew what it was. Sofia felt dirty. Inside her body and under her skin she could feel the dirt, gritty and hard. Her good hand reached across and clung to Anna’s wrist.
‘Don’t,’ Sofia hissed. A tear slid out, creeping across her cheek and down to her ear. ‘Don’t do it any more, I beg you. I won’t eat the food.’
‘Sofia, I want a friend who is alive. Not one rotting in the stinking pit of corpses they dump in the forest.’
‘I can’t bear it.’
‘If I can, you can,’ Anna raised her voice in a sudden outburst of anger.
Sofia stared at her friend for a long time. Then, slowly, her fingers uncurled from Anna’s wrist and, with gentle soothing strokes, they caressed her arm like a mother would a child’s.
‘Now,’ Anna said fiercely, ‘eat this.’
Sofia opened her mouth.
Two years and eight months had passed since that day. Yet the memory of it still had the power to rip something open inside her and make her want to shake Anna. And hug her, hug her to death. From where Sofia was sitting on the floor waiting for the next over-adventurous mouse to venture into the hut, she could see the blonde head tossing from side to side on the crowded bed board. She could hear the coughs despite the cloth jammed over the mouth.
‘Anna,’ she whispered, too low for anyone to hear, ‘I haven’t forgotten.’
She dipped her forehead to her knees. Whatever it takes, Anna. Vasily had to be the key. Anna had no family and she was far too weak to make the thousand-mile journey through the taiga, even if she could escape from this hell-hole, so there was only one answer. Sofia would have to find Vasily and hope he would help. Hope. No, that was far too weak a word. Believe. That was it. She had to believe that first, she could find him, secondly that he would be willing to help Anna even though he hadn’t seen her for sixteen years – and if she was brutally honest with herself, was it likely he’d risk his life? And thirdly that he had the means to do so.
She lifted her head and grimaced. Put like that, it sounded absurd. It was an insane and impossible idea, but it was all she had to cling on to. She nodded firmly.
‘Vasily,’ she breathed, ‘I’m trusting you.’
The risks were huge. And of course there was the small matter of how she herself would escape from under the malevolent, watchful gaze of the guards. Hundreds tried it every year but few made it more than a verst or two. The tracker dogs; the lack of food; the wolves; the cold in the winter. In the summer the heat and the swarms of black mosquitoes that ate you alive – they all defeated even the most determined of spirits.
She shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. A part of her tired brain had just caught a glimpse of something that she’d almost forgotten about. It was something bright and breathing, and it shimmered just on the far edge of her vision where it flickered, tempting her.
It was freedom.
Davinsky Camp March 1933
The sky was a vast and vivid lake of blue above Anna’s head. She smiled up at the sun climbing slowly over the tree line, into the freedom of the wide open sky. She envied it its space.
Anna was lying on her back thinking the day was a good day. She wasn’t cold because around her neck lay a thick wool scarf that Nina had won in a poker game and it kept her warm. Her boots were dry and she wasn’t walking. She was riding in the back of an open truck and it felt like being on holiday. Yes, today was definitely a good day.
‘Anna! Are you all right?’
The question came from Sofia. Anna smiled at her and nodded. They were packed together with eighteen others, all sitting on the floor of the truck, their bodies keeping each other warm. Everyone was so relieved not to be making the two-hour trek on foot along snow-covered trails to the usual Work Zone that there was a sense of delight in the small work gang. It briefly eased the permanent lines of tension across the women’s foreheads and the tightness around their mouths. Roll-call in camp had been fast and efficient for once, then a truck had backed up into the compound and dropped its tailgate. A group of twenty prisoners was selected at random to climb into the back. Puffing smoke from its exhaust pipe like a bad-tempered old man, the truck rolled through the double set of gates and out into the forest.
‘Where are we going?’ asked a small Tartar woman with a heavy accent.
‘Who cares? Wherever it is, this beats walking,’ someone responded.
‘I think they’re going to shoot us and dump our bodies in the forest.’
It was a young girl who spoke. On her first day as a teacher in Novgorod she was denounced by a pupil for mentioning she thought that, as an artistic form, the Romanov symbol of the double-headed eagle was more attractive than the stark hammer and sickle. Now an inmate of Davinsky Camp, every day she voiced the same fear. Shot and dumped. Anna felt sorry for her.
‘No, it’s obvious,’ Sofia said. ‘They’re short of labour somewhere, so they’re trucking us in to do some dirty job, I expect.’
But no one seemed to worry about what lay ahead. There was really no point, so they all chose to enjoy this moment. There was even raucous laughter when Nina suggested they were being taken to set up a publichniy dom, a brothel in one of the men’s camps.
‘I used to have beautiful tits,’ Tasha grinned. ‘Great big fleshy melons you could stand a teacup on. I’d have been the star of any brothel.’ She patted her flat chest. ‘Thin as a stick I am now, just look at me. They’re nothing but scrawny pancakes but I could still give any man his money’s worth.’ She rippled her body in a parody of seduction and everyone laughed.
‘Are you all right, Anna?’
It was Sofia again.
‘I’m fine. I’m watching the birds, a flock of them over there above the trees. See how they swoop and swirl. Don’t you wish you were a bird?’
Sofia’s hand rested for a moment on Anna’s forehead. ‘Try to sleep,’ she said gently.
‘No,’ Anna smiled. ‘I’m content to watch the birds.’
The truck’s engine growled its way across the flat marshy wasteland and jolted them over the slippery ice. Anna squinted at the flock in the distance. It occurred to her that they were moving strangely.
‘Are they crows?’ she asked.
‘Anna,’ Sofia whispered in her ear, ‘it’s smoke.’
Anna smiled. ‘I know it’s smoke. I was teasing you.’
Sofia laughed oddly. ‘Of course you were.’
The work was quite bearable. For one thing it was indoors inside a long well-lit shed, so the usual north wind that greeted their arrival in a desolate and ravaged landscape was not the problem. Anna tried not to breathe too deeply but the dust and the grit in the air made her cough worse, and she had to wrap the scarf tightly round her mouth.
‘It looks like we’ve come to party in hell,’ she muttered as they clambered from the truck.
‘No talking!’ the guard shouted.
‘It’s a fucking gold mine,’ Tasha said under her breath and made a furtive sign of the cross in front of her.
Ugly black craters stretched out before their eyes as though some alien monster had bitten vast chunks out of the land and stripped it of all vegetation. It was how Anna imagined the moon to be, but here, unlike on the moon, ants scurried all over the craters. Except they weren’t ants, they were men. Working at depths of thirty or forty metres, with barrows and pickaxes and shovels, and raising the rocks out of the huge craters via an intricate network of planks that looked like a spider’s web. The never-ending ear-splitting sound of hammering, and the speed with which the men raced up precipitous planks behind their over-laden barrows to fulfil their brigade’s norms, set Anna’s head spinning. It made road building look like child’s play.
‘In there. Davay, davay! Let’s go!’ the guard shouted, aiming the women in the direction of the wooden shed.
The work was simple, sorting rocks. At one end of the long shed was a large metal drum that tumbled the rocks from the barrows down a chute and on to a conveyor belt. It rattled noisily the thirty-metre length to the other end. The women had to sort the rocks, either to be hammered into smaller sizes or to be crushed under a giant steam hammer that ripped through the eardrums like a blowtorch. The air was so thick with rock dust that it was impossible to see clearly across to the thin line of windows on the far wall. Anna could feel the pain in her chest worsen as she worked. Her head throbbed in time to the steam hammer.
Somebody was laughing. She could hear them, but for some reason she couldn’t see them. The rocks on the conveyor belt started to retreat inside grey shadows that looked like ash tipped into the air, and she began to wonder if the problem was in her eyes rather than in the shed. She hesitated, then slowly raised her hand in front of her face. She saw nothing but ash.
‘Back to work, bistro!’ yelled a guard.
Her lungs were shutting down, she could feel it happening, starving her brain of oxygen. She dragged at the air in a last desperate gasp but it was far too late. She felt herself fall.
‘She needs injections of calcium chlorate. That’s what they’d use to cure her.’
‘Anna, talk to me.’
Anna could hear Sofia’s voice. It drifted softly down to her where she lay flat on her back, though for the moment she had no idea where that was.
‘Come on, Anna. You’re scaring me.’
With an effort of will that left her quivering, Anna clambered up from the dark towards the voice, but instantly regretted it when the raw agony in her lungs returned. The jolting under her body told her exactly where she was: back in the truck. She thought about opening her eyes but they had lead weights on them, so she gave up. Still voices curled around her.
‘She’s too sick to work any more.’
‘Keep your voice down. If the guards hear, they’ll just dump her over the side of the truck to freeze to death.’
‘What she needs is proper treatment.’
‘And proper food.’
A harsh laugh. ‘Don’t we all?’
Sofia’s voice again, warm on Anna’s skin. ‘Wake up, Anna. Bistro, quickly, you lazy toad. I’m not fooled, you know. I can tell you’re… just pretending.’
Anna forced her eyes open. The world jumped sharply into focus and she could smell the mouldy odour of damp earth as it emerged from its winter freeze in the forest. She was lying flat on her back, the sky black and sequinned above her, while much closer Sofia’s face swayed into view.
‘So you’ve bothered to wake up at last. How are you feeling?’
‘I know you are.’ Sofia’s voice was bright and cheerful. ‘So stop pretending.’
‘I’ve decided,’ Sofia announced. ‘I’m leaving.’
‘Leaving Davinsky Camp. I’ve had enough of it, so I’m going to escape.’
‘No!’ Anna cried, then looked quickly about her and lowered her voice to a small whisper. ‘You’re insane, you mustn’t even try. Nearly everyone who tries it ends up dead. They’ll set the dogs on your trail and when they catch you they’ll put you in the isolator and we both know that’s worse than any coffin. You’ll die slowly in there.’
‘No I won’t, because I won’t let the bastards catch me.’
‘That’s what everyone says.’
‘But I mean it.’
‘So did they, and they’re dead. But if you’re so hell-bent on going, I’m coming too.’
Anna couldn’t believe she’d said the words to Sofia. She must be out of her mind. Her presence on the escape attempt would be a death sentence for both of them, but she was in such despair over what Sofia was planning that she just wasn’t thinking straight.
‘I’m coming too,’ she insisted. She was leaning against a tree trunk, pretending she didn’t really need it to hold her upright.
‘No, you’re not,’ Sofia said calmly. ‘You wouldn’t get ten miles with your lungs, never mind a thousand. Don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true.’
‘Everyone says that if you try to escape through the taiga, you must take someone with you, someone you can kill for food when there’s nothing but starvation left. So take me. I know I’m ill, so I won’t mind. You can eat me.’
Sofia hit her. She swung back her arm and gave Anna a hard slap that left a mark on the cheek. ‘Don’t you ever say that to me again.’
So Anna hugged her. Held her tight.
Anna was terrified. Terrified of losing Sofia. Terrified that Sofia would die out there. Terrified she would be caught and brought back and shut in the isolator until she either dropped dead or went insane.
‘Please, Sofia, stay. It doesn’t make sense. Why leave now? You’ve done five years already, so it’s only another five and you’ll be released.’
Only another five. Who was she fooling?
She’d tried tears and she’d tried begging. But nothing worked. Sofia was determined and couldn’t be stopped. For Anna it felt as though her heart was being cut out. Of course she couldn’t blame her friend for choosing to make a break for freedom, to find a life worth living. No one could deny her that. Thousands tried escape every year though very few actually made it to safety, but… it still felt like… No. Nyet. Anna wouldn’t think it, refused to let the word into her head. But at night when she lay awake racked by coughs and by fears for Sofia’s survival, the word slithered in, dark and silent as a snake. Desertion. It felt like desertion, like being abandoned yet again. No one Anna loved ever stayed.
Anna started counting. She counted the planks of wood in the wall and the nails in each plank and which type of nail, flat-headed or round-headed. It meant she didn’t have to think.
‘Stop it,’ Sofia snapped at her.
‘What makes you think I’m counting?’
‘Because you’re sitting there staring with blank eyes at the opposite wall and I know you’re counting. Stop it, I hate it.’
‘I’m not counting.’
‘You are. Your lips are moving.’
‘I’m praying for you.’
‘I’ll count if I want. Like you’ll escape if you want.’
They stared at each other, then looked away and said no more.
They planned it carefully. Sofia would follow the railway track, travel by night and hide up in the forest by day. It was safer that way and meant she wouldn’t suffer from the cold overnight because she’d be walking. It was March now and the temperatures were rising each day, the snow and ice melting, the floor of the pine forests turning into a soft damp carpet of needles. She should travel fast.
‘You must head for the River Ob,’ Anna urged her, ‘and once you’ve found it, follow it south. But even on foot and in the dark, travelling will be hard without identity papers.’
Anna said nothing more. The likelihood of Sofia getting even as far as the River Ob was almost nil. Nevertheless they continued with their preparations and took to stealing, not only from the guards but also from other prisoners. They stole matches and string and pins for fish-hooks and a pair of extra leggings. They wanted to snatch a knife from the kitchens but nothing went right despite several attempts, and by the eve of the day planned for the escape, they still had no blade for Sofia. But Anna made one last foray.
‘Look,’ she said as she came into the barrack hut, her scarf wound tight over her chin.
She hunched down beside Sofia in their usual place on the wooden floor, backs to the wall near the door where the air was cleaner, to avoid the kerosene fumes that always set off Anna’s coughing spasms. From under a protective fold of her jacket she drew her final haul: a sharp-edged skinning knife, a small tin of tushonka, stewed beef, two thick slices of black bread and a pair of half decent canvas gloves.
Sofia’s eyes widened.
‘I stole them,’ Anna said. ‘Don’t worry, I paid nothing for them.’
They both knew what she meant.
‘Anna, you shouldn’t have. If a guard had caught you, you’d be shot and I don’t want you dead.’
‘I don’t want you dead either.’
Both spoke coolly, an edge to their voices. That’s how it was between them now, cool and practical. Sofia took the items from Anna’s cold hands and tucked them away in the secret pocket they had stitched inside her padded jacket.
For a while they didn’t speak because there was nothing left to say that hadn’t been said. Anna coughed into her scarf, wiped her mouth, leaned her head back against the wall and concentrated on the spot where their shoulders touched. It was the only place of warmth between them now and she cherished it.
‘I’m fearful for you, Sofia.’
‘Fear is a such filthy stain rotting the heart out of this country, like it’s rotting my lungs.’ Anna struggled for breath. For a while they said nothing more but the silence hurt, so Anna asked, ‘Where will you go?’
‘I’ll do as you say and follow the River Ob, then head west to Sverdlovsk and the Ural Mountains. To Tivil.’
That came as a shock. ‘Why Tivil?’
‘Because Vasily is there.’
Anna felt the sick hand of jealousy squeeze her guts.
‘Are you all right, Anna?’
Sofia’s eyes were gazing at her with concern, and that’s when the red haze hit. It made her want to strike out, to shout and scream Nyet! into that sweetly anxious face. How dare Sofia go to Tivil? Anna thrust her hands tight between her knees and clamped them there.
‘Yes, I want to find him.’
‘Is he the reason you’re escaping?’
‘No, you don’t.’
But she did. Anna saw only too well. Sofia wanted Vasily for herself.
Sofia looked at Anna intently and then sighed. ‘Listen to me, you idiot. You said that Maria, your governess, told you about Svetlana Dyuzheyeva’s jewellery.’
Anna frowned. ‘Yes. Vasily’s mother had beautiful jewels.’
‘She told you,’ Sofia continued slowly, as though speaking to a child, ‘that Vasily said his father had buried some of the jewels in their garden at the start of 1917, for fear of what might happen.’
‘And that, after the Civil War, Vasily went back for them and later hid them in the church in Tivil.’
‘So it’s just the jewels you’re going for.’
‘No, not just the jewels.’
‘Yes, for Vasily too.’
Anna shuddered. She couldn’t stop it, a cold spiky tremor that crept through her bones. Again she said, ‘I see.’
Sofia’s shoulder gave a little shove that took Anna by surprise and started her coughing again. She hunched over her scarf, pressing it to her mouth, fighting for breath. When it was over, she looked flat-eyed at Sofia.
‘Take good care of him,’ she whispered.
Sofia tilted her head to one side. For a while she said nothing, then she reached out and pulled back the scarf from Anna’s mouth. In silence they both studied the blood stains on the cloth. Sofia spoke very clearly and deliberately.
‘There’s only one reason I’m leaving here. Using the jewels and with Vasily’s help, I will come back.’
‘Why in God’s name would you want to return to this stink-hole? ’
‘To fetch you.’
Three words, only three. But they changed Anna’s world.
‘You won’t survive another winter here,’ Sofia said quietly. ‘You know you won’t, but you’re too weak to walk hundreds of miles through this bloody taiga, even if you could escape. If I don’t go to fetch help for you, you’ll die.’
Anna couldn’t look at Sofia. She turned her head away and fought the onrush of tears. She felt the sickening weight of fear and knew it would be there inside her for every second that Sofia was gone.
‘Sofia,’ she said in a voice that she barely recognised, ‘don’t get yourself eaten by a wolf.’
Sofia laughed. ‘A wolf wouldn’t stand a chance.’
The Ural Mountains July 1933
The dog. That’s what Sofia heard first. The dog. Then the men.
The sound of them carried to her through the quivering breath of the forest as the hound’s paws splashed through a gulley and scrabbled up the other side. Coming closer, too close, with belly-deep whines, teeth bared and tongue loose, thirsting for the taste of blood. It set Sofia’s own hackles rising into sharp spikes of fury. Her hand reached out, her scarred fingertips clutching at the air in front of her as if for one last second she could capture its placid warmth and cradle it to her chest.
But how could she be angry with a dog? The animal was only doing what it did best, what it was bred to do. To track its prey.
And she was its prey. So they’d come for her at last. She shivered.
Had they come by accident? Or design?
It didn’t matter. She was prepared.
Sofia had been watching the evening sun slide away from her along the curving line of the trees, transforming the greens to amber and then to a fierce painful red. A komar landed on her bare arm. She didn’t move, but watched the insect’s tiny body turn into a ruby tear as it drank its fill of her blood. It made her think of the way the labour camp had tried to suck the lifeblood out of her. She struck hard and the mosquito was transformed into no more than a pink smear on her skin.
She was standing in the doorway of a cabin. She’d found it in a small clearing that was hidden way up on the northern slope of the forest, deep in the Ural Mountains. It wasn’t really a clearing, but more a ragged scar where lightning had decapitated a tall birch which, as it had fallen, had brought down a handful of young pine trees. The cabin was skilfully built to withstand the merciless Ural winters, but now it was old and patched with moss, tilting to the right like an old man with cramp.
It looked as if its bones ached just the way hers did. It had taken four never-ending, hard, grinding months as a fugitive to reach this point. She’d scuttled and scrambled and fought her way halfway across Russia, travelling always south-west by the stars. The odd thing was that it had taken her a long time – far too long – to get used to being on her own. That had startled her.
The nights were the worst. So big and empty. Five years of sleeping packed five to a bed board and you’d think she’d relish the sudden relief of solitary living, but no. She could hardly bear to be on her own at first because the space around her was too huge. She found sleep hard, but gradually her mind and her body adapted. Then she travelled faster.
The actual escape from Davinsky had proved even more dangerous than she’d expected. It was a dull damp day in March with a lingering mist that swirled among the trees like the dead drifting from trunk to trunk. Visibility was poor. A perfect day to join the ghosts.
She and Anna had planned it carefully.
They waited until the perekur, the smoke-break, which gave her five minutes. Five minutes was all. Sofia stood in a huddle with the other women from her brigade and saw Anna watching her, taking in every last detail, saying nothing. The idea of leaving Anna behind felt absurdly like treachery, but she had no choice. Even alone her own chances of survival were… She stopped her thoughts right there. Minute by minute, that’s how she would survive. Adrenalin was pumping through her veins and her throat felt dry.
She stepped closer to Anna and said quietly, ‘I promise I’ll come back for you. Anna, wait for me.’
Anna nodded to her. That’s all. Just a nod and the look that passed between them. A moment frozen in time with no beginning and no end. A nod. A look. Then Anna left the huddle of women and hurried over to where four guards were standing around a brazier and smoking, stamping their feet and laughing at each other’s crude jokes. One guard was holding a dog on a chain, a German Shepherd that lay like a black shadow on a patch of icy grass, its eyes narrow slits.
Anna skirted the dog warily. She was to create the distraction, so with a shriek of alarm she started to make a fuss, waving her arms about to draw attention.
‘Look!’ she shouted. Heads turned towards her. ‘Look there!’ she shouted again, this time pointing urgently at the line of pine trees behind the guards.
A ribbon of space had been hacked out of the forest for the new road they were building, but beyond that lay a dense and gloomy world where little light penetrated. There, power was wielded by claws and teeth instead of guns.
‘What?’ All three guards jumped and swung round, raising their rifles.
‘Wolves!’ she warned.
‘Fuck!’ exclaimed one of the men. ‘How many?’
‘Tri. Three. I saw three,’ Anna lied. ‘It could have been more.’
A second guard came forward. ‘I can’t spot any.’
‘There’s one!’ Anna screamed. ‘Over there. See that pale shape behind…’ her voice was rising in panic, ‘no, it’s moved, but I saw it, I swear I did.’
A rifle shot rang out. Just in case. The dog and its handler were running closer to the trees. The prisoners all watched nervously. Sofia seized the moment: everyone’s attention was focused on the forest to the north of the road, so to the south she turned and began to move. The trees were fifteen metres away. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Don’t hurry, walk slowly. She cursed the ice that crunched noisily under her boots. Ten metres now, and she could see the tall slender trunks coming closer.
‘There!’ Sofia heard Anna cry out again. ‘Quick, off to your right – look, one of the wolves is over that way!’
The guard dog was whining as it strained at its leash, but she heard the handler utter a single word of command and the animal dropped to the ground in silence. The hairs on the back of Sofia’s neck rose and she didn’t dare breathe. Six metres now between her and the beckoning darkness of the forest, that was all. So close she could taste it. She made herself keep to a steady walk and resisted the urge to look behind her.
Another rifle shot rang out in the still air and Sofia instinctively ducked, but it wasn’t aimed at her. It was followed by a string of bullets that ripped through the undergrowth on the north side of the road, but no howls lifted into the mist.
‘That’ll scare the shit out of the creatures,’ one guard declared with satisfaction and lit himself a cigarette.
‘OK, davay, back to work, you lazy scum.’
There was a murmur of voices, and quickly Sofia lengthened her stride. Three more steps and-
‘Stop right there.’
‘Where the hell do you think you’re sneaking off to?’
Sofia turned. Thank God it wasn’t one of the guards. It was the leader of one of the other brigades, a woman with hard eyes and even harder fists. Sofia breathed again.
‘I’m just going to the latrine pit, Olga.’
‘Get back to your work or I’ll call a guard.’
‘Leave it, Olga, I’m desperate to-’
‘Don’t fuck around, we both know the nearest latrine is in the opposite direction.’
‘That one’s overflowing, too disgusting to use, so I-’
‘Did a guard give you permission?’
Sofia sighed. ‘Are you blind, Olga? Of course not, they’re all busy watching out for the wolves.’
‘You know the rules. You can’t leave your work post without permission from a guard.’ The woman’s mouth clamped shut with an audible snap of her false teeth.
‘What’s it to you, anyway?’
‘I am a Brigade Leader. I make sure the rules are obeyed. That,’ she said with satisfaction, ‘is why I have bigger food rations and a better bed than you do. So-’
‘Look, I really am desperate, so please just this once-’
‘Guard! This prisoner is running away.’
The ground was still packed tight with the last of the winter ice. Every thrust of the spade made Sofia’s bones crunch against each other and she muttered under her breath at the guard, a thick-set man who stood watching her with a rifle draped over his arm and a grin let loose on his face.
She had been ordered to dig out a new latrine pit as punishment and it was like digging into iron, so it took her the rest of that day. It could have been worse, that’s what she kept telling herself. It could have been much worse. This punishment was for not requesting permission before stepping away from the road because, thankfully, none of the guards believed the Brigade Leader’s story that she had been trying to escape. The punishment for an escape attempt? A bullet in the brain.
Damn it though. Sofia cursed her luck for running into Olga. She’d been so close. She’d snatched a brief glimpse of the freedom out there in the deepening shadows of the forest.
The latrine, which had to be three metres long and one metre deep, was set no more than two paces beyond the edge of the trees. The pines there were sparse and offered only token privacy. Near the end of the day, when the mists were stealing the branches from the trees, a young dark-haired girl was made to come and help her as punishment for swearing at a guard. As they worked side by side, in silence except for the metal ring of spades, Sofia attempted to catch sight of Anna on the road, but already her brigade had moved on, so she was left alone with only the girl and the guard.
Oddly, she didn’t feel sick with disappointment at her failure, even though she knew she had let both Anna and herself down badly. It was as if she was certain in that strange clear space inside her head that her brush with freedom was not yet over. So when the actual moment came, she was expecting it and didn’t hesitate.
The sky was beginning to darken and the rustlings on the forest floor were growing louder, when the girl suddenly pulled down her knickers, straddled the new latrine pit they’d dug and promptly christened it. The guard’s grin widened and he ambled over to watch the steam rise from the yellow trickle between her legs.
That was the moment. Sofia knew it as clearly as she knew her own name. She stepped up behind him in the gloom, raised her spade and slammed its metal blade on to the back of his head.
There was no going back now.
With a muffled grunt, he folded neatly to the ground and slumped with his head and one arm hanging down into the pit. She didn’t wait to find out if he was alive or dead. Before the girl had pulled up her knickers and screamed out in alarm, Sofia was gone.
They came after her with dogs, of course. She knew they would. So she’d stuck to the marshes where, at this time of year, the land was water-logged and it was harder for the hounds to track down her scent. She raced through the boggy wastes with long bounding strides, water spraying out behind her, heart pounding and skin prickling with fear.
Time and again she heard the dogs come close and threw herself down on her back in the stagnant water, her eyes closed tight, only her nose and mouth above the surface. She lay immobile like that for hours in the slime while the guards searched, telling herself it was better to be eaten alive by biting insects than by dogs.
At first she had the stash of food scraps in the secret pockets that Anna had sewn inside her jacket, but they didn’t last long. After that she’d existed on worms and tree bark and thin air. Once she was lucky. She stumbled upon an emaciated moose dying from a broken jaw. She’d used her knife to finish off the poor creature and, for two whole days, she’d remained beside the carcass filling her belly with meat, until a wolf drove her to abandon it.
As she travelled further through the taiga, mile after mile over brittle brown pine needles, seeking out the railway track that would lead her south, at times the loneliness was so bad that she shouted out at the top of her lungs, great whooping yells of sound, just to hear a human voice in the vast wilderness of pine trees. Nothing much lived there, barely any animals other than the occasional lumbering moose or solitary wolf, because there was almost nothing for them to eat. But in some odd kind of way the yelling and the shouting just made her feel worse: the silence that responded only left a hole in the world that she couldn’t fill.
Eventually she found the railway track that she and Anna had talked about, its silver lines snaking into the distance. She followed it day and night, even sleeping beside it because she was afraid of getting lost, till eventually she came to a river. Was this the Ob? How was she to know? She knew the River Ob headed south towards the Ural Mountains but was this it? She felt a wave of panic. She was weak with hunger and couldn’t think straight. The grey coils of water below her appeared horribly inviting.
She lost track of time. How long had she been wandering out here in this godforsaken wilderness? With an effort of will she forced her mind to focus and worked out that weeks must have passed, because the sun was higher in the sky now than when she had set out. As she tugged out her precious bent pin and twine that was wrapped in her pocket and started to trawl clumsily through the water, it occurred to her that the shoots on the birch trees had grown into full-size leaves and the warmth of the sun on her back made her skin come alive.
The first time she came across habitation she almost wept with pleasure. It was a farm, a scrawny subsistence scrap of worthless land, and she crouched behind a birch trunk all day, observing the comings and goings of the peasant couple who worked the place. An emaciated black and white cow was tethered to a fence next to a shed and she watched with savage envy as the farmer’s wife coaxed milk from the animal.
Could she go over there and beg a bowlful?
She stood up and took one step forward.
Her mouth filled with saliva and she felt her whole body ache with desire for it. Not just her stomach but the marrow in her bones and the few red cells left in her blood – even the small sacs inside her lungs. They all whimpered for one mouthful of that white liquid.
But to come so far and now risk everything?
She forced herself to sit again. To wait until dark. There was no moon, no stars, just another chill damp night inhabited only by bats, but Sofia was well used to it and moved easily through the darkness to the barn where the cow had been tucked away at the end of the day. She opened the lichen-covered door a crack and listened carefully. No sound, except the soft moist snoring of the cow. She slipped through the crack and felt a shiver of delight at being inside somewhere warm and protective at last, after so long outside facing the elements. Even the old cow was obliging, despite Sofia’s cold fingers, and allowed a few squirts of milk directly into her mouth. Never in her life had anything tasted so exquisite. That was when she made her mistake. The warmth, the smell of straw, the remnants of milk on her tongue, the sweet odour of the cow’s hide, it all melted the shield of ice she’d built around herself. Without stopping to think, she bundled the straw into a cosy nest, curled up in it and was instantly asleep. The night enveloped the barn.
Something sharp in her ribs woke her. She opened her eyes. It was a finger, thick-knuckled and full of strength. Attached to it was a hand, the skin stretched over a spider’s web of blue veins. Sofia leapt to her feet.
The farmer’s wife was just visible, standing in front of her in the first wisps of early morning light. The woman said nothing but pressed a cloth bundle into Sofia’s hands. She quickly led the cow out of the barn, but not before giving Sofia a sharp shake of her grey head in warning. Outside, her husband could be heard whistling and stacking logs on to a cart.
The barn door shut.
‘Spasibo,’ Sofia whispered into the emptiness.
She longed to call the woman back and wrap her arms around her. Instead she ate the food in the bundle, kept an eye to a knot-hole in the door and, when the farmer had finished with his logs, she vanished back into the lonely forest.
After that, things went wrong. Badly wrong. It was her own fault. She almost drowned when she was stupid enough to take a short cut by swimming across a tributary of the river where the currents were lethal, and five times she came close to being caught with her hand in a chicken coop or stealing from a washing line. She lived on her wits, but as the villages started to appear with more regularity, it grew too dangerous to move by day without identity papers, so she travelled only at night. It slowed her progress.
Then disaster. For one whole insane week she headed in the wrong direction under starless skies, not realising the Ob had swung west.
‘Dura! Stupid fool!’
She cursed her idiocy and slumped down in a slice of moonlight on the river bank, her blistered feet dangling in the dark waters. Closing her eyes, she forced her mind to picture the place she was aiming for. Tivil, it was called. She’d never been there, but she conjured up a picture of it with ease. It was no more than a small distant speck in a vast land, a sleepy village somewhere in a fold of the ancient Ural Mountains.
‘Oh Anna, how the hell am I going to find it?’
Yet now, at last, she was here. In the clearing among the silver birches, the mossy cabin with its crooked roof warm at her back, the last of the sun’s rays on her face. Here, right in the heart of the Ural Mountains. But it seemed that just when she’d reached her goal, they were coming for her again. The hound was so close she could hear its whines.
She darted back into the cabin, snatched up her knife and ran.
Seconds later two men with rifles and a dog burst out of the tree line, but by then she had already put the hut between them and herself as she raced for the back of the clearing, hunched low, breathing hard. The dark trunks opened up and she fell into their cool protection. That was when she saw the boy. And in a hollow not three paces away from him crouched a wolf.
Pyotr Pashin felt his heart curl up in his chest. He didn’t move a muscle, not even to blink, just stared at the creature. Its mean yellow eyes were fixed on him and he didn’t dare breathe. Never before in his young life had he stood so close to a wolf.
Dead ones, yes, he’d seen plenty of those outside Boris’s izba down in the village where their pelts were hung out on drying racks. Pyotr and his friend Yuri liked to trail the backs of their hands through the dense silky fur and even stuff a finger between the razor-edged teeth if they dared, but this was different. This wolf ’s black lips were pulled back in a silent snarl. The last thing in the whole world that Pyotr wanted to do now was stick a finger in its mouth.
He’d jumped at the chance to come hunting when Boris asked him.
‘You’re a skinny runt,’ Boris had pointed out. ‘But you’re good with the hound.’
Which meant he wanted Pyotr to do all the running. But it hadn’t turned out to be a good day. Game was scarce and his other hunting companion, Igor, was tight-lipped as a lizard, so Boris had started in on the flask in his pocket which only sent the day tumbling from bad to worse. It ended up with Boris giving Pyotr a clout with his rifle for not keeping a tight enough hold on the leash, which made Pyotr scoot off among the trees in a sulk.
‘Pyotr! Come back here, you skinny little bastard,’ Boris yelled into the twilit world of forest shadows, ‘or I’ll skin the hide off you!’
Pyotr ignored him. He knew that what he was doing was wrong – it broke the first rule of forest lore, which is that you must never lose contact with your companions. Children of the raion grew up bombarded with bedtime stories of how you must never, never roam alone in the forest, a place where you will be instantly devoured by goblins or wolves or even a fierce-eyed axeman who eats children for breakfast. The forest has a huge and hungry mouth of its own, they were told, and it will swallow you without a trace if you give it even half a chance.
But Pyotr was eleven now and he reckoned he was able to look out for himself, and anyway, he was angry at Boris for the clout with the rifle butt. Also, though he wasn’t sure exactly why and he felt stupid even thinking this, in this part of the forest the air was different. It seemed to lick his cheek as daylight began to fade. Somehow, it drew him to this quiet circle of light that was the small clearing in the trees.
He caught sight of the back of the cabin, covered in bright green moss, and the fallen mess of branches sprawled lazily in the sun on the soft earth. His interest was roused. He took one more step and immediately heard a low-throated sound at his feet that made the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He swung round, and that was when he saw the wolf and his heart folded in his chest.
He didn’t dare breathe. Slowly, so slowly he wasn’t sure it was happening at all, he started to move his left hand towards the whistle that hung on a green cord round his neck.
Then, abruptly, a blur of moonlight-pale hair and long golden limbs hurtled into the stillness. A young woman was churning up the air around him, her breath so loud he wanted to shout at her, to warn her, but he could feel a wild pulse thudding in his throat that prevented it. She stopped, blue eyes wide with surprise, but instead of screaming at the sight of the wolf, she gave it no more than a quick glance. Instead she smiled at Pyotr. It was a slow, slanting smile, small at first, then broadening into a wide conspiratorial grin.
‘Hello,’ she mouthed. ‘Privet.’
She raised a finger to her lips and held it there as a signal to him to stay quiet, her mouth twitching as if in fun, but when he looked into her eyes, they weren’t laughing. There was something in them that Pyotr recognised. A quivering. A sort of drawing down deep into herself, the same as he’d seen in the eyes of one of the boys at school when the bigger boys started picking on him. She was scared.
At that moment it dawned on Pyotr what she was. She was a fugitive. An Enemy of the State on the run. They’d been warned about them in the weekly meetings in the hall. A sudden confusion tightened his chest. No normal person behaved so oddly – did they? So he made his decision. He raised the whistle to his mouth. Later he would recall the feel of the cold hard metal on his lips and remember the hammering in his heart as the two of them stood, saying nothing, in front of those mean yellow eyes in the shade of the big pine.
The young woman shook her head, urgent and forceful, and her eyes grew darker, their pale summer-blue colour changing as if someone had spilled a droplet of ink into each one. Just as the whistle touched his lips she gave a strange little shudder and moved her hand quickly. He thought at first it was to snatch the whistle from him, but instead it went to the blouse buttons at her throat and started to undo them. Pyotr watched. As each button revealed more, he felt the blood rush to his face, burning his cheeks.
Her skin was like milk. White and unused below the golden triangle at her neck where the sun had crept in. The blouse was shapeless, collarless, with short embroidered sleeves and, though it may once have possessed colour, now it was bleached to the grey of ash. As she slid the blouse open, he caught the flash of a knife at her waistband. It gave him a shock. Underneath the blouse she was wearing only a flimsy garment of threadbare material that clung to her thin body. The sight of her fragile collarbones made him forget the whistle, but it was her breasts he stared at, where the cloth outlined them clearly. His brain told him he should look away but his eyes took no notice.
Then once more she pressed a finger to her lips and gave him a smile that, in a strange way he didn’t understand, seemed to steal something from inside him. It left a hole in a secret place, which previously only his mother had touched – and that was when he was just a child. His chest stung so badly he had to crush his hand against his ribs to stop the hurt, and by the time he looked back, she was gone. A faint movement of the branches and a shimmer of leaves, that was all that remained. Even the wolf had disappeared.
He stayed there with the whistle in his hand for what felt like for ever but which must have been no more than a minute, and gradually the sounds around him started to return. The dog whining; the hunters calling and cursing him. A magpie rattled out its annoyance. He knew he should shout to them, it was his duty as a Soviet citizen to alert them. Quick, there’s a fugitive running down to the river. Bring your rifle. But something stubborn hardened inside his young chest when he thought of the moonlight hair, and the words wouldn’t come to his lips.
Sofia stood without moving, concentrating on the sounds of the night: the rustle of some small creature as it skittered over a tree stump; a faint plop in the water, most likely a toad. Above her the sky was as black as she could wish for, a warm summer night with the air moist on her skin and no sign of the wolf. She’d seen the animal skulking around yesterday, its festering paw thick with summer flies, so she knew it posed no threat to her or the boy. It just wanted somewhere to hide and lick its wound. No sign of the dog or the men either.
Were they listening for her, as silently as she was listening for them? Here among the whisper of the trees. The silence a trap for me?
But no, OGPU troops didn’t possess that kind of patience. They liked to storm in at night and yank you from your bed when you were soft and vulnerable and at your weakest. Not this silent soulless stalking. No. Whoever the men with the rifles were, they weren’t the secret police.
She felt her pulse drop a notch and began to breathe more easily. Her feet made no sound as she wove between the trees, heading for the cabin, the pine needles releasing their fragrance under her feet. Hunters, that’s what they must have been, with their hound on the scent of… what? The wolf, probably. Already back in their village with a glass of kvass and a hand groping the skirts of a willing wife while-
Someone was in the clearing.
A dim light spilled from the hut and cut a yellow wedge out of the darkness, revealing a horse tethered outside. Sofia’s heart stopped. She shrank back into the trees and merged with one of the black pine trunks, the length of her body tight against its rough bark. It smelled strongly of resin. She wanted to smell of resin too, to hide her scent in the skin of the tree. The light went out and instantly the cabin door opened, figures emerged. The horse whinnied a welcome and she heard two male voices speak in low whispers. Then came the excited bark of a hound and the creak of saddle leather as one of the men swung up on to the horse. There was the shake of a bridle, the impatient stamp of hooves.
‘Thank you, my friend,’ one man said, his voice unsteady with some strong emotion. ‘I… can say no more… but spasibo. Thank you.’
Sofia caught the flat sound of two hands being clasped, then the horse cantered away across the clearing, heading west. It was in a hurry. She listened for the other man and his dog but they seemed to have vanished into the night. She told herself that whoever he was, he was nothing to her, just a temporary disturbance of her own night’s plans. She could still make it down to Tivil village before dawn.
She released her hold on the tree and felt a tremor of anticipation tighten her skin. With a stealth and sureness that were gained from months of travelling by night, she slid away into the blackness.
She had picked her time well. Still a couple of hours till dawn, the villagers had not yet begun to stir from the warmth of their beds.
The village of Tivil lay silent in the darkness. It looked crumpled and lifeless, yet Sofia’s heart lifted at the sight of it. This was the place she’d spent months searching for. She’d pictured it a thousand times in her mind, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, but always with one person standing at the heart of it.
Vasily. Now she had to find him.
Her pulse quickened as she stared down into the valley from the forest ridge. Again into her mind sprang the question that had plagued her steps each time she’d risked her life sneaking into barns or thieving chicken eggs to survive. Was Tivil the right place? Or had she come all this way for nothing? She shivered at the thought and pushed it away out of reach, because she had staked everything on one woman’s word. That woman was Maria, Anna’s childhood governess.
How good was her word?
Maria had whispered to Anna when she was arrested that Vasily had fled from Petrograd after the 1917 Revolution and turned up on the other side of Russia in Tivil, living under the name of Mikhail Pashin.
But how good was her word?
Sofia had to believe he was here, had to know he was close.
‘Vasily,’ she whispered aloud into the wind so that it would carry the word down to the houses below, ‘I need your help.’
She slid down from the ridge with a soundless tread. The only movements along Tivil’s dirt road were the brief flickers of shadow as clouds traced a path across the face of the moon, emerging now from its sleep. She had observed the izbas carefully, the rough single-storey houses that clung to the edge of the road, with their intricate shutters and precious patches of land staked out behind them in long rectangles. She watched till her eyes ached, trying to prise dark shapes out of a dark landscape. But nothing ruffled the stillness.
That’s when she drew the knife from the rawhide pouch on her hip and finally, after so many months of effort, set foot in Tivil. It gave her a quick and unexpected surge of joy and she felt her damaged fingertips tingle. The village was made up of a straggle of houses each side of a single central street, mixed up with an untidy jumble of barns and stables and patched fences. It lay at the head of the Tiva valley which, further down, shook itself loose and broadened into a wide plain protected by steep wooded ridges where hawks cruised by day.
At the centre of the village stood the church. Now that in itself was strange. Throughout Russia most village churches had been blown up by order of the Politburo or were being used as storage for grain or manure – the ultimate insult. This one had escaped such shame but, judging by the abundance of notices pinned outside, it had been turned into a general assembly hall for the compulsory political meetings. The brick building loomed deeper black against the black sky, almost as much a presence as the forest itself, and it gave Sofia hope.
Maybe Maria was as good as her word. It could be true – all of it. But just because the church was here, she told herself, that didn’t mean Vasily was, or that he’d be crazy enough to want to risk his life on the word of a stranger.
She moved with the shadows into the doorway of the church. Chyort! The lock was a big old-fashioned iron contraption that would shrug off any attempts she made with her knife. With another muttered oath she skirted round the side of the building, all the time scanning for any movement in the darkness. At the back, where the fields crept close to a scrubby yard, she found a small door, its lock flimsier. Immediately she set about it with the tip of her blade.
Sofia worked quickly, concentrating hard, careful to keep the sound low, but her pulse missed a beat when the shadows abruptly grew paler around her. A light must have been turned on somewhere close. She edged stealthily back to the corner of the building, her body becoming part of its solid mass, and holding her breath she peered into the street.
The solitary light gleamed out at her like a warning. It came from the window of a nearby izba. And as she watched, a man crossed inside the rectangle of yellow lamplight, a tall figure moving in a hurry, and then he was gone. A moment later the izba was plunged once more into darkness and the sound of a front door shutting reached her ears.
What was he doing out so early? She hadn’t bargained on the village coming to life before dawn. Didn’t he sleep? A bat darted across her line of vision, making her jerk away awkwardly. Her hair felt slick on the back of her neck. The man’s footfalls sounded as clear as her own heartbeat in her ears and, watching from her hiding spot, she saw the figure pass. His determined stride and speed of movement made Sofia nervous, but still she crept forward to see more.
He was heading away from her down the street, picked out in detail by a brief trick of the moon. It allowed her to make out that his hair was clipped short and he was wearing a rough workman’s shirt, which struck her as odd because he moved with the easy assurance and confidence of someone who was used to a position of command. Sofia’s hand relaxed on the knife.
Could it be Vasily?
She almost stepped out into the street and called his name. Except of course it wouldn’t be the name she knew, it would be Mikhail Pashin, the name Anna had said he was using. ‘Mikhail Pashin,’ she whispered, but too softly for anything but the moon to hear. She struggled to subdue a wave of excitement and reined in an unruly surge of hope. Surely she couldn’t be so lucky? She scuttled along the front of the church and, as she peered out into the shadows that were wrapped round the village, her luck held and the moon gave up its flirting behind the clouds and emerged white and full, bathing the street in solid silver.
He was there, ahead of her, clearly outlined, moonlight robbing him of colour, so that he could have been a ghost. A ghost from the past. Is that what you are, Mikhail Pashin?
She saw him turn off the street up a steep rutted track that clung to the hillside, leading up to the vague outline of a long dark building, a form she could only just make out. She was tempted to follow his footsteps but something about him made her certain she would be discovered. There was an alertness about him that, even in the dim light, came off him like sparks.
She sank to the ground, waiting, invisible in the black overhang of the church, her back pressed firmly against the wall to keep her still. Her patience was rewarded ten minutes later when she heard the sound of a horse descending the track, its hooves lively on the dry earth. She exhaled with relief because the rider was the same man. He’d obviously been up to a stable and saddled his horse for an early morning start, his cropped hair and broad shoulders painted silver by the moonlight once again.
But to her surprise, behind him a man on foot was also trotting down the track, a small slight figure, middle-aged but very light on his feet. They were talking in low voices but there was a certain curtness in their manner towards each other that spoke of ill feeling. Sofia’s gaze remained fixed on the rider.
Anna. Her lips didn’t move but the words sounded sharp as ice in her head. I think I’ve found Mikhail Pashin.
Just then the two men reached the point where the rutted track joined the road, and the rider turned abruptly to the left without a word. The second man, the small one, turned right, but not before he had run the palm of his hand lovingly down the massive curve of the horse’s rump as it swung away from him. Then, with his shoulders lifting and falling repeatedly, as if he was trying to uncage a painful tension in his neck, he stood staring after the horse and man.
The only sound in the night was the clink of a bridle and the soft shuffle of hooves in the dirt.
‘Comrade Chairman Fomenko,’ the small man called out sharply, ‘don’t push the horse too hard today. His leg is still sore and needs-’
In response the rider shortened the reins and pushed the animal into a canter and then a gallop. Steadily, man and horse disappeared towards the far end of the village until their outline merged with the night and they were gone.
‘Comrade Chairman Fomenko,’ the small man growled once more, and spat fiercely into the dust. Alone in the street and with the lightness stolen from his step, he headed up the road towards where Sofia was hiding.
By now she was shaking. She slid away into the blackness behind the church and rested her burning cheek against its cool bricks. The rider wasn’t Vasily – or Mikhail Pashin – after all, but someone called Fomenko. Fomenko! Damn the man! And damn her own stupidity! She’d got it wrong. As she wrapped her arms round herself, disappointment lay like a cold lead coffin in her stomach.
What else had she got wrong?
‘The stranger is here. I can feel it. She’s close.’
The words vibrated in the dark room and stirred the night air inside the small izba at the far end of Tivil, where two dark-haired figures leaned close across a table within an uncertain circle of light. A measured sprinkle of aromatic powder sent a spiral of flashes swirling out from the single candle flame that burned before them. Together they inhaled its delicate fragrance.
‘I’ve drawn her close,’ Rafik murmured. ‘So close I can hear her heartbeat in Tivil.’
His hand hovered over a black cloth, on which lay a heavy crystal sphere. It gleamed, shimmered and seemed to pulse in the darkness as the gypsy’s hand circled above it, slow and attentive, listening to its voice.
‘What do you hear?’ whispered the olive-skinned girl.
‘I hear her heart tearing. I hear blood spilling, drop by drop, and yet… I hear her laughing.’ The sound was sweet as birdsong in his ears. ‘Now tell me, Zenia, what you see.’
The girl swirled the copper goblet that stood in front of her, so that the dark damp leaves inside it caught a glimmer of the wavering light. Rafik loved to watch his daughter at work, to observe the passion for it that burned in her black eyes as she bent close. Though her gypsy skills differed greatly from his own, they seemed to bring her greater joy than his ever brought to him. He could feel her excitement burst forth, filling the drab little room with life, yet at the same time she was as fragile as blossom in springtime. It pleased his soul and he gave thanks once more to the spirit of her long-dead mother. His own skills lay more like a heavy weight in his mind, like a meal that was too rich for the stomach and which had left it glutted and uncomfortable, churning over on itself on the edge of pain. That’s how his mind felt now.
‘Zenia, what do you see?’
‘I see danger, a dark grey coat of danger, trailing behind her as she comes to Tivil.’
Silence, cold as moonlight, settled in the room.
‘More?’ Rafik demanded.
The girl shook her tangle of wild black curls and shifted the goblet. She touched her lips to its rim and closed her eyes.
‘It’s wreathed in smoke,’ she breathed, but her eyelids fluttered, fast and fretful. ‘Behind the veil of smoke I see something else, something that sparkles brighter than the sun itself.’ She pursed her full red lips and shook her head to clear the image. ‘She seeks it, but it carries a shadow on it. It is the shadow of death.’
‘Does she understand why she is here?’
‘She understands so little…’
Her hand was starting to tremble and Rafik could sense the layers of darkness descending on her mind. Quickly he reached out, removed the warm goblet from her fingers and silently touched a finger to his daughter’s wide forehead. Her eyes brightened.
‘She must choose,’ he said. ‘A fork in the road. One path to life, one path to death.’
He rested his head in his hands, tracing with a fingertip the dull ache that ran like a scar between his eyes, and pondered his words. ‘It is so – for all of us.’
Sofia was standing outside the kuznitsa, the smithy.
The old weather-beaten door was locked and she worked fast, digging the point of her blade into the dried-out wood around the lock. In less than two minutes she was inside the kuznitsa.
It was a long time since she’d been in any kind of smithy but instantly the smell of scorched iron enveloped her, stinging her mind with childhood memories as it crept out of the heavy beams. She fumbled in the rawhide pouch that hung from her waist – damn it, what was wrong with her? She was still shaken by her experience tonight, by her unguarded eagerness to claim any man who looked roughly the right age as Vasily. It had shocked her. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again. More caution. She pushed a strand of fair hair out of her eyes and at last found her precious box of matches, took one out and struck it.
In the sudden flare the darkness edged backwards and Sofia felt better. She licked her dry lips and looked around. The smithy was narrow. Above her she could just make out that the roof was made of sods of turf packed down on blackened laths. One wall was hung neatly with the tools of the trade: tongs and hammers; bellows and pincers; all kinds of blades and chisels. This smith was a tidy man. Just as the flame burned down to her fingers, Sofia reached out into the darkness and her hand closed round the haft of a small axe. The church lock wouldn’t stand a chance against it.
Moving fast, she emerged into the street and retraced her steps to the church. But as she approached it, she was aware of feeling light-headed. She hadn’t eaten all day, and only a handful of berries had passed her lips yesterday. This was her opportunity to fill her stomach. As the night breeze drifted up from the river that threaded through the valley, carrying with it the warning scent of woodsmoke, she crept on past the church and chose the last izba before the tangle of rocks and forest. From there escape into the trees would be easy if she was disturbed. She ducked low and slipped round to its vegetable plot at the back.
She peered through the blackness at the shabby wooden walls, patched in places with rough timber, a big fat water butt and a roof line as knobbly as a goat’s back, but everything looked quiet. Searching among the rows of vegetables she yanked up a couple of cabbages and thrust them into her pouch, then dug down with the axe and scrabbled from the earth whatever came to hand: a young beetroot, an onion, a radish. She glanced in the direction of the house, nerves taut, but the black shape of the izba remained solid and silent. She rubbed the radish against her sleeve and opened her mouth to bite off the end.
But before her teeth could close, a blow to the back of her head lifted her off her knees and sent her spiralling into blackness.
Sofia shuddered. Where the hell was she? For one appalling moment she believed she was back in the iron grip of the labour camp. Maybe a crack on her head from one of the bastard guards amusing himself with a rifle butt. But no, she could hear a young goat bleating and stamping its feet somewhere nearby, and she knew for a fact there were no goats in the Zone. Besides, she was lying on a bed, not a bunk. Her hands brushed against soft cotton sheets under her and she knew the camp Commandant would not be so obliging. So. Not Davinsky Camp then.
She tried opening her eyes, surprised she hadn’t thought of it before. But the light stabbed spear points straight into her brain and she heard a voice cry out in pain. Instantly a spoon touched her lips, a male voice murmured soft words she couldn’t understand and a sickly sweet liquid trickled down her throat. Seconds later, she felt herself sliding backwards, skimming over fields as agile as a dipping swallow, and coming to rest in the warm black pool of the Neva at low tide.
Sofia struggled to the surface.
Time. It floated from her grasp.
Faces drifted in and out.
Once a voice cursed, a female voice. Sofia found herself telling it all about the wolf and the boy with the tawny eyes in the forest, and about the long dangerous journey from the northern taiga all the way to Tivil. She told how her feet bled until she stole a pair of valenki and how at one time when she was starving in the forest, she could actually hear music in the form of bright flashes. A Rachmaninov symphony, like lights in the dark green world that had devoured her.
It was only when she’d finished that she realised she’d forgotten to open her mouth to say any of these things, but by then she was too tired. So she slept.
A noise. A scratching sound that scraped on the empty cavern of her mind. Remembrance came quickly. She lay still and opened her eyes just the faintest of cracks. The effort it took astonished her, but the thin strip of light that flickered between her lashes brought reality tumbling into focus and it didn’t look so bad. She began to hope.
A mass of wild dark hair, that’s what she saw first, around a young female face. A wide forehead and strong red lips. The person was sitting in a stiff-backed chair beside Sofia’s bed, bent over something on her lap. That’s where the noise was coming from. Without moving her head Sofia tried to take in her surroundings, lifting her eyelids a fraction more, but the sight of the room set her sluggish heart racing.
It was like no room she’d ever seen. The low ceiling was plastered and painted midnight blue, a hundred stars glittering and shimmering across it and a pale ethereal moon in each corner. Strange coloured planets with rings of white ice seemed to swirl among them, creating a blur that Sofia knew was not just in her unsteady head. And at the centre of this strange ceiling lay a huge painted eye at least a metre across. It was shaped like a diamond, its pupil as black as tar and it stared down at her on the bed. It gave her the shudders. She looked away. The movement was slight, but instantly the dark head lifted and large black eyes fixed on hers. They were suspicious.
‘You’re awake.’ It wasn’t a question.
Sofia tried to nod but the thundering pain at the back of her skull burrowed deeper, so instead she blinked. Her mouth was bone dry and her tongue too heavy to use.
‘You must sleep.’
Her guardian stood up and Sofia could see the objects in her hand. They were a pestle and mortar. She caught a glimpse of small shiny black seeds, some ground to a powder.
‘No,’ Sofia mouthed.
The faintest of smiles touched the full red lips, but didn’t reach her eyes. ‘Yes.’
Sofia felt a sharpening of her senses. She’d been wrong in thinking this person a full-grown woman. Despite the abundant curves of her breasts and hips, which were clothed in a delicately embroidered black dress with colourful stitching, glossy birds and butterflies peeping out between the folds of her skirt, she was little more than a girl. Sixteen or seventeen years old, she had a young girl’s translucent skin and long unruly curls that sprang to life at every turn of her head.
Across the room she started to pour liquid out of a dark brown bottle into a spoon. It smelled of musty earth and damp forests. Wary of what was going on, Sofia took a deep breath and sat up. Instantly the room and the girl cartwheeled in a blaze of colour that set Sofia’s teeth on edge. Slowly she forced everything back into place, but not before she leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited, nothing more than a dribble of saliva on to the hessian matting that covered the floor.
‘Who are you?’ she managed to ask the girl.
‘I am Zenia Ilyan.’ Her voice was low and full of a kind of heat, as if her blood flowed fast.
‘Why am I here?’
The girl came over to the bed, reached out a hand and touched the nape of Sofia’s neck. Gently the fingers started to massage it.
‘You’re here because you needed help. Now lie back.’
The girl eased Sofia’s shoulders down on to the pillow, one hand wiping the sweat from Sofia’s forehead while the other nudged a spoon against her lips.
‘No,’ Sofia whispered.
‘Yes. It will help you.’
‘No, I’m not sick.’
‘You don’t know what you are.’ Then very slowly, as if speaking to a particularly stupid child, she said, ‘You will heal faster if you sleep. When you are well, we will wake you.’
Sofia’s eyelids started to grow heavy, but she jerked them wide open when she noticed a row of candles burning on a shelf, sending shadows and the smell of tallow swirling through the air. Only then did it occur to her that the room had no windows. Like a cellar. Or a prison. The pain in her head ricocheted round her skull.
‘Sleep,’ the girl murmured.
‘Sleep,’ Sofia echoed and opened her mouth.
‘Run, Pyotr, run.’
Pyotr Pashin tore down the dusty track, legs pumping, arms driving him on into the lead. Hot on his tail nine other boys panted and scrabbled after him. And he felt a kick of joy in his stomach at the sight of nobody between him and the winning post. It was nothing more than a rusty stake hammered into the hard ground but right now in the bright sunshine it gleamed a burnished gold.
Suddenly he felt moist breath on his bare shoulder and turned his head just enough to catch a glimpse of its owner. One final burst and a quick dip of his chest, like a water fowl pulling weed, was all it would take to beat Yuri and to get over the line in first place. But instead Pyotr put on the brakes, not hard enough to be obvious, of course, but enough to do damage. In ten strides Yuri had outpaced him and was hurtling past the winning post. He watched the other boys crowd round Yuri, tumbling over themselves like puppies to be his best friend.
‘Well done, Pyotr.’ It was his class teacher, Elizaveta Lishnikova, who had come to stand beside him. ‘Molodyets! Congratulations.’
He looked up quickly. She was smiling, the wrinkles in her face rearranging themselves. Not often did he make her smile, so he dared to hope that he’d earn one of her red stars today. She was extremely tall with thick grey hair tied in a knot, and stiffly erect like one of the new telephone poles that were beginning to march across the landscape. Her long thin nose could sniff out a lie at a hundred paces.
‘You ran well, Pyotr,’ she said.
‘Spasibo. Thank you.’
Instantly a flying body hurtled on to his back, choking the life out of him and sending him sprawling on to the dirt in a tumble of arms and legs.
‘Yuri, get off me, durachok.’
‘You were brilliant, Pyotr. Fantastic. But I knew I could beat you, I knew it.’ Yuri thumped Pyotr on the chest, making his ribs ache, and raised his own arm in victory.
‘Shut up, Yuri.’ But he couldn’t help grinning.
There was something about Yuri Gamerov that made you want to please him. He was tall and strong with thick ginger hair and an easy way of always being the boss, something Pyotr envied. Pyotr was small and shy but around Yuri he felt more… well, more colourful. And for some reason he couldn’t quite understand, they were good friends.
‘Boys, you’ll both be cleaning school windows after the races today if you behave so improperly.’ The teacher’s voice was sharp this time, more the tone Pyotr was used to.
The grind of school term had finished for the summer and they were now into Young Pioneer Summer Camp, which Pyotr loved. But it was still held in the school yard each day and still organised by Elizaveta Lishnikova and her assistant, so standards of behaviour were not allowed to slip, despite the fact it wasn’t actually school.
‘Take yourselves off the running track immediately. I am about to start the next race.’
The boys scuttled away, naked backs above their shorts tinged by the sun, and threw themselves down on the grass. It prickled their bare legs. Anastasia came trotting over at once.
Yuri groaned, ‘Here comes the mouse.’
Yuri was right, of course, Anastasia Tushkova did look like a mouse: little pointed nose and chin; mousy hair that hung down her back in a skinny plait like a mousetail; and shorts that were much too big for her and made her legs look like pink pins. But Pyotr didn’t mind her really, though he wouldn’t admit that to Yuri.
Anastasia plopped herself down on the grass in front of them and held out a hand. It was very grubby and on it lay a biscuit.
‘It’s your prize for winning,’ she said to Yuri. ‘Teacher sent me over with it.’ She turned to Pyotr and gave him a sweet smile. She was eleven, the same age as Pyotr, but she looked younger, especially when she smiled like that. ‘You should have one too, Pyotr. You almost won.’
‘Almost is never good enough,’ Yuri grinned and took the pechenka from her. Very precisely he broke it in three equal parts and handed one to each of them.
‘No,’ Pyotr said, pushing it away. ‘You won it, you eat it.’
‘I insist,’ Yuri said. ‘Equal shares for everyone. It’s what we believe in.’
That was the trouble with Yuri. He believed in applying Communism to every corner of his life – and everyone else’s life too. Even when it came to biscuits. Anastasia had no such problem.
‘Mmm,’ she mewed. ‘Miod. Honey.’
Before Pyotr could blink, her share of the biscuit had vanished into her mouth. Something about the speed of it embarrassed him and he collapsed back on the dusty grass, feeling it press shallow grooves in the delicate skin of his back. He loved the sky, the high blue arch of it over Tivil, with the sun a ball of gold, hovering and waiting to be caught. He lifted his arm straight up to see if he could touch it but all he caught was a passing insect. He squashed it between his fingers and wiped it on his shorts. Yuri was sitting up watching the next race, but Anastasia was licking her fingers with the thoroughness of a cat licking its fur.
Through narrowed eyes Pyotr looked out at the dense jumble of greens that made up the forest as it marched up the steep ridges of the valley and over the mountains beyond. She was up there, somewhere, the woman with the moonlight hair. Living in the forest. Maybe he would sneak back to that old cabin tomorrow to see if-
‘Pyotr.’ It was Anastasia.
Her little bony hand was pointing beyond the broad cedar tree that marked the start of the village to a spot in the distance, where a ball of dust was rolling its way along the unpaved road towards them, slicing through the flat fields of cabbage on either side. Traffic on the road was always light, usually no more than a few carts a day and, on rare occasions, a car or truck. One of the boys in the Octobrians, the group for younger children, had also spotted the dust trail and was giggling with excitement, fingering the badge on his shirt. It was in the shape of a red star with a picture at its centre of Lenin as a curly-haired baby, the pride and joy of every young Octobrian who wore it. Pyotr and Yuri were too old for that now. They wore instead the scarlet triangular tie and their badge of membership to the Young Pioneers.
Pyotr forgot the woman in the forest and felt the little boy’s excitement slide into his own head when he saw who was driving the cart that was trundling up the valley. It was Aleksei Fomenko.
The cart stopped outside the school yard. The piebald horse in the shafts tipped its back foot on edge to rest it and snorted loudly. Yuri leapt to his feet, dragging Anastasia with him.
‘It’s Comrade Fomenko. Come on, let’s wave to him.’
Pyotr stood up beside her. ‘Why not? What’s wrong?’
‘He took Masha last week.’ Anastasia’s face had gone blank but the mouse-freckles on her skin stood out like warning spots. ‘He just drove that cart of his right up to our back yard and took her.’
Pyotr didn’t know what to say. Masha was the Tushkov family’s last sow. All they had left. Without her…
‘Here,’ he said and thrust his share of the biscuit into her hand.
She crammed it into her mouth.
‘The pig was beautiful,’ Pyotr said and saw a spark of pleasure brighten her pale eyes, but her pointed chin gave a brief quiver. She put both her hands on top of her head and turned away, her elbows hiding her face.
Pyotr’s chest hurt, though not from the running. He grasped Anastasia’s wrist because he didn’t know what else to do, and squeezed it. He was shocked to find it no thicker than a spichka, a matchstick, in his hand, just pale see-through skin stretched tight over a bundle of mouse bones. He glanced over at the rest of his classmates in their shorts, the girls in white blouses, the boys bare to the waist. When had they turned into scarecrows? Why hadn’t he noticed?
‘It’s Comrade Fomenko’s job,’ Pyotr whispered.
‘To take our only pig?’
‘Yes, of course it is,’ Yuri said with determination. ‘We’re a kolkhoz, a collective farm. It’s his duty to do his job properly.’
‘Then his job is wrong.’
Yuri shook his head fiercely at her. ‘You mustn’t say things like that, Anastasia. You could be put in prison for that.’
‘Maybe it was a mistake,’ Pyotr suggested.
‘Do you think it might be?’ Anastasia’s eyes gleamed with hope and Pyotr was furious with himself for putting it there, but he couldn’t bear to let her down now. He straightened his shoulders and ran a damp palm over his rumpled hair. He swallowed hard.
‘I’ll go and ask him.’
Aleksei Fomenko was the Chairman of Tivil’s kolkhoz, the valley’s collective farm, which was called Krasnaya Strela, the Red Arrow. Though he was no more than thirty years old, he controlled it all: he was the one who decided the work rotas, allotted the rate of labour days, made certain the workforce was in place each day – and ensured the fulfilled quotas were sent off to the raion centre on time. He had arrived from the oblast Central Office four years ago and brought order to a haphazard farm system that was so behind on taxes and quotas that the whole village was in danger of being labelled saboteurs and put in prison. Fomenko had set them straight. Pyotr worshipped him.
He was talking to the teacher in front of the schoolhouse, a neat white-washed building with a newly tiled roof. Pyotr walked along the side of the cart but it was too high for him to see inside, so he slunk round to the back where a young liver-coloured filly was tethered to the hinge of the rear flap. She was long-backed and skittish, eager to barge her way to freedom. Pyotr tried to soothe her but she would have none of it and attempted to nip him with her big yellow teeth, but the halter was too tight.
This was the first time Pyotr had ever spoken to Aleksei Fomenko, though he’d seen and heard him often enough at the compulsory political meetings in the assembly hall. He felt his cheeks flood scarlet and his gaze found refuge on Aleksei Fomenko’s boots. They were good boots. Strong. Proper factory-made ones. Not like the ones Papa wore, hand-stitched by a half-blind old cobbler in Dagorsk.
‘Not now, Pyotr,’ his teacher said firmly.
‘No, Elizaveta,’ intervened Fomenko, ‘let’s hear our young comrade. He has the look of someone with something to say.’
Elizaveta Lishnikova touched the elaborate knot of grey hair at the back of her head, a gesture of annoyance, but she said no more. Pyotr looked up at Aleksei Fomenko, grateful for the warmth of his words. Deep-set grey eyes were watching him with interest. The face was strong, like his boots. Straight thick eyebrows. And despite wearing a loose work tunic he looked lean – and authoritative, exactly the way Pyotr longed to be.
‘Well, what is it, young comrade? Speak up.’
‘Comrade Chairman, I… er…’ His palms were hot. He brushed them on his shorts. ‘I have two things I wish to say.’
‘Comrade Chairman, last week you took a pig from the Tushkov family.’
The eyes narrowed. ‘Go on.’
‘It’s just that… you see, I thought that perhaps it was a mistake… and if I explained to you then-’
‘It was no mistake.’
‘But they can’t survive without Masha. Really they can’t.’ The words came out in a rush. ‘They have eight children, Comrade Chairman. They need the pig. To sell her litters. How else will they eat? And Anastasia is so…’ He saw Chairman Fomenko’s eyes change, somehow sink deeper in his head, but he didn’t know what it meant. ‘… So thin,’ he finished weakly.
‘Listen to me closely.’ The Chairman placed a hand on Pyotr’s bare shoulder. Pyotr could feel the strength in it, as the man’s grey eyes fixed on his. ‘Who do you think feeds the workers in our factories? In the towns and cities, all the people making our clothes and our machines and our medical supplies, all the men and women in the shipyards and down the mines? Who feeds them?’
‘We do, Comrade Chairman.’
‘That’s right. Each kolkhoz, each collective farm, must fulfil its quota. It supplies the raion, the district, and each district supplies the oblast, the province. That’s how the great proletariat of this vast country is fed and clothed. So which is more important, young comrade? The individual? Or the Soviet State?’
‘The Soviet State.’ Pyotr said it passionately.
Fomenko smiled approval. ‘Well spoken. So which one matters more, the Tushkov family or the State?’
Pyotr was caught unawares by this sudden twist and felt the inside of his stomach burn. How had he come to this choice? He dropped his gaze, scuffed his feet on the brown grass and stared again at the strong boots. Their owner was waiting for an answer.
‘The State.’ It came out as a whisper.
‘That is why I took the sow.’ The voice was gentle. ‘Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Comrade Chairman.’
‘You agree it was right to take the sow?’
‘Yes, Comrade Chairman.’
‘Good.’ He released Pyotr’s shoulder. ‘And what was the second thing you wanted to talk to me about?’
Pyotr hated himself. He no longer cared about the second thing.
‘Well?’ Fomenko urged.
‘It’s the filly,’ Pyotr muttered. ‘The tether rope is too short and the halter too tight.’
‘You have good eyes, young comrade. The filly has thrown a shoe.’ He reached into his pocket, pulled out a fifty kopeck coin and tossed it in the air. The sunshine snatched at it. ‘Here, catch. You’re obviously a bright lad and know something about horses. Take her up to the blacksmith for me.’
Pyotr caught the coin and glanced at Elizaveta Lishnikova. She nodded.
‘Take Anastasia with you,’ she said, and there was a surprising softness in her voice that was usually reserved only for the younger children.
It made his shame worse, knowing she’d heard every word. His cheeks burned. He ran from the adults, unhitched the filly and as he trudged up the street in the dust with Anastasia in tow, he threw her the fifty kopeck coin. ‘You can have it.’
‘Thanks, Pyotr. You’re the best friend in the world.’
Sofia’s eyes opened into darkness. Her brain stalled and almost slid back into the soft safe blankets of sleep but she caught it just in time.
Where were the candles? What happened to the girl?
She sat up. Mistake. The room splintered and lights flashed inside her eyes. She waited until the pieces slotted back together. She was on a bed, fully clothed, her fingertips told her that much. So far, so clear. She took a deep breath.
She was frightened. A tight ball of barbed wire was knotted in her chest but that was nothing new.
Her head hurt.
The darkness. It was changing, breaking down as her eyes grew accustomed to it, into different shades of black and grey. She swung her feet to the floor, aware for the first time that she was not wearing shoes, and stood up. Not good, but not as bad as she expected. She took another breath and headed for the grey. It was a door. Her hands explored strong planks of wood pitted with knots and saw-marks, held shut by a wooden latch on a string. Around the edge of it crept a whisper of daylight. Sofia put her ear to it and listened. No sounds. Just more silence and the thump of her own heartbeat battering her eardrums.
She lifted the latch. It opened on to a low-beamed living room with rough split-timber walls, unpainted, a carved chest in one corner and in the centre a home-built table with two upright chairs. At one end stood the pechka, a large stove, and, more surprisingly, a big maroon armchair turned to face the stove. The rough floor was covered with woven rushes and the air smelled heavily of herbs, which was hardly surprising as bunches of all kinds of dried leaves were pinned around the walls in a fragrant frieze.
More to the point, the room was empty. No girl and no brown spoon. Over to her left was a window that revealed a dusty patch of road outside and next to the window was the door. She ran for it and breathed a sigh of relief as her fingers easily lifted the metal latch and she stepped over the threshold.
‘You’ll need shoes.’
She stopped dead. The voice had come from behind her, a man’s voice. Dimly, like a muted echo from a dream, she recalled hearing the same voice before, murmuring to her with strange unfathomable words while she was unconscious. Slowly she turned. At first, after the scorching brightness of outside, she could make out nothing different in the room, but then a movement drew her attention to the faded maroon chair. There was a face, an upward curve of a gentle mouth, a shock of dense black hair swept straight back and an even blacker pair of eyes in a narrow face. He was watching her.
How had she not noticed him?
‘Don’t you want shoes?’
He spoke quietly. He was leaning round the edge of the armchair, most of him still hidden from view by the upright back of it, though his legs in scuffed brown leather trousers stuck out clearly and his bright yellow sleeve lay along the armrest.
‘Don’t you want shoes?’ he asked again.
She had forgotten her feet were bare. She glanced over her shoulder at the sunlit slope, a tumble of honey-coloured rocks that led up to the forest edge where secrecy and safety beckoned. Run, she told herself, just run. She’d come too far and worked too hard to risk losing her precious freedom now. She had to choose.
‘Yes, I want my shoes.’ Her tongue was dry in her mouth.
‘I’ll fetch them for you.’
He stood and moved away from the chair. He was shorter than she’d realised, not even as tall as herself, and older than his eyes and his hair indicated. Probably fifty, with the kind of skin that was swarthy and lined from years of living outdoors in the eye of the wind, like the traders who travelled up from Kazakhstan with their mountain horses. There was little flesh on his spare frame but his arms looked muscular.
‘Please hurry,’ she urged.
He smiled, the gentle mouth curving more, and he walked over to the oak chest by the wall.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I have no weapon hidden here.’
He lifted the lid and extracted a pair of shoes. Slowly, so as not to startle her, he came forward and placed them on the table, then he backed off and stood next to the stove. He was tempting her back in, like you tempt a horse into a stall with an apple. She made her choice and walked back into the izba.
In some subtle way that she couldn’t quite explain, the feel of the room had changed. The smell of herbs was no longer suffocating but refreshing, and the place seemed to possess a kind of enticing peace. Sofia gave her head a sharp shake to clear it and cursed her confusion. Was it the result of the bang on the head or the residue of all that brown liquid still swilling through her veins? She looked at the shoes.
‘Those aren’t mine,’ she said.
‘Yours are worn through. Holes in both soles and tied together with string. I thought you might prefer these.’
He spoke about them as if they were a pack of cheap makhorka tobacco instead of possessions that some would kill for. Well-softened pigskin stitched on to double thickness rubber soles. New shoes. Who on earth could find new shoes these days? And then give them away? But she wasn’t going to argue with him. Instead she strode over to the centre of the room, snatched up the shoes and slipped them on her feet. They fitted perfectly.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
He gave her a warm smile. ‘Enjoy them.’
‘May they keep you safe.’
‘It seems to me you need help, that’s all.’ His voice was mild.
Sofia blinked, wary of this gentle-mannered little man and nervous of the uncertainty that had settled in her mind. She couldn’t afford uncertainty.
‘How long have I been here?’
‘Two days? It feels more like two weeks.’
‘No. It’s only two days.’
‘I was attacked.’
‘Yes, that’s right. My daughter found you stealing our vegetables. ’ It wasn’t an accusation, just a comment on how things were. ‘And you’d stolen an axe, too.’
‘You kept me prisoner.’
There was a silence. The smile had gone and a kind of stiffness altered the way he held his shoulders. Sofia knew she had offended him.
‘I tried to heal you,’ he pointed out quietly.
‘Thank you. I’m grateful.’ She recalled once more the voice murmuring strange words and the touch of cool hands on her burning forehead. ‘Is it your bedroom I’ve been sleeping in?’
‘It has no windows.’
‘I don’t need windows to see.’
She wasn’t sure what to make of that. ‘Thank you again for the use of it but now I must leave.’
She turned towards the open door. Behind her she heard his soft voice, so low she could easily have missed it.
‘You don’t have to leave.’
She chose to ignore his words and kept heading straight for freedom.
‘You can stay here. You’ll be safe.’ This time his voice rumbled round the room and echoed inside her skull.
You’ll be safe.
Out of nowhere came the sudden realisation that she was desperately tired of being frightened, of having her innards permanently twisted into knots whether she was awake or asleep. If she was going to reach Anna in time, she needed to be on the inside of Tivil, not struggling on the outside in the dead of night. Her thoughts became blurred, frayed round the edges.
‘Sit down.’ For the first time he came closer and stood with one hand on the table edge. She didn’t move.
‘Why? Why would you take me in? Without even asking why or how I came here? You must have realised that I’m… that it could make serious trouble for you and your daughter. So why take such a risk?’
The man’s small wiry frame hardened and the gentle mouth lost its curve. He placed both hands flat on the table and leaned forward.
‘If the people of this country do not help each other,’ he said fiercely, ‘soon there will be no Russia. No people. They will all be in labour camps, as prisoners or prison guards. It makes no difference which. A whole nation condemned to a slow death. The only ones left will be the sleek Politburo in Moscow, because power makes pride grow in the human heart like fat in a pig. I curse their rotten godforsaken souls. May they starve as we have starved. May they lose their wives and their children as we lose ours. May they choke on their own committees and kominterns. Let the Devil take the lot of them.’
Sofia sat down on one of the chairs. She looked up into those intense eyes and the world became a smaller place, as though just the two of them in this room existed. There was something extraordinary about this man. She had survived this far because she’d learned that trust was as fragile as a moth’s wings and you didn’t give it lightly. But she gave him a smile instead.
He laughed, a warm, fluid sound, and held out his hand. ‘My name is Rafik Ilyan. But they call me the gypsy. You and I, we can help each other.’
‘My name is Sofia,’ she said.
‘Have you seen her?’
Elizaveta Lishnikova narrowed her gaze against the sun as she glanced up through the village towards the gypsy’s izba.
‘Nyet. No,’ Pokrovsky replied as he hammered the last nail into a well-oiled hoof and snipped off its metal tip with pincers.
The liver-coated filly kept turning her head, pulling at the halter to inspect what he was doing back there, but otherwise she’d surprised him for once and behaved herself. Her wide nostrils released a long chesty sigh as though thankful the ordeal was over.
‘No,’ Pokrovsky said again. ‘The gypsy claims she’s his niece by marriage.’
‘Do you believe him?’
The blacksmith had been busy in the yard at the side of the smithy when the schoolteacher strode in with her usual forthright manner. He always enjoyed her visits, even though she did demand answers from him as if he were one of her scrawny pupils. The day was hot and humid and he’d been content at his work, but now he was suddenly aware of the sweat on his shaven head and the stink of horses on his leather apron. She always had that effect on him, making him feel big and clumsy instead of broad and powerful.
Elizaveta was wearing a long black dress nipped in tight at her tiny waist, and everything about her was dainty and ladylike, the little white lace collar at her neck and the way her delicate handkerchief just peeped out from her sleeve, too shy to venture further. Pokrovsky sneaked a glance at her elegant fingernails as she tucked a tortoiseshell hairpin back into her grey hair, then compared them with his own which were hard and black and caked in grease.
‘Neither do I believe him,’ she said.
‘So why is she here?’ He picked up a long file.
‘Why do you think?’
His eyes met hers. She always made him do the thinking for himself, as if she didn’t already know the answers. He ran the file back and forth over the filly’s rear hoof, tidying the edges, and said the words he was sure were already in her mind.
‘She’s an informer, here to spy on us.’
‘But why would Rafik, who loves our village so strongly, take in someone like that?’
‘Because…’ He paused, ran one of his big hands along the fine muscles of the horse’s leg and released his hold on her hoof. She bounced up on her toes and nearly kicked over his stool. Pokrovsky stood up straight and rubbed his hands on a dirty rag at his waist. ‘Elizaveta, I’m only a simple blacksmith, you’re the one with the brains.’
She laughed at that, a girlish laugh, and poked her furled parasol into his ribs. ‘Simple you are not!’
With a deep chuckle he led her further into the smithy where he poured her a glass of vodka without asking, and another for himself. He knocked back his drink in one but she sipped hers as if it were tea.
‘She stole my axe,’ he told her. ‘Zenia returned it to me.’
Her brown eyes widened. ‘Why would this stranger do a thing like that, I wonder.’
‘She wanted to chop wood?’ He raised one burly eyebrow.
‘Very funny,’ Elizaveta said dismissively. ‘The question is whether Stirkhov has sent her here to watch us.’
‘Rafik would never take in one of that bastard Stirkhov’s spies.’
‘He would if he wanted to keep an eye on her.’
‘You think that’s it?’
‘It could be.’ She finished her drink with a dainty flourish and let her eyes roam round the tools and forge. She gave a little satisfied nod of her head. Without turning to look at him she said, ‘There’s another package due in tonight, my friend.’
Pokrovsky poured himself another glass. ‘I’ll be there. You can rely on that.’ He drank it down.
‘Someone is coming. A woman.’
Sofia said the words calmly but she felt a jolt of alarm at the sight of a female figure heading towards the gypsy’s house through the last traces of dusk. The habit of fear was hard to break. She was seated on the bleached wooden doorstep, her cheek resting on her hand, her gaze fixed firmly on the village. She was watching the cows being led in from the fields, weary and heavy-footed, and the group of men heading for the meeting in the old church.
The evening had not been easy in the gypsy izba. Conversation was impossible. How could you talk in these bewildering circumstances without asking questions? But if you asked questions someone was forced to give answers and that meant lies. And who wanted lies?
‘Who is it?’ Rafik asked.
Zenia left her seat at the table where she was shredding a pile of dusky leaves, came over to where Sofia was sitting and squinted into the gloom that had settled like dust on the street.
‘It’s Lilya Dimentieva.’
‘Does she have the child with her?’ Rafik asked.
Sofia tensed as the woman and child came close, but she needn’t have worried because Lilya Dimentieva showed no more interest in her than she did in the carving of birds on the door lintel above her head. She was a woman in her twenties, small and slender with an impatient face and long brown hair bound up carelessly in a scarf. Her navy dress was neat and tidy, unlike Sofia’s ragged skirt and blouse, but the little boy whose hand clutched tightly to hers was a different matter. He was barefoot and in need of a wash.
‘Zenia, I want-’
‘Hush, Lilya,’ the gypsy girl said sharply. ‘Come inside.’ She gestured to the stranger sitting silent on the step. ‘This is my cousin and she’ll look after Misha. Won’t you, Sofia?’
‘Happily.’ Sofia stretched out a hand to the small boy.
His mother disentangled him from her skirts with a quick, ‘Misha, wait here,’ and disappeared inside the house with Zenia. Sofia and the boy studied each other solemnly. He was no more than three or four, dressed in what looked like a cast-off army shirt cut down into a tunic that was far too big for him.
‘Would you like to share my seat?’ she asked, patting the warm step beside her.
He hesitated, fingering a shaggy blond curl.
She edged over to make room. ‘Shall I tell you a story?’
‘Is it about soldiers?’
‘No, it’s about a fox and a crow. I think you’ll like it.’
He put out a tentative hand. She took it, soft and dusty, inside her own and drew him to share her doorstep where he plopped down like a kitten, but he still kept a small safe gap of evening air between his own body and hers. Already he’d learned to be cautious.
‘I don’t like this house,’ he whispered, his pupils huge in the semi-dark. ‘It’s full of… black.’ He blurted out the last word and then, as if he’d said something wicked, he clapped a hand over his mouth.
Sofia gave a soft laugh and the boy instantly pressed his other hand tight over her lips. She could taste onions on his fingers. Gently she removed his hand.
‘No,’ she reassured the boy, ‘Rafik is a kind man, and it’s just like any other house here in Tivil.’ She didn’t mention the ceiling with the whirling planets and the staring eye. ‘No need to be frightened of it.’
His hand patted her knee. ‘Tell the story.’
She closed her eyes, leaning against the wooden doorpost. She felt the solidity of it all the way down her spine, and was surprised to find Misha leaned with her, his shoulder nestling against her ribs. Behind them in the room she could hear the murmur of low voices. She opened her eyes and smiled at the boy.
‘There was once a fox called Rasta and he lived in a dark green forest up in the mountains among the clouds.’
‘A forest like ours?’
‘Just like ours.’ The high ridge above the valley had been swallowed by the evening darkness but they could both still see it in their heads. Somewhere a fox barked.
‘There,’ she said, ‘there’s Rasta calling for his story.’
With the air around them so still it too seemed to be listening, Sofia began to tell Misha the tale of the Reynard who made friends with the Crow. Before she was even halfway though it, the boy placed his head on her lap, his breathing heavy and slow. She picked a barley husk from his hair. As she stroked his cheek with her fingertips, aware of the child’s warm body on her knee and the glow of the kerosene lamp flickering behind her among the voices, she could almost fool herself she’d found a home.
Davinsky Camp July 1933
‘Anna, wait for me,’ Nina called out as she bent to stuff fresh moss into her shoes in an attempt to keep the water out.
Anna lifted her head. Her heart raced.
Anna, wait for me. Those were the last words she heard when Sofia escaped. Anna heard them again as clearly as if Sofia were standing next to her now. They hung in the air, insistent. Wait for me. All these months Anna had worried and fretted and tortured herself with nightmares, imagining every kind of hideous fate for her friend. A slow and painful starvation in the steppes or pitch-forked to death by a farmer or raped by a soldier. Torn to shreds by a bear or savaged by a wolf. Recaptured and sent to slavery in a coal mine or, worst of all, recaptured with a bullet in the head. Recaptured. Recaptured. Recaptured. The word had whirled around her brain.
Wait for me.
Anna looked around her at the women lining up for the exhausting trek back to the camp. It was the end of a long workday, a two-hour march ahead of them, their feet sore and blistered, backs aching and stomachs clenched with hunger. But it was a brief moment of time that Anna always enjoyed. Heads came up instead of drooping between shoulders, scarves were retied and leggings that protected against insect bites in the slimy ditches were stripped off. Work had to be performed in strict silence, but for these brief few minutes the women broke into conversation with each other. To Anna it was as sweet as if they’d broken into song. It wasn’t important whether they discussed that day’s moans or laughed at stupid jokes so hard it set their chests aching, what mattered was that they talked to each other.
‘How’s your cranky knee today?’
‘Much the same, you know what it’s like. What about your leg ulcers?’
‘A bloody pain.’
‘Has anyone got a length of cotton? Look, I’ve torn my shirt.’
‘Have you heard about Natalie?’
‘No.’ A cluster of voices. ‘What news?’
‘She’s had the baby.’
‘Boy or girl?’
‘A boy.’ A pause. ‘Born dead.’
Two women crossed themselves discretely, so guards wouldn’t notice.
‘Lucky fucking bastard,’ Tasha snapped. ‘Dead is better than-’
‘Shut up,’ Nina scolded, taking her place with a shrug of her broad shoulders beside Anna in the crocodile line. It used to be Sofia’s place. Whenever Anna stumbled or fell behind, Nina’s strong hand was there. ‘There’s a rumour going round,’ Nina said under her breath.
‘About what?’ Anna asked.
‘That we’re soon to be put to work constructing a stretch of railway.’ She picked off a fat scab on her arm and slipped it into her mouth for something to chew on.
‘The northern railway?’
Nina nodded and the two women exchanged a look.
‘They say,’ Anna murmured as they started marching, ‘that the railtrack has killed forty thousand this year already.’
Yet always more came, an unending river of prisoners carted across the country in cattle wagons. Each new arrival in the hut raised Anna’s hopes but each time she drew a blank.
‘Have you spoken to anyone called Sofia Morozova? In a transit camp? On a train? In a prison cell? ’
‘Nyet.’ Always the answer was ‘Nyet ’.
Anna’s eyes travelled to the dense wall of copper-coloured tree trunks on either side of the road, a raw scar that raked its way through the forest to another godforsaken camp and then another and another. Was Sofia out there? Somewhere? She raised her face to the silvery summer sky. She tried to hear the words again: Anna, wait for me, but they had gone. She felt cold and the pain in her lungs sharpened. She coughed, wiped away the blood with her sleeve.
‘I can’t wait,’ she murmured.
One foot. Then the other. And the first one again, left right, left right, keep them moving. A brief summer storm had passed, leaving the evening sky pale and drained, much like the snaking trail of women beneath it. The pine trees stood like stiff green sentinels along the track as if in league with the guards.
One foot. Then the other. Don’t let them stop.
The ground was soft with pine needles, the path worn into deep ruts by the daily tramp of hundreds of feet as they marched to and from the Work Zone. Only occasionally did the women catch a glimpse of a lone wolf among the shadows or hear the blood-chilling calls of a hunting pack like ghosts in the forest. That was when the guards’ rifles suddenly became a source of comfort rather than a threat.
It was during the hours that Anna spent walking – or shuffling, if she was being honest – that her mind would skid out of control. It slid from her grasp like a dog slips its collar and runs wild. Without Sofia to laugh at her stories, she no longer had the strength to keep her thoughts together and they raced around in places she didn’t always want to follow them to, colliding with each other.
At first, just separate moments started to skip into her mind, warm and vivid, like riding Papa’s high-stepping black horse whose coat shone like polished metal, and crowing with delight as her childish hands wrapped tight in the coarse black mane. Or her governess, Maria, standing in her second-best silk dress, the one that was the colour of red wine, and telling Papa that Anna couldn’t go out riding on his rounds with him today – he was a doctor – because of a sore throat. Papa’s face had fallen and he’d tickled her under her chin, telling her to get well quickly and calling her his sweet angel. He’d kissed her goodbye, his whiskers all prickly and smelling of fat cigars. Anna had once stolen one from the humidor in his study and shredded it to pieces in secret up in the attic to see if she could find whatever it was that made it smell so wonderful, but all she ended up with was a lap full of crinkly brown dust.
‘You’re smiling,’ Nina muttered beside her, pleased.
‘Tell me, Nina, do you ever think about your past?’
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘So what do you think about?’
Nina’s heavy features spread into a grin. ‘I think about sex. And when I’m too exhausted for that, I think about winning at cards.’
‘Last night I won that grimy piece of mirror off Tasha.’
‘Why on earth do you want a mirror? We all look awful.’
Anna nodded a time or two and watched a bright orange lizard, a yasheritsa, dart out of the path of their marching feet and flash up a tree with an angry flick of its tail.
‘I’m thinking of using it to burn the camp down one sunny day,’ she said.
Nina laughed so hard that a guard came over and stuck his rifle in her face.
But the images and memories crowded in on top of each other as Anna concentrated on pushing each foot forward, leaving her with no strength for defences against them. She forgot the dim forest trail and instead, inside the unpredictable labyrinth of her head, she was riding in the back of a luxurious black car.
It was a Daimler and it belonged to the Dyuzheyevs, bigger and shinier than Papa’s Oakland and with a glass partition, which didn’t squeak, between them and the chauffeur. Svetlana and Grigori Dyuzheyev were Papa’s dearest friends, wealthy aristocrats who lived in a magnificent villa in Petrograd.
‘Your pearls are beautiful.’
Svetlana Dyuzheyeva, a stylish and elegant woman, was delighted by the compliment. She ran a finger along the triple strand of matched pearls at her creamy throat.
‘Thank you, Anna. They used to belong to my mother and to her mother before that. Here,’ she lifted one of Anna’s fingers, ‘touch them.’
The pearls felt like silk, warm and alive, and smoother than her own skin. She couldn’t imagine how such beauty could come out of something as ugly as an oyster.
‘They’re wonderful,’ she murmured. ‘And one day Vasily will own them.’ She was thinking aloud, already afraid that he’d be stupid and use them to feed his fellow demonstrators. She couldn’t bear the idea of it.
Svetlana grinned mischievously, raised one eyebrow and leaned close to Anna’s ear. ‘Vasily… or his wife,’ she whispered.
To Anna’s horror she felt her cheeks start to burn. She turned away to hide her quiver of excitement and looked out of the other window. Maria, Anna’s governess, was sitting on the jump seat opposite Papa, in her very best dress of green watered silk and wearing her very best smile. Anna loved her governess, especially today because there had been no frowns, no scolding and no schoolwork. Instead Maria had played the piano for them all when Grigori tired of doing so and danced with Papa until even her nose glowed pink.
Afterwards there had been singing and champagne and wafer-thin squares of soft white bread piled high with glistening heaps of osyotr caviar. Now Papa was accompanying Svetlana and Grigori to the theatre, then the chauffeur would drive Anna and Maria home. Anna was perched between her father and Svetlana on the broad leather seat of the car. She had enjoyed the excitement of the day but was disappointed now that Vasily had vanished. He’d whispered to her that he had to meet a friend, but when she demanded, ‘To do what?’ his face had closed down and he’d given no answer.
‘Nikolai,’ Svetlana said, as though aware of Anna’s thoughts, ‘it was very naughty of my Vasily not to escort your daughter home tonight. I hope you’re not offended. He’s a bad boy.’ But she said it with a mother’s indulgent smile.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Papa said. ‘With his snow sleighs and dancing, your Vasily knows exactly how to please my daughter and therefore how to please me.’
He glanced out of the side window as they crawled nose to tail behind a queue of evening theatre traffic along Bolshaya Morskaya, the lights in the shops twinkling invitingly, reflecting off the black silk of the top hats. After a moment he looked back at Svetlana.
‘Where are they tonight?’
She gave an elegant shrug. ‘I don’t know. There’s an eight o’clock curfew.’
‘They’re in Palace Square,’ Maria said quietly. ‘Thousands of them. With placards and banners.’
‘Damned Leninists!’ Grigori growled.
Svetlana sighed. ‘What are they on strike for this time?’
‘They’re demanding bread, madam.’
Svetlana touched the pearls at her throat and made no comment, but the words had caused an abrupt change of mood in the car. Anna had the feeling that her feet were suddenly in ice water.
She hated to see Papa’s face so worried and to cheer him up she said, ‘Vasily says that everything will get better for the workers soon.’ She stuck out her arm to point to one of the shops they were just passing. ‘Vasily says that jewellery shops like that one will close because they are criminals.’
‘Criminals?’ Papa queried.
‘Yes, he says they are criminals to make fifty-two eggs of gold for the Tsarina and the Dowager Empress while the working man doesn’t even-’
‘Ah, I think Carl Fabergé may not agree with my son there,’ Grigori muttered grimly.
‘And Vasily says there are machine guns on rooftops to-’
‘Annochka,’ Svetlana said firmly, ‘you must not listen to everything my son tells you.’
‘Because… he is like you,’ she wrapped an arm round Anna. ‘He still believes the world can be mended.’
‘Papa,’ Anna said seriously, ‘I believe we should do more to help some of these people Vasily says are without food or warm clothes. You and I have more than we need of both, you must admit. So we should share with them.’
Papa patted her knee in a forgiving sort of way that was extremely annoying. Grigori grunted and Maria smiled. But Svetlana laughed out loud and tightened her arm round Anna’s shoulders, so that the ostrich feathers that trimmed her midnight-blue velvet cloak tickled Anna’s nose, making her sneeze.
‘Bud zdorova! ’ the adults chorused. ‘Bless you.’
Papa kissed her cheek. ‘Bless you, my dearest child. Bless you today, tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come.’
Anna stared out of the window at the chauffeured cars, nose to tail like polished elephants. ‘Will the Tsar be there tonight, Papa? Will it be very grand?’
Papa took a cigar from his silver case and rolled it between his fingers. ‘Grand is not a big enough word, my angel. Tonight the Alexandrinsky Theatre will drip with Grand Dukes and gold roubles and imperial magnificence just so that people like us can see a silly melodrama about love and death called Masquerade.’
‘Nikolai,’ Svetlana murmured in faint rebuke.
Silently Papa lit his cigar, watched the first tendril of smoke swirl round the interior of the car, then fixed his gaze on Svetlana and Grigori.
‘My dearest friends,’ he said earnestly, ‘if anything should ever happen to me, will you take care of Anna?’
Anna’s mouth dropped open. Happen? What was going to happen to Papa?
‘Nikolai, my dear, don’t-’
‘Svetlana, please. Now that my brother is dead of diphtheria there is no one else. And in these uncertain times one never knows, so-’
Svetlana reached behind Anna and squeezed Papa’s shoulder. ‘It would be an honour. Rest easy, my friend. We love her dearly and would care for her as our own.’
‘Spasibo. Thank you.’ His voice was gruff.
Anna breathed carefully, unable to work out what was going on. She had a horrid fear that she had just been given away and didn’t like the sound of it. But Papa hadn’t finished. He turned to the governess.
‘And you, Maria. If anything should… happen, will you also care for my daughter?’
Anna stared in astonishment at her governess. There were sudden tears in her large brown eyes. She tried to blink them away but the streetlamp trickled its yellow light down her face.
‘I will, Doktor Fedorin. I love the child.’
‘Ya klyanus. I swear it, Doktor.’
Papa swallowed hard, then he reached up and removed the pin he always wore in his tie. For no more than a second he gazed at it, at the exquisite pair of diamonds set in gold, then he brushed his lips lightly over them.
Anna watched with wide eyes.
He leaned forward towards the governess on the opposite seat, lifted the lapel of her coat and slid the point of the tie-pin into the soft wool. But on the underside of the lapel. When he sat back once more, the tie-pin was no longer visible.
‘Nikolai,’ Svetlana said, so softly it was barely a word, ‘that pin was from Anna’s mother. Her wedding gift to you.’
‘What better protection can I offer?’
Whatever was going on here, Anna was determined to put a stop to it.
‘Papa, ne boysya, don’t be afraid. Nothing is going to happen to you. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.’ She gave him a wide grin and patted his strong arm. ‘You can rely on me. And Vasily.’
The streetlamps flicked past the car, painting bright stripes on the darkness. Odeen… dva… tri… Anna started to count them, one… two… three… but her eyes grew heavy and the lights too bright, so she let her eyelids drop shut and leaned her head against the warmth of Maria’s shoulder. The familiar smell of lavender and mothballs that drifted from Maria’s shawl was comforting.
The Dyuzheyev chauffeur was driving them home now that Papa, Grigori and Svetlana were gone. The Daimler turned left off Nevsky past the wide steps of St Isaac’s Cathedral and under the lime trees. Anna drifted further into the billowing darkness that marks the edge of sleep. When the car slowed down she barely noticed, but she felt Maria stiffen and heard the shout of alarm from the chauffeur. She opened her eyes and suddenly there were faces all around them, looming out of the black street. Noses jammed against the glass, hands drumming a threat on the metalwork, mouths snarling, teeth bared.
Wolves. They were wolves. Wolves in cloth caps and thick scarves. Wolves howling words she couldn’t understand, but she did know they wanted to tear her limb from limb. The car rocked on its wheels. Beside her Maria screamed, then the big car lurched forward, the engine growling, and the faces were gone. The tall houses whipped past as if in a race. Anna felt her heart on fire in her chest. Maria was breathing hard.
Anna took her governess’s trembling hand in her own and crooned the way she used to do to her kitten when it was frightened by Grigori’s Borzoi hound, ‘You’re safe now, you’re safe now.’
But Maria’s eyes were huge in her plump round face, her lips still quivering. She pulled Anna close to her and whispered, ‘Try to sleep again.’
Obediently Anna shut her eyes and breathed evenly, imitating sleep breaths. She was only pretending. Her bones felt stiff, the skin on her cheeks hard. She wouldn’t tell what she’d seen, not to Maria, not to Papa. And certainly not to Svetlana or Grigori. She’d keep the secret safe, but very cautiously, bit by bit, she let the faces of the wolves loose inside her head. She shivered and made herself examine them, one by one, till she found it, the face she was looking for. Yes, he was there, behind the one pressed against the window on Maria’s side of the car, a face she knew, a face she loved. Vasily.
He was wearing the thick red scarf she’d given him for Christmas and a grey jacket she’d never seen before, but it looked old and shabby like the ones around him. It was definitely Vasily, but he had grown wolf teeth and wolf eyes.
Thin tears made tracks down her cheeks.
Tivil July 1933
Sofia woke with a jerk. The world was dark. A ferocious banging on the front door of the izba yanked her out of a nightmare she was glad to leave, but before she could even begin to think straight, her body reacted instinctively. It leapt out of the makeshift bed at the back of the stove in one fast fluid movement and raced across the living room, flattening against the wall behind the door.
Her knife. Where was her knife?
‘Rafik! Open up, damn you,’ a man shouted outside. Its owner delivered a hefty kick that rattled the wooden planks on their hinges and made Sofia’s heart jump.
The door to Rafik’s bedroom opened abruptly and a candle advanced across the room. Above the flickering flame the gypsy’s face shifted in and out of the shadows as though still a part of Sofia’s dream, but his movements were solid and steady enough. His black eyes took in her position of ambush and he spoke softly.
‘It’s all right, it’s Mikhail Pashin, not the Blue Caps come to seize you. He is the direktor who runs the Levitsky factory in Dagorsk where Zenia works.’
Mikhail. He had come to her.
‘Gypsy!’ Another rap at the door. ‘For God’s sake, you’re wanted.’
Sofia held her breath and reached out to lift the latch but, as she did so, Rafik’s hand seized her wrist.
‘You’re safe here,’ he said evenly.
‘Yes, so don’t let your mind drown in your fear.’
‘I’ll remember that.’
Rafik released her wrist and opened the door to a blast of cold air that made the candle gutter and spit.
‘What is it?’ Rafik called out.
‘It’s the bay mare,’ the voice outside replied. It was impatient.
‘Foaling so early?’
‘She’s having a wretched time of it. Priest Logvinov is frightened we might lose her.’
Rafik’s expression showed a spasm of pain, as if the thought of losing a horse wounded him physically. Sofia took the candle holder from his fingers to steady it.
‘Wait in here, Pilot,’ the gypsy said and disappeared back into the darkness of his room.
Mikhail Pashin stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him, firmly shutting out the wind and the night. In the sudden silence that followed, Sofia saw in the wavering light a pair of intelligent eyes, grey and private. Two lines ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth in deep furrows, though he was no more than thirty. They told of things kept unsaid. But in Russia now, who did not have words hidden behind their lips?
‘I apologise for disturbing your sleep,’ he said.
He treated her to a courteous bow of his head. She was aware that he was studying her with interest and she became conscious that she was wearing only a nightdress. It was one that Rafik had given her, made of fine white cotton. She lifted the candle higher to see more clearly what it was about Mikhail Pashin that brought such energy into the house, and she noticed the way his long limbs kept flexing as though eager to be on the move. On his feet were black shoes, highly polished, and he was wearing a charcoal suit with crisp white shirt and black tie, all oddly incongruous in this rough and informal setting. He seemed indifferent to it until he noticed her curious stare, then he reached up, loosened his tie and gave a slight shrug.
‘Why does Rafik call you Pilot?’ Sofia asked.
‘It’s his private joke. I’m not a pilot of anything.’
‘Except the Levitsky factory?’
He laughed, but there was an edge to it that made it clear he was anything but amused. ‘That’s not piloting. That’s crash landing. ’
‘Is it wise?’
‘To say such things.’
She hadn’t meant to startle him. But she saw one eyebrow rise and felt a subtle shift in the air between them. He took a step away from her into the deeper shadows that hovered beyond the candle flame’s circle and bowed his head to her again, but this time there was an unmistakable hint of mockery in it.
‘Thank you for the warning,’ he said smoothly.
‘It wasn’t a warning, it was-’
At that moment Rafik hurried into the room, fully dressed and in a warm wool jacket, with a coarse blanket over one shoulder and a large leather satchel slung from the other.
‘Come, Mikhail,’ he ordered. ‘We must be quick.’
Mikhail Pashin spun round, opened the door and without even a farewell, the two men hurried away into what remained of the night. Sofia watched them go, one figure short and scurrying, the other tall and lean with the long easy stride of a wolfhound. Neither carried a light, as if their feet knew these paths too well.
‘It wasn’t a warning, it was a question,’ she finished.
He’s real. Anna, he’s real. Real flesh. Real blood. Not just existing solely in our minds. He’s solid, so solid I could have touched him had I chosen to and my fingers would not have slipped straight through his body the way they do in my dreams.
He’d come to her, coalescing out of the darkness just as he’d done a thousand times before when she’d summoned him, but never before had he been made of flesh and bone. Never before did he have a voice. A tongue. Skin that had seen the sun. A long hard throat. Hair that smelled of early morning mists and stable straw. His jaw was more angular than in her imaginings and his grey eyes more guarded, but it was him. Vasily.
Here in the gypsy’s house she had breathed the same air he breathed. Her heart was pounding and she could still hear his voice: I’m not a pilot of anything.
‘But you’re wrong, Mikhail Pashin,’ she whispered and brushed her hand through the air where he had stood, as if she could hold on to his shadow. ‘You brought me here. You guided my footsteps to this village of Tivil.’
And what had she done with the precious moment? Wasted it. Her foolish tongue had frightened him off with a question that sounded to his ears too much like a threat. Damn it, damn it. Where were the soft words she’d planned for him?
‘Next time,’ she murmured, angry with herself, ‘next time I swear I’ll touch you. I’ll place my fingers on the muscles of your arm and feel the hard bone underneath your skin.’ Abruptly she slumped down at the table and stared blindly into the shimmering flame. ‘He’s Anna’s,’ she whispered to the night.
Elizaveta Lishnikova felt sorry for the man in the chamber. She was the one who had started calling the dark and dingy underground room a chamber to give it a degree of dignity, rather than ‘the hole’, which was how it had been referred to before. It was only three metres squared, its earthen walls lined with planking. A single candle on a shelf threw out strange-angled shadows that Elizaveta had often noticed made the occupant even more jumpy. Only one hard-backed chair stood against a wall smelling of mildew, and there was a bundle of blankets folded on top of some sacking on the floor. A bible lay on the shelf next to the candle. Elizaveta had placed it there but tonight it was obvious it had not been touched.
The man’s hand was shaking, but otherwise he was putting up a good show of confidence. His fair hair was combed into a neat parting, his shirt collar was clean and he was managing to keep his shoulders straight. She didn’t like it when they arrived out of the darkness in crumpled rags, their bodies hunched and boneless with fear. But that was just a quirk of hers. She liked to see a bit of backbone on display. Though God only knew how desperately each package had good reason to be fearful.
‘Now, Comrade Gorkin – that’s your new name, by the way: Andrei Gorkin. Start getting used to it.’
He blinked, as if to seal the name into his mind. ‘I won’t forget,’ he said.
Elizaveta registered the refinement of his speech. Another intellectual, maybe a university lecturer who’d said one word too many in praise of the wrong kind of book or the wrong kind of music. She pulled her grey woollen shawl round her bony shoulders to keep out the chill of such thoughts.
‘Here,’ she offered a small bundle wrapped in muslin, ‘something to eat now. And something more for the journey. It’s only black bread and a cone of sunflower seeds but it’ll start you on your way.’
‘Spasibo.’ His voice was shaky and he wiped a hand across his eyes.
‘None of that,’ she said gently, in the tone she would use to one of the little girls in her class. ‘This is a time when you must be…’ She was going to say strong, but one look into his nervous eyes and she changed her mind. ‘You must be prepared for a little hardship. Keep your wits about you, do exactly as you’re told and you’ll get through it safely.’
‘I can’t thank you enough for-’
‘Hush. Eat up. You’ll be moving on any moment now.’
She rested a hand on the ancient iron latch of the door, ready to open it the second she heard the coded knock, and watched him force himself to eat. Clearly he had no stomach for food tonight. She didn’t blame him. Nights like this set her own innards churning and she sighed at the thought of a whole generation of intellectuals being wiped out, anyone with a thought of their own. Who was going to teach the next generation to think?
‘You must regard me as wretched,’ he said, smoothing his pale hair in an attempt to appear anything but wretched.
‘I had a good job in Moscow in the-’
‘Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.’
He sat down on the chair as suddenly as if she’d slapped him. Dear God, sometimes these packages expected too much from her.
‘It’s safer,’ she explained. ‘The less I know, the better for both of us.’
‘Yes, I understand.’
The candle hissed as a draught took the flame and she heard the rap of knuckles on old wood.
‘Your guide is here,’ she whispered.
She unlocked the door and the large figure of Pokrovsky slipped into the gloomy chamber. Not for the first time she thought how light on his feet the blacksmith was for a big man. He seemed to take up half the available space and she couldn’t resist a smile at the black bear-fur hat on his head. It was to hide any telltale gleam of moonlight his shaven scalp might catch in the darkness of the forest, he’d told her before. But it always amused her nonetheless.
‘Ready?’ Pokrovsky demanded of the man.
‘Do you have your new identity papers?’
‘Yes, here in my pocket.’ He patted his jacket.
‘Then let’s go.’
Elizaveta opened the door quietly and the man stepped out into the fresh night air. She saw him hesitate. Everything was black under a thin cloud layer and she could almost hear his heart rate pick up.
‘I wish there was a moon tonight,’ he muttered.
‘Then you’re a fool,’ Pokrovsky growled.
A wind rustled through the nearby stand of poplars. It could just as easily have been boots creeping over dead leaves on the ground. Elizaveta laid a hand on Pokrovsky’s massive arm.
‘My friend,’ she said softly, ‘take care.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll deliver your package safely.’
His expression was hidden from her in the darkness but he grunted, blew out through his nostrils like a horse at water and swung away from her, so that her arm fell to her side. He set off at speed and the package had to scurry to keep up.
‘You’re not in bed.’
‘No, Zenia. I’ve made you tea,’ Sofia said. She tried a smile but it got her nowhere.
The gypsy girl had just emerged from the tiny closet that was her bedroom and yawned loudly, her body still soft with sleep. She stretched, arching her supple spine, hitched her nightdress up to her knees and stepped on to one of the chairs at the table.
‘I like juniper in my tea,’ Zenia said ungraciously.
She pulled down a hank of dried berries from one of the hooks on the rafters and crouched on the chair, knees up under her chin. One by one she dropped half a dozen of the shrivelled berries into the cup of tea Sofia had pushed in front of her.
‘Smells good,’ Sofia said. She was treading carefully. The girl clearly did not want her here.
‘Yes,’ Zenia muttered, shutting her eyes and inhaling the steam.
Sofia sat opposite, silently studying the girl’s neatly trimmed nails, and waited for her to open her eyes. Minutes passed.
Finally the black lashes lifted. ‘What’s the matter?’ the girl asked. ‘Couldn’t you sleep? It’s barely light yet.’
‘Here, have some kasha.’
‘He left a couple of hours ago. To see to a horse that’s foaling.’
‘Oh yes, he mentioned one of the mares was close to term.’
‘Is that what he does?’ Sofia asked. ‘Care for the horses here?’
Zenia took a mouthful of the semolina porridge Sofia had made for her. ‘Yes, my father is half horse himself. This whole kolkhoz would be on its knees if they didn’t have him, though I don’t think even Comrade Fomenko, our revered Chairman of the Red Arrow, realises it.’ She flicked her tongue along her lips, scooping up a stray speck of kasha.
‘Tell me, Zenia, what is your boss at the factory like? Mikhail Pashin, I mean.’ Just saying his name aloud made Sofia’s chest tighten.
‘I want him to give me a job.’
‘Without identity papers? You’re crazy. You can’t do anything without them, you must know that.’ The black eyes grew worried. ‘You do know that, don’t you?’
‘Sofia, let me eat in peace, will you?’ She sank her spoon into the bowl once more.
‘Of course. I’m sorry.’
Sofia stood up. She didn’t want to crowd the girl, so she opened the front door and leaned against the doorpost, breathing in the apple-scented tang of woodsmoke.
‘You can get chucked into one of the Gulag labour camps for stealing, you know.’ Zenia’s voice behind her was casual.
Sofia slowly turned. Was it intended as a threat?
‘It’s anti-Soviet behaviour,’ Zenia added, but she didn’t meet Sofia’s gaze.
‘So why take the risk?’
‘In a Soviet State surely everything belongs to the proletariat. Well, I’m one of the proletariat.’
Zenia laughed, a startlingly lovely sound, and wagged a finger in Sofia’s direction. ‘I must tell that one to Boris Zakarov,’ she said. ‘He’s the Party spy round these parts.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
‘I bet you would.’
Zenia put her cup down on the table rather harder than was necessary, swept her hair into a black coil on top of her head and walked out of the room. Sofia’s head was pounding. A risk? Of course it was. Everything was a damn risk. She took a small step on to the colourless road outside. She could see movement in the village, figures silhouetted against the thin band of gold on the eastern horizon, lights flickering on in houses. A goat bleated plaintively somewhere close, a cockerel crowed as if he owned the world.
Today. Today would be the beginning.
Rafik stood in the privacy of his own room and held the stone in the palm of his hand. No larger than a duck egg and white as a swan’s throat. He’d brought out the white pebble from its bed of scarlet because he could sense danger gathering, sabres rattling, like troops lining up for battle.
It grieved him deep in his heart to know his beloved Tivil was under threat once more tonight, and each time he closed his eyes he could see the blonde-haired one, Sofia, tall and slender. She appeared to him like a blade, glinting and well honed. He could see the fine edge of her slicing through the dark dense mass that was the danger. Behind his eyes a pinpoint of pain began to throb. With a sudden urgent need, he rested his thumb on the smooth white pebble and felt its coolness against his skin. It brought to mind the ancient strength of his ancestors and cleared his mind. Now the Sight came to him more readily.
The stone had been passed down through his gypsy line for generations, father to son, and was said to have come originally from the stone that was rolled aside from the tomb of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land. Each time it lay in the centre of his palm he was acutely aware that each person who owned it imparted a sliver of their strength to its tightly packed crystals. He could sense the vibration of white life inside them.
A flame burned on the shelf. It rose out of a bowl of fragrant oil, a slender cord of smoke twisting up from the tip of the flame to the ceiling, where it settled and gathered around the large black eye painted there. Solidified like a shield. His thumb lingered over the pebble. Caressed its smooth carapace, traced a circle around it, a circle of protection. Once more round the stone.
Rafik stared at it intently.
A third time round the circle, his thumb anointing the pebble with oil this time and he could almost hear it breathing. He circled again. Again. Again.
Then he uttered a long, intricate curse in a language so strange and brittle that it rattled against the shield of smoke above his head. From the table he lifted a knife, its ivory handle carved in the shape of a serpent, and laid the tip of the blade on the inside skin of his own forearm. He drew a fine line until a trickle of red ran down to his wrist where it formed a shallow pool. He let it gather. Then tipped it.
Three drips on the stone.
His daughter came into the room at once. Her body was sheathed in a flowing red dress tied with a wide gypsy waistband, and fresh tendrils of forest greenery wove a plait around her neck. He thought how beautiful she looked, how like her dear dead mother. She gazed at the stone in his hand with alert eyes, bright and black and curious. Yet for her it possessed no resonance. Whenever she handled it and turned it over and over on her palm, it was nothing but a white pebble with a faint web of silvery veins threaded through it, an ordinary stone. He knew it frustrated her that she could not sense her ancestors within it, and though he would never breathe a word of it aloud to her, his own disappointment was even greater than hers.
‘Go with her tonight, my Zenia. But don’t let her know you are my sight.’
‘Yes, Rafik.’ She paused. ‘Is she in danger so soon?’
‘It comes from two directions. Make sure you guard her well.’
Rafik closed his fist over the stone and swept it briefly through the candle flame. ‘Darkness is coming to Tivil tonight. Fire and darkness. The fire will burn the one she loves and the darkness will quench the furnace in her.’
‘You are prepared?’ Zenia asked, her voice unsteady.
He lifted the stone and laid it against his temple, held it there, listening to something inside his head. His brow furrowed and a pulse beat strongly in his neck.
‘I am prepared.’
‘But will you fall ill?’
He smiled, a deep and tender smile. ‘Don’t be frightened, daughter. She is here.’
Pyotr liked the meetings. He loved to sit right at the front of the assembly hall, under the nose of the speaker. Every week he arrived early with his Young Pioneer shirt freshly ironed by himself, knees and hands scrubbed clean, hair slicked down into temporary submission. His eyes, like his cheeks, were shining.
‘Dobriy vecher. Good evening, Pyotr.’
A large figure with a smooth shaven head and a spade-shaped black beard took the place next to him. The boy felt the bench sag beneath the man’s weight and heard its groan of protest.
‘Dobriy vecher, Comrade Pokrovsky.’
The blacksmith, too, invariably selected the front bench at these weekly meetings but for quite different reasons from Pyotr’s. Pokrovsky liked to question the speaker.
‘Your father not here again, Pyotr?’
‘Nyet. He’s working late. At the factory.’
‘Hah! Tell me an evening that he’s not working late when there’s a meeting going on here.’
Pyotr felt his cheeks flush red. ‘No, honestly, he’s busy. Producing army uniforms, an important order. Directly from Moscow. He’s been told to keep the factory working twenty-four hours a day if necessary because what he does is so important. Clothing our brave soldiers.’
‘Proudly spoken, boy.’
Pokrovsky grinned at him. The black bush covering his mouth parted to reveal large white teeth, and it seemed to Pyotr that the blacksmith looked impressed. That made him feel less sick about his father’s absence.
‘It’s important work,’ the boy said again and then feared he was insisting too much, so shut up.
But his mood was spoiled. He slumped back on the bench and wished his friend Yuri would arrive. He stared moodily around at the plain walls that had once been covered in colourful murals of Christ and the disciples; at the remains of the ornate icons on the pillars, though most of the carving and decoration had been hacked off, leaving behind jagged edges. All the religious images had been white-washed into a clean and bland uniformity. This pleased Pyotr. As did the metal table set up on a low platform in front of him where the gilt altar had once stood, and the two sturdy chairs that waited for the speakers under the poster of the Great Leader himself. Beside it hung another, a bright red poster declaring, Smert Vragam Sovietskogo Naroda. Death to the Enemies of Soviet People.
This was as it should be. Plain. Real. For the people. Just like Father Stalin had promised. Pyotr and Yuri had read all the pamphlets, learned the Party slogans by heart and Yuri kept telling him that this new world was for them. Pyotr so wanted to believe him, he really did, but sometimes a little worm of doubt wriggled through the slogans, making holes in his certainty. Today, though, the warmth of comradeship swept through his young blood – he could feel it in the hall among the constant murmur of voices.
He looked behind him to where the benches were filling up. Most of the villagers were still in their work clothes of coarse blue cotton, though some of the younger women had discarded their dusty headscarves and changed into colourful blouses that stood out in the drab crowd. The gypsy girl was one. Her scarlet blouse with little puff sleeves looked dramatic against her long black curls, but she kept her eyes lowered and her hands quietly resting in her lap, as if she were still in a church. Pyotr always had the feeling she didn’t quite belong in the village, though he wasn’t sure why.
‘Privet, Pyotr. Hello.’
It was Yuri. He arrived in a scramble of long limbs and squeezed himself in next to Pyotr at the end of the bench, immaculate in his white Young Pioneer shirt and red neckerchief. Only then did Pyotr notice that his own ironing efforts weren’t nearly as effective as Yuri’s mother’s.
‘Have you heard?’ Yuri bent his ginger head to Pyotr’s. He was always one to know the latest news.
‘That Stirkhov is coming to address us tonight.’
Pyotr’s chest tightened just for a second. ‘Why? What have we done?’
‘Don’t be stupid. It’s an honour for us to have the Deputy Chairman of the whole district here.’
‘No, Yuri, Stirkhov only ever comes to Tivil to complain.’
The bulky figure of Pokrovsky leaned close, so close Pyotr could see where the black bristly hairs of his neatly trimmed beard were beginning to turn white in places.
‘This time,’ the blacksmith said, fixing them with his dark eyes, ‘the bastard is probably checking up on people who don’t attend these meetings.’
Even Yuri could not suppress a shiver. His father attended diligently but his mother always claimed she was too ill. Pyotr thought of his own father and felt that horrible tightness in his chest again.
‘You wait and see, Pokrovsky,’ he blurted out. ‘Papa is soon to be awarded the decoration Hero of Labour First Class for his work for the Soviet State.’
Pokrovsky slapped a hand down on Pyotr’s fragile shoulder and roared with laughter, so loud that others in their row turned and stared.
‘May God forgive you, boy, for telling such lies in His church.’
It was the hands. That’s what Pyotr decided. The way they moved through the air, strong and controlling. Wide slicing gestures to underline words; sharp jabs to force a point home. Even the flat palm to silence a rowdy voice from the floor. The hands held the power. Aleksei Fomenko, as Predsedatel kolkhoza, Chairman of the collective farm, had been speaking for an hour and a half, and Pyotr couldn’t take his eyes off him. He was seated behind the table, broad-chested and so full of energy that his lightweight brown jacket didn’t look strong enough to contain him.
So far he had been listing the recent quotas set by the Central Control Commission, naming the shirkers who had fallen behind on their labour days and urging them all to greater achievements. Fomenko leaned forward as he spoke, fixing his audience with a sharp gaze and scanning each villager in the hall. No one escaped.
‘Beware of complacency,’ he urged. ‘We are nearly at the end of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan that is building our country into the leading industrialised nation in the world. We have swept aside the superstitions of the past’ – here his eyes turned to a tall, bony man with fierce eyes, a lion’s mane of chestnut hair and a straggly red beard, but his open shirt revealed the tip of a large wooden cross hanging round his neck – ‘and the concept of servitude has been replaced by the doctrine of freedom.’
He clenched both fists.
‘A new world is emerging. One that will sweep away the mistakes of past centuries, and we are the engine that drives it. Yes, you and I. And collectivism. Never forget that. The grip of the kulaks – those rich bourgeois farmers, class enemies who laughed at the tears of the poor and exploited you all, lashing your backs with their tyranny and their knout – their grip is broken thanks to the inspired vision of our Great Leader.’
Fomenko turned to the giant poster of Stalin’s all-powerful face, swathed in the red banners that hung behind him. ‘Our Great Leader,’ he repeated.
A murmur rippled through the gathering. But nobody picked up the invitation, so it was Yuri who leapt to his feet.
‘Long live our Great Leader!’ he shouted.
‘Fine words,’ Fomenko said solemnly. ‘It takes a boy to show the rest of you the way. This young tovarishch, this comrade, is a true proletarian, a man of the future.’
A woman in the row behind Pyotr rose and echoed, ‘Long live our Great Leader!’
‘Josef Stalin, the Father of Our Nation,’ Fomenko’s voice filled the hall right to the rafters where the debased remains of the saints stared down on them, ‘is the one who is carrying throughout this great Union of Soviets the torch that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lit for us. Stalin is the one who is ridding us of the saboteurs and subversives, the wreckers and the spoilers who would destroy the drive forward of the great Five Year Plan.’ The Chairman linked his hands together, fingers firmly entwined. ‘We must unite in the great fight towards the Victory of Communism.’
‘What about some great bread to eat instead of a great fight?’ Pokrovsky the blacksmith demanded.
Yuri scowled at him. Pyotr felt himself caught between the two of them. Hesitantly he rose to his feet and in a quiet voice he declared, ‘Comrade Stalin will feed us.’
Beside him he heard the blacksmith groan and he felt himself yanked back down on the bench. Black fingernails like cockroaches sank into his freshly scrubbed flesh as they tried to hold him back, but Pyotr was determined now and started to sing the words of the Internationale: ‘Arise you workers from your slumber…’
The man who spoke was seated next to Fomenko at the table, a stocky figure with a smooth well-fed face, wiry hair and strangely colourless eyes. He wore a sleek leather jacket, the cost of which even Pyotr could see would have fed Anastasia’s family for a month. This man was the District Party Deputy Chairman, sent by the Raikom, and however much Yuri insisted it was an honour to have him at their meeting, it didn’t feel like that to Pyotr. It felt more like a rebuke.
‘Comrades,’ the man repeated, then paused. He was waiting for absolute quiet.
Fomenko eased back in his chair, instantly yielding control to his superior. The hall fell silent.
‘Comrades, I am proud to be here. With you, my brothers, the workers of Red Arrow kolkhoz. You all know me. I am Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Stirkhov from the Raion Committee. I am a man of the people. I bring a message from our Committee. We praise what you have achieved so far in this difficult year and urge you to greater efforts. The failure of the harvest last autumn was the work of wreckers and saboteurs, funded by foreign powers and their spies who plot to destroy our great new surge forward in technology. Throughout parts of Russia it meant we had to tighten our belts a notch or two-’
‘Or three,’ a man called out from somewhere at the back of the hall.
‘Your own belt doesn’t look so tight, Deputy Stirkhov.’ Another voice.
‘Listen to me, Comrade Deputy, I lost my youngest child to starvation.’ This time Pyotr recognised the voice. It was Anastasia’s mother. He would never forget the morning he’d seen her rocking the dead baby in her arms. Anastasia had missed school that day.
Stirkhov pursed his mouth. ‘Admittedly some shortages have occurred.’
‘It’s a famine,’ Pokrovsky declared at Pyotr’s side. ‘A fucking famine. People dying throughout-’
‘Comrade Deputy Stirkhov is a busy man,’ Fomenko interrupted quickly. ‘He is not here to waste time listening to your observations, Pokrovsky. There is no famine. That is a rumour spread about by the wreckers who have caused shortages through their sabotage of our crops.’
‘That’s a lie.’
Stirkhov rounded on the blacksmith. ‘I remember you. You were a troublemaker when I was here before. Don’t make me note you down as a propagator of Negative Statements, or…’ He left the threat unsaid.
Everyone knew what happened to agitators.
Pokrovsky hunched his massive shoulders as though preparing to swing his hammer on his anvil, but he said nothing that the Comrade Deputy’s ears could pick up. Only Pyotr heard the muttered words lost inside the beard: ‘Fuck you, arse licker.’
‘Blacksmith.’ Stirkhov spoke quietly. He lifted a sheet of paper from the pile on the table. ‘I have here a list of items you made and services you performed in this village which were not strictly for the kolkhoz. Not for the collective farm at all, in fact.’
Pokrovsky ran a hand over his shaven head in a gesture of indifference. ‘So?’
‘So you made a metal trough for Lenko’s chickens, you repaired a stove chimney for Elizaveta Lishnikova, you mended the wheel on Vlasov’s barrow, a pan-handle for Zakarov…’ He raised his reptilian eyes and studied Pokrovsky. ‘Need I go on?’
‘No. What is your point?’
‘My point is whether you were paid for these items?’
‘Not paid exactly. But they thanked me with vegetables or a chicken, yes. And Elizaveta Lishnikova darned my shirts for me. I’m not much good with a needle.’ He held up his thick muscular fingers. There was a gentle titter among the benches. ‘Like I said, not paid exactly.’
‘Without your services, those gifts – and I have a long list of them here – would not have been given to you, so I believe we can class them as payment.’
‘Which makes you a private speculator.’
There was a hush. An intake of breath.
Pyotr wasn’t watching Deputy Stirkhov any more. His eyes were on Chairman Fomenko and he could see the stiffening of sinews in his strong neck. Everyone knew what happened to speculators. Pyotr felt a moment’s panic and glanced swiftly round him.
That was when he saw her, the figure at the back near the door, standing motionless. It was the young woman from the forest, the one with the moonlight hair and her blue eyes were fixed right on him. He felt his throat tighten and he looked away quickly. Why was she here, the fugitive? A wrecker and a saboteur come to make trouble? Should he speak out? If only he possessed Yuri’s absolute certainty of action in a black and white world. He dragged in a deep breath and jumped to his feet again.
‘Comrade Chairman, I have something to say.’
Sofia could see what was coming but she didn’t blame the boy when he leapt to his feet. He was trapped. Enticed by the burning zeal. She’d seen it growing in his face each time he turned to glare at the stolid peasants around him, and in the way he leaned further and further away from the dissident blacksmith towards the eager young boy at his side, the one who looked as though he’d stepped out of a propaganda poster.
No, she didn’t blame him. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t fight him. Quickly she stepped into the aisle between the rows of benches.
‘Comrade Deputy Chairman.’
She spoke out clearly, overriding the boy’s thin voice. Instantly all eyes swung away from him and focused on the newcomer. A murmur trickled round the hall. ‘Who is she? Kto eto? ’
‘State your name, Comrade,’ ordered Stirkhov.
‘My name is Sofia Morozova.’ Her heart was kicking like a mule. ‘I’ve travelled down from Garinzov, near Lesosibirsk in the north, after the death of my aunt. I am the niece by marriage of Rafik Ilyan who cares for your horses.’
Heads turned to Zenia, who was seated next to the tall man with the lion’s mane. She nodded, but kept her eyes fixed firmly on the bench in front and said nothing.
‘What is it you wish to say, Comrade Morozova?’ Stirkhov asked.
He had one of those oily half-smiles on his face, the kind she knew too well, the kind that made her want to spit.
‘Comrade Deputy, I have come to this meeting to offer my labour for the harvest.’
It was Chairman Aleksei Fomenko who responded. ‘We welcome labourers at harvest time when the hours are long and the work is hard. Have you done field work before?’
She stared straight back at him, at the strong lines of his face. His observant grey gaze made her palms sweat.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve done field work.’
‘On my aunt’s farm.’
‘She kept pigs. And sowed oats.’
Enthusiastic voices erupted along the benches.
‘I could use her in my brigade.’
‘We need her in the potato fields!’ a woman shouted out. ‘It’s hard, mind.’
‘She doesn’t look as if she’s up to it, Olga. All straw limbs.’
‘I’m strong,’ Sofia insisted.
A woman in a flowered headscarf and rubber boots reached out from the nearest bench and prodded Sofia’s narrow thigh with a calloused finger. ‘Good muscle.’
‘I’m not a horse,’ Sofia objected, but good-naturedly.
The women laughed. Aleksei Fomenko rapped on the table.
‘Enough! Very well, Sofia Morozova, we will find you work. And I presume Rafik will speak for you.’
‘Yes, my uncle will speak for me.’
‘Have you registered at the kolkhoz office as a resident?’
For the first time he paused. She saw the muscles round his eyes tighten and knew he had started to doubt her. ‘You must do so first thing tomorrow morning.’
The boy’s head jerked round to face her, his brown eyes dark with fury as he prepared to speak. That was when she played her trump card.
She smiled straight at the boy and said, ‘I am a qualified tractor driver.’
Pyotr felt his fear of her melt. One moment it was like acid in his throat, burning his flesh, and the next it tasted like honey, all sweet and cloying. He was confused. What had she done to him? She was an Enemy of the People, he was convinced of it. Why else would she be a fugitive in the forest? But when he looked around at the faces he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see it too. What was she? A vedma? A witch?
‘Pokrovsky,’ he moaned.
The blacksmith glanced down at him. ‘What is it, boy?’
‘I still have something to say.’
‘Just sit still and shut up,’ Pokrovsky growled. His attention was on the stranger.
Pyotr knew that tractor drivers were worth more than the finest black pearls of caviar from the Caspian Sea. The State ran tractor courses at every Machine and Tractor Station throughout the country and a tractor driver was paid more in labour days, sometimes even in cash, but so far no one in the Tivil kolkhoz had succeeded in gaining a place on one of the overcrowded courses. The fugitive had chosen the perfect golden key to open the door into the kolkhoz because a tractor would halve the intensive work of the coming harvest.
‘A tractor driver?’ Fomenko repeated.
‘Yes,’ she answered.
‘You have the MTS certificate?’
‘I have the certificate.’
She was lying, Pyotr was certain she was lying. He could hear the little worms of deceit wriggling against each other as they burrowed into her words.
‘This is excellent news,’ Stirkhov said, ‘otlichnaya novost. The whole village will of course benefit, but…’ He paused, his pale eyes suddenly flatter and harder. ‘But tonight I have come to inform you all of the quotas you are to fulfil with this year’s harvest. The State demands that your quota of contributions be raised.’
A ripple of shock ran through the hall and one woman started to cry in harsh, dry sobs. Moans made a rustling sound like rats in corn stubble. Then came the anger. Pyotr felt it like a wave of hot air, thick on the back of his neck. He was sure the fugitive woman was in some strange way the cause of this dismay, that her presence was drawing disaster to his village.
‘Silence!’ Fomenko rapped on the table. ‘Listen to Comrade Stirkhov.’
‘We’re listening,’ Igor Andreev, a Brigade Leader, said reasonably. His hunting dog whined at his knee. ‘But last December the Politburo ordered the seizing of most of our seed grain and our seed potatoes to feed the towns and the Red Army, so the harvest this season is smaller than a shrew’s balls. We can’t even fulfil the present quotas.’ He stared dully up at Fomenko. ‘Chairman, we’ll be eating rats.’
‘If you work hard,’ Fomenko said quietly, ‘you eat. Stalin has announced the annihilation of begging and pauperism in the countryside. Work hard,’ he repeated, ‘and there will be enough for everyone to eat.’
Stirkhov applauded vigorously. Yuri did the same, and a handful of others clapped with token enthusiasm.
‘Only this week,’ Stirkhov announced, puffing out his chest inside his leather jacket, ‘Stalin is opening the Belomorskiy Kanal. One hundred and twenty million tons of frozen earth were removed by sheer hard labour and now the Baltic Sea is linked to the heartland of Russia. The trade increase in timber alone will bring a flood of prosperity and hard currency to our great Soviet State and its people. And to you as well, brothers of Tivil, so do not talk of failure. See what can be achieved when we work together and follow the vision of our Leader.’
It was Leonid Logvinov who stood up first, the ginger-haired man they still called the Priest, though his church was long gone. Logvinov’s skeletal arm held his wooden crucifix out in front of him, pointing it straight at Stirkhov.
‘God forgive your murdering ways,’ he thundered, ‘and the blaspheming lies of your anti-Christ.’
‘Too far, Priest, you’ve gone too far.’ Stirkhov pounded his fist down on the metal table. But at the same moment the large oak door at the far end slammed open with a crash, rebounding on its hinges, and a wave of cold air swept into the hall. Mikhail Pashin strode into the central aisle, his brown hair windblown, his suit creased.
‘Papa,’ Pyotr cried.
But Mikhail Pashin didn’t hear. ‘Get out of here!’ he shouted. He pointed a finger at the men behind the table on the platform. ‘They’ve tricked you, those two. They’ve kept you cooped up in here while the forces of the Grain Procurement Agency are ransacking your houses. They’re tearing your attics apart, hunting out hidden stores of grain, stripping your larders and stealing your chickens to fulfil their quotas.’
A moan ripped through the benches. Panic forced everyone to their feet.
‘Go home!’ Mikhail shouted above the noise. ‘Before you starve.’
Mikhail Pashin could barely contain his anger. He expelled his breath violently and stepped aside to let the panicked villagers pass. They were pushing and pressing, struggling and shouting, a hundred of them fighting to get through the door as if the blue-capped wolves were actually growling at their heels. It seemed to Mikhail that the people were turning into sheep. Stalin was snipping off their tails yet they didn’t even bleat, despite the fact that ever since the introduction of collectivisation starving peasants had thronged every railway station, clawing their way into the towns and cities. He’d seen them himself, begging in the streets of Kharkov and Moscow, selling their souls for a few kopecks.
Urgently he scanned the bobbing heads. Where was Pyotr? He would be here somewhere. His son’s seemingly infinite capacity for absorbing Communist propaganda made Mikhail clench his teeth, but right now all he wanted was to find him and get him safe. Tonight there would be violence.
Even as the thought entered his head, the crack of a rifle shot ricocheted through the night air outside, bouncing off the izba walls and sending shivers through the valley. A woman screamed inside the hall.
By now the crowd was thinning. A stone abruptly exploded in through one of the side windows as somebody expressed their rage, scattering glass and drops of rain over the empty benches. Mikhail took a deep breath.
‘Pyotr!’ he roared.
A huge wave of relief rushed through Mikhail as he caught sight of his son. The boy was right at the front, struggling ineffectually in the massive grip of Pokrovsky. The blacksmith was holding him there, indifferent to Pyotr’s kicks, quietly keeping him out of harm’s way. Mikhail raised a hand to Pokrovsky.
‘Spasibo,’ he mouthed. ‘Thank you.’
Pokrovsky allowed a thin smile in acknowledgement, but his eyes moved to the broken window and the lifeless leaves swirling in on the wind like omens. The big man ran the edge of his free hand across his own broad throat. Smert. Death. It was out there.
‘You always seem to be the bringer of bad news.’
Mikhail did not pause in his efforts to elbow a path down to the front of the hall but glanced fleetingly at the person who had spoken. To his surprise it was the girl he’d met in that candle-lit moment before dawn this morning, the gypsy’s niece, the one who seemed to have come from a different world. Her strange blue eyes looked at you as if seeing someone else, the someone you keep hidden from public gaze. She was standing in the aisle in front of him, still as stone, letting the flow of people break and reform around her. She was smiling at him. What the hell was there to smile about?
‘These days most news is bad news,’ Mikhail muttered.
She nodded but her words told a different story. ‘Not always,’ she said.
He wanted to push past to reach Pyotr but something about her held him there for a moment, and when an elderly babushka elbowed him against her, he found himself staring deep into her face, only inches from his own. He could smell the sweet scent of juniper on her breath.
She was painfully thin, bones almost jutting through her skin, and she had the bruised shadows of semi-starvation in the hollows of her face. But her eyes were extraordinary. Wider and bluer than a summer sky, glittering in the light from the lamps, full of something wild. And they were laughing at him. For one strange and unnerving second he thought she was actually looking right into him and rummaging through his secrets. Abruptly he recalled the veiled threat she’d made the last time he spoke to her and he forced himself to recoil.
‘You should go home,’ he said, more abruptly than he intended.
‘Home?’ She cocked her head to one side and studied him. ‘Where is home?’
‘You’re living with the gypsies, aren’t you?’
‘Then show some sense. Go and stay there. This night has only just started.’
‘You and I,’ she said in a voice so low he barely heard it in the hubbub around him, ‘have only just started.’
He frowned and shook his head. Each time they met she seemed to have a way of knocking him off balance. He broke free from her smile. ‘Pyotr!’ he shouted again.
The boy was released and started to clamber over the benches towards him. But halfway down the hall Priest Logvinov was standing erect like a scarecrow, raised up on one of the bench seats, his red hair like flames around his head, the cross brandished like a weapon.
‘Abomination!’ he boomed out. ‘Thou shalt have no other god before me, saith the Lord.’ His finger pointed at Stirkhov’s chest, as if it would drill through to the blasphemous heart within it.
‘Don’t, Priest,’ Mikhail shouted.
He saw Stirkhov, alone now on the platform, deliberately push over the metal table so that it fell with a screech on to the floor. With no sign of haste the Raikom Deputy drew a Mauser pistol from inside his leather jacket and pointed it straight at the ranting figure less than ten metres in front of him.
‘Priest! Get down!’ Mikhail bellowed, hurling himself towards the bench.
But it was the strange girl who saved him. ‘Aleksandr Stirkhov,’ she called, loud and clear above the noise in the hall. The muzzle of the gun wavered as he turned his head.
All she did was smile at him, but instantly the soft pink tip of Stirkhov’s tongue peeked out from between his lips.
Her smile widened, warm and distracting.
Time enough. For Mikhail to reach the exposed priest, drag him down into the crowd and push him along with the jostling flow to the door.
‘Christe eleison,’ the priest uttered solemnly in Latin. ‘Christ have mercy on us in this unbelieving world.’
Suddenly Pyotr’s worried face appeared at Mikhail’s elbow. He seized his son’s arm in one hand and the girl’s in the other and propelled them both through the door.
Davinsky Camp July 1933
Anna stole half a potato from the camp kitchen. She was getting good at it. Or was it just that she was becoming invisible? It was more than possible.
When she looked at her arms and legs all she could see beneath the mosquito bites was a skeleton covered in an almost transparent grey film, so transparent that she could see the bones underneath. They peered through in glimpses of white. She sometimes prodded them with her finger – to test how strong they were, she told herself, but really it was to make sure they were still there.
She didn’t want to steal the potato, any more than she’d wanted to steal the bread last week or the greasy strip of pork fat the week before that. Each time she knew she’d be caught, and each time she was. A shriek of protest from a kitchen worker; a firm grip dragging her to the floor. But always too late. She’d already crammed the food into her mouth before they could wrench it back from her. She’d taken the punishment beatings and prayed that the white sticks under her skin wouldn’t snap. So far they hadn’t, but they’d come close. If she was caught stealing again they’d shoot her.
She felt the solid lump of boiled potato work its way, one millimetre at a time, down into her stomach where it settled warm and comforting, like a friend. She patted the hollow cavity where she assumed her stomach still lay. No, not like a friend. Because of a friend. Because of Sofia.
Anna smiled and felt absurdly happy. She had achieved something positive, keeping herself alive for one more day, and it had been so simple this time, she couldn’t believe it.
‘You!’ a guard, the one with scabs on his eyebrows, had yelled at her when she was left behind in the yard after roll-call. ‘Get over here. Bistro!’
She had to concentrate when she moved, was conscious of sliding one foot forward, then the other, then the first one again. Like pushing logs uphill. She was slow and he was impatient, so he clipped her elbow with his rifle butt.
‘Unload those boxes into the kitchen. And be careful, suka, you stupid bitch. They’re new.’
It was that easy. Shift boxes. Unload pans. Keep eyes on floor. Place each iron pot on shelf. Slip potato in pocket. No beating. No punishment cell.
‘For you, Sofia,’ she whispered and again rubbed the contented spot where the potato lay. She’d promised herself and she’d promised Sofia. But waiting was hard and time after time she had to oust the thought that it would be much easier to lie down and die. With a raw gasp, she started to cough.
Are you coming, Sofia? Or is life out there too good?
‘Listen!’ Anna exclaimed. She paused from her task of stripping branches, axe in mid-air. ‘Listen to that.’ The other prisoners hesitated.
It was birdsong. A pure silken note that rose and fell and filled the air with the sweet sound of freedom. It set up an ache in Anna’s heart.
‘Get on with your work, if you’ve any sense,’ growled the short Muscovite who had toiled all day beside Anna with the silent precision of a machine and never missed her norm.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Anna insisted.
‘What good is beauty to me? I can’t eat it.’
Anna returned to lopping limbs off the tree. The tall graceful pine lay stiff as a fallen soldier at her feet, oozing its sticky sap. She had long ago passed the point where she felt any sorrow for the forest and the systematic massacre of thousands of trees taking place within it, because in a labour camp there was no room for such feelings. Nothing existed except work, sleep and food. Work. Sleep. Eat. Above all, eat. It frightened her sometimes to feel that her humanity was slipping away from her and she feared she was becoming no more than a forest animal, chewing on twigs and scrabbling in the earth for roots.
And then a small drab-brown bird opened its beak and the sound that poured forth brought her winging back to the human race. To the memory of a Chopin waltz and a young man’s arm sweeping her off her feet. The ache grew worse inside her.
‘Yes,’ she said to the bent back of the woman from Moscow. ‘You can feed on beauty.’
‘Blyad! ’ the woman swore contemptuously. ‘You’ll be dead before the year is out.’
Anna had no intention of dying. Not yet anyway.
She sank her axe into the scented white wood with determination, sweeping away the last tangle of feathery branches and moving on to the next trunk in the row. Around her, for as far as she could see, bent figures chopped and hacked and cursed their way through the thousands of felled pines, preparing them for their rafting trek downriver. Anna slapped a hand on the insects that settled greedily on her sweat-soaked skin. The mosquitoes were even worse than usual today. The sun burned above her, heating up this water-logged landscape so that the marshes hummed with newly-winged life. The insects drove everyone mad. But she’d promised Sofia that she would hold on.
Sofia, be quick.
She wouldn’t let herself think of the possibility that Sofia might be dead. It was too agonising a thought, too black and too huge to fit inside her head. Instead she watched the forest each day for movement among the trees, for a shadow that shouldn’t be there. She remembered clearly the first time she ever laid eyes on Sofia. It was back in the bitter winter of 1929 when Anna had not long been a prisoner in the camp and was as green and as soft as the wood she was chopping into.
‘Davay! Davay! Let’s go, scum of the earth!’
The guards had stamped their feet on the hard packed snow, in a hurry to move the prisoner brigades on to the next timber haul a verst away.
Anna had cursed her axe. It was too small and too blunt, the useless blade had stuck fast in the wood.
Anna had knelt on the branch, widening the gap between it and the trunk, and yanked the blade free. Everything hurt: the muscles in her back; the skin on her knees; the blisters on her feet; the tendons in her wrists; even the teeth in her head. And now lesions were appearing on her face and they frightened her. She’d hacked again and again at the last two branches but each time an iron-hard knot in the wood resisted her blows. She began to panic.
Frantically she tore at the branch with her hands, aware of the other brigades moving off, but her gloves had ripped and pain stabbed into her finger. A hand, strong and muscular, pulled at her shoulder and pushed her roughly to one side before she could object. An axe swung in a wide arc a hand’s breadth from her cheek, a blue smear in the white air, its blade finely honed. It had sliced neatly through the branch, which flew off with a crack into the trampled snow, followed almost instantly by the second one. The tree was stripped and ready to be hauled.
Anna had studied the owner of the axe. She was a tall young woman, wearing the regulation rough camp dress swamped under a padded jacket with her prison number on front and back, and a wool cap with earflaps tied under her chin. Her legs were wrapped in layers of rags and on her feet were shoes cobbled together out of birch bark and old rubber tyres, held together by string.
‘Spasibo,’ Anna had said gratefully.
Axe blows meant using energy and energy was like gold dust round here, so you didn’t waste it on others. Anna’s rescuer looked back at her with large blue eyes, her skin as grey as the sky. But no lesions.
‘Spasibo,’ Anna said again.
‘Your chopping technique is all wrong,’ the other prisoner said. ‘Swing higher and the axe head gains momentum.’ She had shrugged and started to walk away.
‘My name’s Anna,’ Anna called to her retreating back.
The young woman turned, stared thoughtfully, eyes narrowed against the wind.
‘I am Sofia.’
That was in 1929, only four years ago, yet it felt like a lifetime. Back in the time when four hundred grams of stinking black bread a day had seemed like starvation. When it lay heavy as damp clay in the stomach while she strove to work harder in the forest, now that her technique with the axe had improved. The camp Commandant made clear the simple rule: the more you worked, the more you ate. But only when she and her brigade reached the full norm would she receive the full ration paiok of seven hundred grams.
‘For seven hundred grams of bread I would sell my soul.’
She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. But she’d noticed odd things happening to herself in those early days of shock at finding herself a prisoner: at night, when her dreams grew too painful, she was digging her nails into her thigh so fiercely that they left scarlet welts in her flesh; and she’d started speaking aloud the thoughts that were meant to stay in her head. That worried her. She was losing control. She’d glanced round the barrack hut to see who may have heard.
Most of the women were huddled at each end where the stoves gave out a trickle of heat, not enough to keep the ice off the inside of the grimy window panes but sufficient to give the illusion of warmth. Others lay silent on their beds. The hut contained ten three-storey bunk beds, nudged tight against each other down both sides of the room, with every bed made of a hard board that was meant for two people but was packed with five each night. At times it was impossible to turn over in bed or do anything but lie rigidly on one’s side – hip bones soon developed sores, and there was a pecking order that settled the strongest and the fittest on the top boards. This evening by lamplight some of the women were playing cards they’d made out of scraps of paper and one group was bickering loudly on a top bunk as they bargained with each other for makhorka and salt.
‘Your soul’s not worth seven hundred grams of chleb.’
Anna looked up, startled. The voice came from Sofia, the girl who had helped her. Anna was sitting on the edge of her bed board on the bottom bunk near the draughts of the door, attempting to mend a hole in her glove. The needle she’d created from a splinter of wood and the thread she’d unravelled from her blanket, and it was going well despite the dismal light from the kerosene lamps.
‘My soul,’ Anna said firmly, ‘is worth a good breakfast. And I don’t mean the filthy kasha slop we’re given every morning.’
The blue eyes of the tall young woman scrutinised her carefully, as though she were a newly discovered specimen under a microscope lens. Sofia was leaning against the upright of Anna’s bed and she looked tired, her shoulders wrapped in a dark brown blanket that made her silver-blonde hair look brighter by comparison. It was cropped short, as was all the women’s hair, the authority’s compulsory solution to the problem of head lice. Her skin possessed the grey ashy tinge of malnutrition, but she had no sores or lesions and her teeth were astonishingly white.
‘I mean,’ Anna continued, ‘a breakfast of three fried eggs, yolks yellow as suns on the plate and whites as fluffy as summer clouds, and a thick slice of pork, pink and succulent with a fine grain to it and a slender curve of yellow fat that melts on the tongue like…’
‘Go on, go on.’
It was the Ukrainian babushka who spoke, tapping a bony hand on Anna’s back. She was lying on her tiny bed space behind Anna, who had thought her asleep because for once she wasn’t coughing, but the mention of food had even broken through to her dreams.
‘The bread,’ the old woman whispered, ‘tell me about the bread to go with the eggs and the pork.’
‘The bread will be white, fresh from the oven, bread so light and moist that it soaks up the egg yolk like a sponge and tastes like heaven in the mouth.’
‘And the coffee? Will there be coffee as well?’
‘Ah yes.’ Anna closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure, letting it unfurl inside her like a delicate fan that she’d almost forgotten how to open. ‘The coffee will be so black and strong that just the aroma of it…’ she and the old woman both inhaled deeply in an attempt to catch its fragrance, ‘will make your-’
Anna opened her eyes.
‘Stop it.’ It was Sofia. Her eyes were full of dark rage. ‘Why torture yourself?’
‘One day I’ll taste those eggs and that coffee again. I swear I will,’ Anna said fiercely.
‘Dura! You’re a fool,’ Sofia retorted and strode away to the far end of the hut.
Anna watched her. Saw her climb up on to her top bunk and pull the brown blanket over her head, burrowing deep into it like an animal into its nest.
The bony finger dug again into Anna. ‘And apples? Sliced up and sprinkled with cinnamon?’
‘Yes,’ Anna answered. ‘And a pot of damson jam, deep purple and glistening with syrup.’
‘You know, malishka, I’d honestly sell my God-fearing soul for a breakfast like that before I die.’
Anna swivelled round and smiled at the old woman, whose body was riddled with sores. She stroked the skin of the babushka’s hand, very gently because it was so paper-thin that the slightest touch could leave behind bruises like ink stains.
‘So would I,’ she whispered.
The woman struggled to sit up, her bird-like chest straining against the first rumblings of a coughing fit, and closed her eyes.
‘Hell couldn’t be any worse than this place,’ Anna murmured. ‘Could it?’
The next day one of the guards called out to her. ‘You! Come here.’
The evening ordeal was finally over. The poverka, the roll-call and counting of heads, was a process that dragged on and on sometimes for hours, even though the prisoners could barely stand after a hard day’s labour in the forest. It went on until the numbers that were lined up in rigid rows in the Zone tallied with the numbers on the lists in front of the Commandant. The procedure was repeated rigorously every morning and every night, and every morning and every night somebody died. The German Shepherd dogs on chain leashes watched with gaping jaws for any movement in the rows.
‘You.’ The guard called to her now. ‘Number 1498. Come here.’
When a guard chose to summon you out of the pack, it meant nothing but trouble. Anna tugged her scarf tighter round her ears to shut out the sound of his arrogant command and concentrated on keeping moving. She folded herself into the back of a group of prisoners as they shuffled their way at last towards the shelter of the huts, out of the biting wind that froze the breath on their lungs. The night sky was a vast velvety cat-black expanse overhead, spangled with stars and lit by a full moon that painted the faces beneath it with ugly colourless shadows. It transformed the long huts into coffins.
Anna heard the rattle of a rifle as a bullet was loaded into the breach. She swung round and faced the guard. He was young. Barely shaving. She’d caught him watching her before, his gaze crawling greedily over her skin, worse than the lice. He swaggered over to her across the icy ground, his rifle tucked snugly under his arm, its tip pointed straight at the spot between her legs to which his eyes kept sliding, even though she was bundled up under a skirt and a padded jacket.
‘Yes.’ She stared at the black patch of ground at his feet and linked her hands behind her back, as was required of prisoners when addressed by guards.
‘I hear you are willing to sell your soul.’
Her heart thudded. Her eyes leapt to his face.
‘Is that so?’ he asked, a sly smile tilting his mouth.
‘It was a joke, nothing more. I was hungry.’
Loathsome informers, the stukachs. Like the yellow-toothed rats, they were everywhere, swapping a scrap of information for a scrap of bread. No one could be trusted. Survival in the camp came at a high price.
The guard stroked the barrel of his rifle against her cheek, scraping one of the lesions and forcing her to turn her face aside while he pressed the muzzle under the knot of her scarf at her throat. The metal was brutally cold on her skin. She could feel her pulse slowing at its touch.
‘Are you hungry now?’ he asked.
‘I think you are lying, prisoner 1498.’
He smiled at her and licked his chapped lips. His back was to the nearest floodlight, which cut a yellow swathe through the darkness of the Zone so that his eyes appeared as deep black holes in his head. Anna wanted to push her fingers into them.
‘No,’ she said.
‘I don’t want your soul.’
‘I didn’t think you did.’
‘So will you sell your body instead, in exchange for a good breakfast?’
From the depths of his greatcoat pocket he drew a package wrapped in brown greaseproof paper. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he unwrapped the packet and held it out to her. The wind tried to snatch it away, making the paper’s folds crackle and snap. It contained two speckled eggs and a thin sliver of pork. Anna almost sobbed with desire. Her eyes feasted lovingly on the sight of the eggs, on their plump brownness, on the delicacy of the speckles in greys and whites and liver-browns, on the perfection of the curve of the shells. She didn’t even dare look at the meat.
‘So will you?’
He had moved. He was standing beside her now, his breath coming fast and forming small dense clouds of desire in the moonlight. Saliva rushed into Anna’s mouth. There were women in the camp, she knew, who took favours from a guard, who sought one out for protection. Such women did not have lesions on their face or death in their eyes and they worked in the camp kitchen or in the camp laundry, instead of in the killing fields of the forest. Was it so bad? To want to live?
Reluctantly she dragged her eyes from the beauty of the eggs and stared at the guard’s expression. Now she could see clearly the look of loneliness in his young face, the need for something that felt like love even if it wasn’t. He was trapped here the same as she was, about the same age as herself, cut off from all he knew and cared for. Russia had robbed them both and he was desperate for something more. A little human contact. A stamping of self on a blank faceless world. It could help them both survive. Her famished body swayed imperceptibly towards his strong young frame.
‘A good breakfast?’ he whispered temptingly.
‘Go fuck yourself,’ she snapped and swept away into the darkness.
Tivil July 1933
That night, Tivil was stripped naked and raw. That’s how it seemed to Pyotr.
‘Stay indoors, Pyotr. And keep the house locked.’
Those were Papa’s words. With a frown he lit himself a cigarette, ruffled Pyotr’s hair and was about to disappear back out into the chaotic night when he stopped abruptly. He looked across at Sofia Morozova, assessing her. Mikhail Pashin had kept a firm grip on her arm, as well as on Pyotr’s, when they left the assembly hall and had marched them both straight to the safety of his own home. Now he was leaving them.
‘Will you do something for me?’ he asked her. ‘Take care of my son tonight?’
‘Of course. I’ll guard him well.’
Pyotr wanted to die of shame but his father nodded, satisfied, and stepped out into the road. A cold drizzle was falling as he pulled the door closed behind him and Pyotr could see the raindrops like diamonds in his father’s dark hair. He tried not to be frightened for him. They were left standing in the tiny porch where boots were kept, the fugitive and himself, just the two of them alone in the house, eyeing each other warily. Pyotr picked up the oil lamp that Papa had lit on the shelf by the door and walked into the living room with it. He was hoping she wouldn’t follow, but she did. Right on his heels.
Neither spoke. He placed the lamp on the table and headed straight for the kitchen. There he poured himself a cup of water, drank it down slowly, counted to fifty in his head and went back into the living room. She was still there. She was leaning over the half-constructed model of a bridge on the table, one of the tiny slivers of wood between her fingers. Dozens of them were scattered over the surface, little lightweight girders.
‘Don’t touch,’ he said quickly.
‘It must take a lot of patience to make.’
‘Papa is building it.’ He shuffled nearer. ‘I help.’
She gazed at it, very serious. ‘It’s beautiful.’
He stared at one of the elegant wooden towers. Said nothing.
‘What bridge is it?’
‘The Forth Bridge in Scotland,’ he lied.
‘I see,’ she nodded.
‘Don’t touch,’ he repeated.
She put down the piece of wood and looked round the room.
‘You have a nice house,’ she said at last.
He wouldn’t look at her. Of course it was a nice house, the nicest in the village. A huge pechka stove provided the heart of the izba, which had good-sized rooms, a large kitchen and a handsome samovar decorated in Hohloma style. The house was light and airy and the furniture was smart and factory-bought, not hand-hewn. He glanced around proudly. It was a house fit for the director of a factory, with the best wool runners on the brown-painted floor and curtains from the Levitsky factory’s own machines. Only now did it occur to Pyotr that it might seem rather untidy to an outside eye.
‘May I have a drink?’ she asked.
He looked at her. Her cheeks were pink. Maybe she was hot. He didn’t want to give her a drink, he wanted her to go, to leave him alone but…
‘A drink?’ she repeated.
He scuttled back into the kitchen just as the cuckoo clock struck ten, and quickly he poured her a few drops of water in the bottom of the same cup he’d used. He didn’t bother washing it. But when he hurried back into the living room she was crouched down in front of the three-cornered cupboard where Papa kept his private things. In one hand was an unopened bottle of vodka, a shot glass in the other.
‘I didn’t think it was yours.’
‘Put it back.’
She smiled at him, a very small curl of her lips. Pyotr watched her unscrew the cap and pour into the glass some of the liquid that looked like water but wasn’t. He didn’t know what to say. She carried the bottle and the untouched vodka over to the armchair and sat down in it. She raised her glass to him.
‘Za zdorovie! ’ she said solemnly.
‘That’s Papa’s chair.’
‘How can you know?’
‘There are lots of things I know about your father.’
She tipped her head back and threw the shot of vodka down her throat. Her blue eyes widened and she murmured something.
‘I’m going to tell,’ he said quickly.
‘Tell Chairman Fomenko that you’re a fugitive.’
She poured herself another shot of vodka and drank it straight off. She closed her eyes and licked her lips, breathing lightly. Her eyelashes lay like threads of moonlight on her cheeks.
‘What makes you think I’m a fugitive?’ she asked without opening her eyes. ‘I was just taking a break on my journey south, resting up in the forest.’ Quietly she added, ‘You have no proof.’
He said nothing.
‘I don’t want trouble,’ she said.
‘If you don’t want trouble, why did you go to the meeting tonight?’
‘To find you.’
His stomach lurched.
‘I had no idea when I met you in the forest that you were Mikhail Pashin’s son.’
Pyotr just stared at his shoes. He’d forgotten to clean them.
‘Where is your mother?’
He shrugged. ‘She left. And never came back.’
‘I’m sorry, Pyotr. How long ago?’
‘Six years is a long time.’
He looked up at her. Her eyes were wide open now and filled with an emotion he couldn’t make out. There was a sudden shout in the street and running footsteps. Pyotr felt a desire to be out there.
‘Are you really a tractor driver?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ She smiled at him and he felt the sweet honey once again slide down his throat. She leaned forward, chin propped firmly on her hand. ‘Pyotr, please. We can be friends, you and I.’
He could sense the strands of her web twisting through the air towards him, so fine he couldn’t see them but he knew they were there. In her drab clothes she looked so harmless, but he recognised the determination in her, the same way he recognised the coming of thunder behind the grey skirts of a storm cloud. He turned and ran out of the house.
Elizaveta Lishnikova stood in the doorway of the schoolhouse. She watched the boy race up the street as if his shirttails were on fire and disappear into the night. A light drizzle was falling but still she stood there, tense as she listened to the shouts and cries of panic that tore through the village. Black shapes moved stealthily through the darkness and she caught sight of a fragile stick of a child creeping along the side of the fence that bordered the school. Her heart sank for the little one.
‘Anastasia,’ she called out. ‘Come here.’
The girl hesitated, eyes wide with fear. Under her arm she clutched a bundle of material.
‘Come here, child.’ Elizaveta inserted a touch of her head-mistress tone into the command.
The girl sidled through the front gate and scurried up the path, her hurried footsteps like the pitter-patter of a mouse’s tiny feet. She hunched in front of Elizaveta, her head hanging down, an expression of dismay on her narrow little face. The bundle in her arms was wrapped inside a piece of striped pillow ticking and covered in damp patches from the rain.
Dear God, are we reduced to using our children to do our dirty work?
‘What are you doing wandering around loose tonight, Anastasia?’
‘The soldiers came to our house,’ the child whispered. Her nose was running and she wiped it on her sleeve.
‘All the more reason to stay at home with your parents, I’d have thought.’
‘My father told me to… take something,’ she sniffed, ‘… and run.’
She clutched the ‘something’ closer to her bony chest and the material moved in protest. The unmistakable squawk of an angry chicken issued from it.
‘Why bring it here to the school, Anastasia?’
The top of the mousy head nodded vigorously. ‘Pyotr told me to. He said…’ Her small voice trailed away.
‘What did Pyotr say?’
‘He said the soldiers won’t search the schoolhouse for food.’
‘Did he indeed?’
‘He said it’s the safest place to be tonight.’
The hopeful eyes looked up at her, wet straggles of hair stuck to her cheeks like rats’ tails.
‘Very well, Anastasia. This once you may go into the classroom. Sit there in the dark and make no sound. Keep your bundle quiet, too. Wring its damned neck if you have to.’
The pale face looked up at her with a gaze of adoration that Elizaveta knew she didn’t want or deserve. All she could think of was that a chicken was not worth the risk she was taking. A man, yes. A chicken, no. For one brief moment, her mind flitted back to a time thirty years ago when her father’s gleaming dining table would have boasted six roast chickens for one family supper alone, with the scraps thrown to the dogs at the end. Now she was risking her life for just one of the stupid creatures. The world had turned upside down.
In the street a pair of OGPU troops were forcing their way into the house opposite. Elizaveta stepped quickly back into the hallway and Anastasia popped through the door and ducked into the schoolroom. Once inside, she became suddenly livelier and held her head at a more confident angle on the stalk of her neck as she grinned up at Elizaveta.
‘Pyotr was right,’ Anastasia chirruped. ‘He’s always right.’
Elizaveta sighed and turned her attention back to the street. Chairman Fomenko was just striding into the house opposite with a sharp word on his tongue and Elizaveta felt an urge to go out there and rap her cane across his hands. What did the man think he was doing? You can’t bleed a village dry and still expect it to work for you. Yet sometimes the blasted man astonished her with his unexpected gestures of generosity, like when he personally drove one of the kolkhoz carts to take all the schoolchildren to the May Day celebrations in the next valley, or when he dug up his own vegetable plot to provide a party for the whole village on Stalin’s birthday, with soup and black bread and boiled chicken.
Off to one side she caught sight of a flash of blonde hair in the torchlight. It was the stranger, the gypsy’s so-called niece. Now why was she running about in the dark? And right near the church, too. Elizaveta’s heart thumped in her chest. Was the girl leading the troops to the church? Would they discover the chamber?
Pokrovsky, where are you?
Dear God, that was one of the reasons she’d not married. It was always the same. When you need a man, he’s never there.
Rafik fought them with his mind, one by one. He drew no blood, except in his own brain, but he raged.
The uniforms came. In ones and twos and threes. Their heads full of dry lifeless straw that he could ignite with a touch of his finger and a look from his eyes. He manipulated their feeble thoughts. House by house he turned them back, bought time for goods to vanish from larders into the forest’s sanctuary. Sacks of grain, haunches of pork, slabs of cheese, they all slipped away into the darkness. But the uniforms crawled everywhere, too many for him. The pain started when six faced him at once. Six was too many, they drained his strength, but when he saw the woman in the house weeping, entreating the stone faces to leave her family something to eat, he knew the cost the village would pay if he stopped.
So he didn’t stop – and now he was paying for it. A red hot pain erupted inside his brain. He staggered in the street, tasted blood.
‘Zenia,’ he breathed.
Before the sound was out of his mouth, his daughter was there at his side in the shattered darkness, a tiny vial of green fluid in her hand. Her gaze sought his and he saw her fear for him trapped in her eyes, but not once did she tell him to cease what he was doing.
‘The potion won’t stop the damage.’ She soothed his temples with a cloth that smelled of herbs. ‘But it will mask the pain, so you’ll be able to continue. If you choose to.’
Her black eyes begged him not to.
He touched his daughter’s cheek and tipped the dark green liquid down his throat.
Sofia was desperate. She couldn’t find the boy. She slipped between the izbas, hugging the darkness, avoiding the torches and the swaying lamps and the voices giving orders. She searched everywhere but he was gone.
In the chaos around her she seized the shoulder of a woman who was hurrying from her house, a scarf hiding her face from the troops that had fanned out through the village.
‘Have you seen Pyotr Pashin?’
But the woman scuttled past her, bent double over a sack clutched in her arms, and melted away into the forest. In the centre of the single street, blocking any movement, was a hefty truck, growling noisily and edging its way from house to house. At the back it had an uncovered flatbed that was already piled with more than a dozen sacks of various shapes and sizes, men in uniform hurling them up to a pair of young soldiers who were efficiently stacking them. Sofia tried to edge past it.
‘Dokumenti? Identity papers?’
Sofia swung round. Behind her a man was holding out his hand expectantly. He wore a long coat that flapped around his ankles, and on the bridge of his nose a rimless pair of spectacles were spattered with rain.
‘Dokumenti? ’ he repeated.
‘They’re in my house, just over there.’ Calm, keep calm.
‘Of course, comrade.’
Walk. Don’t run. Sofia made her way past the truck and down behind one of the houses. Everywhere voices were raised in anger and entreaty. She reached the gypsy’s house, breathless, but it was empty, though voices at the rear caught her attention and she crept over to find Zenia talking quietly with one of the Procurement Officers. Silently Sofia slipped away and doubled back into the street. Where now? Where was the boy? Where?
She dodged down an alleyway between izbas and immediately spotted Mikhail Pashin. She opened her mouth to call out, but swallowed the words. He was carrying a torch in one hand and his other arm was round the shoulders of a young woman, so that their heads were close. Sofia recognised her at once. The mother of the blond child, Misha, the one to whom she told the story.
It was like drowning. She felt her lungs fill with something that wasn’t air.
He was walking Lilya Dimentieva into her house as if he owned it; Mikhail Pashin was slinking to his lover’s bed. Sofia leaned against the wall behind her. A harsh moan escaped her. He had one son. Perhaps two. What chance did she and Anna have? She crouched down on the damp ground as the rain ceased, and hid her face.
It was Rafik.
‘What are you doing out here?’ His voice was faint.
‘Searching for Pyotr Pashin. Have you seen the boy?’
He shook his head. It was that movement, slow and heavy, that made Sofia peer through the night’s drizzle more closely. What she saw shocked her. His black eyes were dull, the colour of old coal dust. Sweat, not rain, glimmered on his forehead.
‘Rafik, are you wounded?’
‘Are you sick?’
‘No.’ It was little more than a breath.
‘Let me take you home.’ She lifted his hand in hers. It was ice cold. ‘You need-’
The crash of a rifle butt came from within the house closest to them. He withdrew his hand.
‘Thank you, Sofia, but I have work to do.’
He headed off with an uneven gait towards a group of approaching uniforms and her confidence in him was shaken. He was going to get himself killed if he interfered.
Pyotr was running up to the stables when Sofia stepped out of the darkness and caught him. Her fingers fastened round his wrist and he was astonished at the strength in them. One look at her face and it was clear she wasn’t going to let him go this time.
‘Privet,’ she said with no hint of annoyance that he’d run off before. ‘Hello again.’
‘I was just going to check on Zvezda,’ he said quickly. ‘Papa’s horse. To make sure he wasn’t taken by the troops.’
She paused, considered the idea, then nodded as if satisfied and led him up the rest of the narrow track to where the stable spread out round a courtyard. Once inside the stables she released his wrist and lit a kerosene lamp on the wall in a leisurely way, as if they’d just come up for a cosy chat instead of to escape from the soldiers. Pyotr wouldn’t admit it but he had been frightened by the savagery of what was tearing his village apart tonight. Her blue eyes followed his every move as he refilled Zvezda’s water bucket, the horse’s warm oaty breath on his neck, and for some reason her gaze made him feel clumsy.
‘Zvezda is growing restless,’ she said, lifting a hand to scratch the animal’s nose.
Pyotr wrapped an arm round the muscular neck and embedded his fingers in its thick black mane. The other horses were whinnying uneasily from their stalls and it dawned on Pyotr that something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t work out what. It must be because of Sofia, he told himself. But when he slid his eyes towards her, she didn’t look threatening at all, just soft and golden in the yellow lamplight. He was just beginning to wonder whether he’d got her all wrong when she all of a sudden put a finger to her lips, the way she did in the forest that time.
‘Listen,’ she whispered.
Pyotr listened. At first he heard nothing but the restless noises of the horses and the wind chasing over the corrugated iron roof. He listened harder and underneath those he caught another sound, a dull roar that set his teeth on edge.
‘What’s that?’ he demanded.
‘What do you think it is?’
‘It sounds like-’
‘Pyotr!’ The priest burst into the stables and instantly checked the dozen stalls to ensure the horses were not panicked. ‘Pyotr,’ he groaned, ‘it’s the barn, the one where the wagons are kept. It’s on fire!’
His windblown hair leapt and darted about him as if the fire were ablaze on his shoulders. His angular frame shuddered disjointedly while he moved from one horse to the other, patting their necks and soothing their twitching hides. He was wrapped in a horse blanket that was more holes than material.
‘I am a vengeful God, saith the Lord.’ His wild green eyes swung round to face Pyotr. ‘I tell you, this is the Hand of God at work. His punishment for the evil here tonight.’
His long finger started to uncurl in Pyotr’s direction. For one horrible moment Pyotr thought it was going to skewer right into the bones of his chest, but the slight figure of Sofia brushed it aside as she hurried to the door of the stable. She looked out into the night and called out. ‘Come here, Pyotr.’
Pyotr rushed to her side and gasped. The whole of the night sky was on fire. Flames scorching the stars. It sent Pyotr’s mind spinning. Once before he’d seen an inferno like this and it had changed his life. He made a move to dash towards it but Sofia’s hand descended firmly on his shoulder.
‘You’re needed here, Pyotr,’ she said in a steady voice. ‘To help calm the horses.’
Pyotr saw the priest and the fugitive exchange a look.
‘She’s right,’ Priest Logvinov said. He flung out both arms in appeal. ‘I’ll need as much help as I can get with the horses tonight. Right now they have the stink of smoke in their nostrils.’
‘But I want to find Papa.’
‘No, Pyotr, stay here,’ she ordered, but her eyes were on the flames and a crease of worry was deepening on her forehead. ‘I’ll make sure your papa is safe.’ Without another word she hurried away into the night.
Gigantic flames were ripping great holes in the belly of the night sky. Spitting and writhing, they leapt twenty metres into the air, so that even down at the river’s edge Mikhail Pashin could feel the sting of sparks in his eyes, the smoke in his lungs. He was on his knees, his trousers wet and his knuckles skinned, crouched over the water pump on the riverbank, struggling in the darkness to bring it to life. It had so far resisted all his coaxing and cursing. In frustration he clouted his heftiest wrench against the pump’s metal casing and instantly the engine spluttered, coughed, then racketed into action, sending gallons of river water racing up the rubber hose.
‘The scientific approach, I see,’ a voice said out of the darkness.
In the gloom he made out nothing at first, just the creeping shadows etched against the red glow of the sky, but then he saw a pale oval. A face close by.
‘It’s Sofia,’ she said.
‘I thought you were at my house, you and Pyotr.’
‘Don’t worry. Your son is safe in the stables with Zvezda and the priest.’
‘Good. They’ll be out of harm’s way up there.’
She moved closer, and as she did so one side of her face was painted golden by the flames, highlighting the fine bones of her cheek, the other side an impenetrable mask in the blackness. She stood over him, looking down, and for a brief second he was startled because he thought she was going to touch his hair, but instead she crouched down on her haunches on the opposite side of the pump. Their faces were on a level and he could see the firelight reflected off the glassy surface of the river and into her eyes. He was surprised by the humour in them on a night like this. She looked as if the fire were burning inside her.
‘The whole village is helping,’ she said. Her words merged with the clanking of the engine.
‘Yes, in an emergency the kolkhoz knows how to work together.’ He glanced over his shoulder to the spot where a long line of men and women, clutching buckets, snaked up from the river all the way to the burning barn. Each face was grim and determined.
‘A human pipeline,’ Sofia muttered.
‘Who the hell did this? Who would wish to burn down our barn?’
‘Mikhail, look who’s in the line.’
‘In the line? The villagers, you mean?’
‘The troops helping them.’
‘What about them?’
He was running a hand over the engine to steady it, enjoying its heartbeat. The feel of machinery under his fingers always strengthened him in some strange indefinable way that he didn’t understand. Sofia’s hand reached out and lightly brushed his own.
‘Look at them,’ she said urgently.
He frowned. What did she mean? He studied the troops striving hard in the line to prevent the fire from spreading to a second barn. Their caps were smut-stained, their skin streaked with sweat, some wore kerchiefs tied over the lower half of their face to protect their lungs, some cursing and shouting for more speed, uniformed men all fighting side by side with the villagers.
‘Look hard,’ she whispered.
Nothing. He could see nothing. What on earth was she talking about? Just the blackness and the clawing flames. The effort of all those workers. Then suddenly it dawned. His pulse raced as he realised this was the moment when the troops’ attention was totally diverted from the grain. Why the hell hadn’t he seen it himself? He leapt to his feet, abandoning the water pump to its own steady rhythm, and raced up through the drooping willows towards the centre of the village. Sofia matched him stride for stride.
‘Wait here,’ Mikhail ordered. ‘And make no sound.’
The small group of villagers nodded, huddled silent and invisible at the side of the blacksmith’s forge where the night wrapped them in heavy shadows. Four women, one of them sick, and two old men. Their backs didn’t look strong enough to hoist the sacks but they were all Mikhail could find inside the houses. Everyone else was up at the fire, so they’d have to do. Plus Sofia, of course. Just as he was about to edge away, she leaned close to him, her breath warm on his ear as she whispered, ‘Take care. I promised Pyotr I’d make sure you stayed safe.’
He couldn’t see her eyes, so he touched her hand in reassurance. It felt strong and swept away his doubts about the handling of the sacks.
‘I’ll be back,’ he promised and walked out into the main street.
It was dark and deserted now, except for the truck. Beside the truck stood a man with a long coat flapping at his ankles and a Mauser pistol in his fist. Mikhail glanced around but there were no other troops in sight. This one was leaning against the tailgate, cigarette in hand, guarding the sacks on the flatbed and waiting casually for his comrades to return, but there was nothing relaxed or casual about his face. His head turned with every moment that passed, eyes behind his thick spectacles scanning every point of access. He was no fool. He recognised the danger.
‘Oy moroz, moroz, nye moroz menya, Nye moroz menya, moevo kon,’ Mikhail began singing, loud and boisterous.
The words slipped over each other in his mouth. He aimed himself in the general direction of the truck but his feet wove from one side of the road to the other, stumbling and tripping, only just correcting themselves in time. He threw back his head and laughed.
‘Hey, comrade, my friend, how about a drink?’ His words came out slurred and he brandished a bottle of vodka he’d snatched from the smithy, at the same time looking around the dark street in a bewildered manner. ‘Where’sh everyone?’
The man pushed himself off the truck, threw the cigarette in the dirt and ground his heel on it. He regarded Mikhail with caution.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m your friend, your good friend,’ Mikhail grinned lop-sidedly and thrust out the bottle. ‘Here, have a drink.’
‘Why not?’ Mikhail upended the bottle and took a slug of the vodka himself. He felt it burn the knots in his stomach. ‘Is good stuff,’ he mumbled.
‘You’re drunk, you stupid oaf.’
‘Drunk but happy. You don’t look happy, tovarishch.’
‘Neither would you if you had to deal with such-’
‘Here.’ Mikhail thrust the bottle at the man again. ‘Some left for you. You could be out here all night.’
The fire reflected in the man’s spectacles. His hesitation betrayed him, so Mikhail seized the hand that had discarded the cigarette and wrapped it round the bottle. ‘Put fire in your belly.’ He rocked on his heels with laughter. ‘Fire in your belly instead of in our barn.’
The man’s mouth slackened. He almost smiled.
‘Let’s have it.’ He took a mouthful. Smacked his lips.
‘It’s cat’s piss. It’s no wonder you peasants are mindless. This homemade brew rots your brains.’
‘Come with me, Comrade Officer, and I will show you…’ Mikhail lowered his voice in conspiratorial style, ‘the real stuff. The good stuff.’
‘Where?’ Another swig.
‘In my house. It’s just over-’
‘No. Piss off. I’m guarding this truck.’
Mikhail yawned, stretched, scratched himself and stumbled on his feet.
‘Come, Comrade Officer, there’s no one here. Your sacks are safe.’ He draped an arm across the man’s shoulders, could smell cheap tobacco on his breath. ‘Come, friend, come and taste the good stuff.’
The man was drunker than a mule. His eyes turned pink and his tongue seemed too large for his mouth, so that the words slid off it into his glass. But when Mikhail yanked him to his feet after an hour of pouring his best vodka down the bastard’s throat, it came as a surprise at the door to find he still had a few wits clinging to him.
‘You come too,’ the man said, his head lolling on his thick neck.
‘No, my friend, I’m off to bed,’ Mikhail grinned.
He started to close the door but the man put his shoulder to it. ‘You come, my Tivil comrade. To the truck.’ With astonishing speed of hand for someone swilling with vodka he produced the Mauser and pointed it at Mikhail. ‘You come. Bistro. Quickly.’
So they stumbled up the road together, their path lit by the flames in the night sky. The truck loomed ahead. Even in the darkness it was obvious that the flatbed now held no more than a handful of sacks. The man stared at them and swallowed hard.
‘Where’s the grain?’
Shock was sobering him fast and with a grunt of effort he swung the pistol at Mikhail’s jaw, but Mikhail side-stepped it with ease. He was tempted to seize the gun and break the bastard’s skull with it but he knew any act of violence would lead to retribution for the whole village. Party officials were like cockroaches: you stamp on one and ten more come out of the woodwork. He tried walking away but the muzzle jammed against the back of his skull.
‘Tell me where the fucking grain is, you thieving village bastard. Right now.’
Mikhail didn’t move. ‘Comrade,’ he said with a slur, ‘you’ve got me all wrong. I am just-’
‘I’ll count to three.’
‘I know nothing about the grain.’
Mikhail’s body tensed, ready to lash out, but a quiet voice from the side of the truck distracted them both.
‘Comrade Officer, I think you have made a mistake.’ It was Sofia. She and the gypsy approached out of the darkness together as if it had been a cloak over their shoulders.
‘Who are you?’
‘I am Sofia Morozova. And this is my uncle, Rafik Ilyan, a member of the Red Arrow kolkhoz.’
‘You know where my grain is?’
‘Of course. It’s here.’
The gun released its pressure and Mikhail breathed. He swung round and saw Sofia waving what looked like a shawl in the officer’s face, her lips bone-white in the torchlight. Then suddenly Rafik was so close to the man that their shapes seemed to merge into one. The gypsy’s black eyes were sunk like boreholes in his head and he was holding fiercely on to the man’s arm, pressing his fingers into the flesh beneath the sleeve, and staring fixedly up into the narrow bloodshot eyes. And yet the officer made no word of complaint. What the hell was going on? The man was gazing back at the gypsy with a slightly baffled expression, as though he’d forgotten where he’d left his cigarettes rather than more then a dozen sacks of grain.
‘You made a mistake,’ Rafik stated clearly and, as he said it, his other hand whipped out and fixed on Mikhail’s arm. The gypsy’s voice was soft, but somehow it crept into Mikhail’s head and crawled through the coils of his brain until he could hear nothing else. ‘There were only ever four sacks in the truck, and you have them all there,’ Rafik said. ‘No grain is missing.’
Mikhail and the officer stared at the sacks. Away in the forest an owl screeched, or was it the bark of a fox? Sounds were tumbling around indistinctly in Mikhail’s head as the gypsy’s words spilled into the night air, and behind them was a dull roaring noise. He couldn’t quite recall what that was.
Of course there had only ever been four sacks. What had he been thinking of?
Sofia watched in disbelief.
From nowhere the gypsy had appeared at her elbow when she was shifting another sack off the back of the truck and he had helped her carry it to a small handcart. The cart was pushed away by an old woman with a crooked back and a mischievous grin that had more gaps than teeth to it. Hot cinders were floating down from the blood red sky like fireflies that nipped at the skin. Rafik draped a soft shawl over Sofia’s bare arms.
‘Come,’ he said and led her round to the front of the truck where they were hidden by the black shadow of the church. ‘You want to help Mikhail Pashin?’
‘He has done well, but now the danger will be great for him when the officer returns.’
Sofia could feel the skin on her face tighten and prickle, as if ants’ feet were swarming over it. ‘What can I do?’
‘I will deal with the man in my own way. But I need you to distract his attention so that I can get close to him.’
It occurred to Sofia that the gypsy appeared so frail he didn’t look as if he could deal with a pack of cards right now, never mind an armed OGPU officer.
‘Rafik,’ she said with concern, ‘you’re not well.’
The sound of footsteps echoed up the shadowy street. Men’s voices were coming closer and one of them was Mikhail’s. She had no choice, she had to trust Rafik.
‘Distract him, Sofia.’
It was the sight of the gun jammed against Mikhail’s skull that nearly robbed her of control. But she managed to say calmly, ‘Comrade Officer, I think you have made a mistake.’ And a moment later she was flapping her shawl at him, the edge of it just clipping his jaw and making his eyes flare with annoyance. But what Rafik did then was beyond anything she’d ever seen. In some strange, impossible way he seemed to take hold of the men’s minds, first the OGPU officer’s and then Mikhail’s, and manipulate their thoughts the way a child shifts and shuffles a set of toy bricks. She stared in disbelief at Mikhail, at the boneless way his arms hung at his sides and the confused expression in his eyes, as the glare from the blaze turned them red.
Rafik had to repeat it. ‘Sofia!’
She blinked and saw the gypsy stumble in the darkness. Her hand shot out to steady him and she could feel the tremors shaking his body under the light cotton of his shirt.
‘Go,’ he urged and his voice was weak. ‘Run to the schoolhouse. Tell Elizaveta to bring the key to the chamber. Now. Run!’
The schoolhouse stood at the bottom of the village street, a modern box of a building with a neat low fence around it and a central doorway that threw out a yellow stain of light on to the shadows of the path. The windows to the left of the entrance were dark, presumably the schoolrooms, but Sofia could see a red glaze shimmer like oil across them as the billows of smoke and sparks in the night sky were reflected in the glass. The single window to the right gleamed brightly from within. So the teacher was at home. Sofia ran up the path, relieved, but could-n’t help wondering why Elizaveta Lishnikova wasn’t at the fire.
She banged on the door.
The door flew open immediately and Sofia was convinced the woman had been standing on the other side of it, listening for footsteps. Something about the tall grey-haired teacher who observed her with such bright, hawkish eyes steadied Sofia’s racing heart. This woman wasn’t the kind of person who would take risks unnecessarily. That thought comforted her.
Sofia spoke quickly. ‘Rafik sent me.’
‘What does he want?’
The teacher’s mouth opened, then shut again abruptly. ‘He told you about the key?’
‘Yes, the key to the chamber, he said. He needs you to bring it to him.’
There was a pause. Even in the darkness Sofia could feel the spikes of the woman’s suspicion.
But the moment Elizaveta Lishnikova disappeared back into the hallway of her schoolhouse, Sofia followed her and shut the door. Standing outside on the path, spotlit by the lamp in the hall, was an open invitation to any troops who might decide they’d had enough of firefighting. Besides, the door Elizaveta had disappeared through had been left ajar, and the temptation to look was too great.
What she saw astonished her. The room was like something out of a St Petersburg salon, alive with colour: the deep maroon carpet covering the floor was of intricate Indian design; the table and cabinets clearly French from the last century, with ornate curlicues, gilt handles and an exquisite inlay of ivory, burrwood and vivid green malachite; the curtains wine-red swathes of heavy silk. A magnificent ormolu clock ticked loudly in pride of place.
Sofia caught her breath and Elizaveta raised her head from what looked to be a secret drawer in the side of a fine satinwood desk. Her long back straightened and she faced Sofia with a sudden pulse of colour high on her cheeks.
‘So I was right,’ Elizaveta said quietly. ‘You are a spy for Deputy Stirkhov, aren’t you?’
The two women locked eyes, the older woman’s face growing ever more angular in her conviction, but Sofia said nothing more. If she did, she might say too much and not know when to stop.
‘No,’ she repeated firmly.
The schoolteacher didn’t dispute it further. ‘I did not invite you inside this room. Please leave.’
‘I’ll wait in the hallway,’ Sofia said. ‘Be quick.’
She left the beautiful room and a moment later Elizaveta Lishnikova joined her, with two keys in her hand. One she used to lock her private room, afterwards sliding it into the thick coil of grey hair at the back of her head. Sofia was impressed.
‘You have the key to the chamber – whatever that is?’
‘Of course,’ the teacher nodded.
‘Then let’s take it to Rafik.’
‘I want you to stay here. In the hallway. Don’t leave it.’
‘Why?’ Sofia was impatient to return to Mikhail.
‘In case the troops come searching. They most likely won’t but… they might.’ The older woman’s careful brown eyes scanned Sofia appraisingly. ‘You look the kind of person who could keep them out of my school. Guard it well. I’m trusting you.’
With a whisk of her grey shawl the teacher was gone, the door closing quietly behind her. Sofia paced the scuffed boards in frustration. She wanted to be out there, ensuring that Mikhail and Rafik were not tossed into the truck in place of the sacks. She hated being left behind to watch over some irrelevant little schoolhouse.
What was there to guard anyway, other than some pieces of fine furniture? And what did Elizaveta Lishnikova mean when she said Sofia was the kind of person who could keep the troops out of the school? That she was in league with the OGPU forces? That she would argue well against them? Or that she had the youth and the feminine wiles to turn troops from their course?
Oh, to hell with the woman! Sofia banged her fist against the wall in frustration.
It was some minutes later that she first heard the noise. A tiny, whimpering sound, like a mouse in pain. She wondered if it could be a creature that had fled from the barn fire. Then the sound stopped as suddenly as it began.
Sofia resumed her pacing of the narrow hallway, her mind struggling to make sense of what she’d seen Rafik do to the officer and to Mikhail with what looked like no more than a touch of his hand, but before she’d conjured up once more the intense gaze that had burned in the gypsy’s eyes, the noise started up again. Louder now. A recognisable wail this time.
It seemed to be coming from behind the other door in the hall, the one she assumed led into the schoolroom. Her breath grew shallow and she could feel the hairs rise on the back of her neck, but she wasn’t going to stand here doing nothing. She lifted the oil lamp from its bracket and pushed open the door. The lamplight leapt in ahead of her, looping in great arcs though the pitch darkness, jumping off the windows and lighting up a clutch of small pale circles. It took her a second to recognise them as faces. Children’s faces, pale and wide-eyed with fear.
Children from less than five years old up to ten or eleven were seated there, each one silent at a desk. Eleven pale moons in the darkness and, in front of each one on the desktop, a bundle of some sort, some large and lumpy, others small and strong-smelling. Nearly all the children had their thin arms wrapped protectively around the bundle of food they had saved from their homes. One older boy had a zinc bucket at his feet stacked high with what looked like grain of some sort.
The noise was coming from a tiny girl. She was sobbing, and an older girl had her hand clamped across the little one’s mouth, but still the mouse-pain sound squeezed its way out. Quickly Sofia took the lamp back into the hall and replaced it in its bracket, so that no light showed in the schoolroom. She returned to the children and, as she shut the door behind her, she heard their collective sigh. She groped her way to the teacher’s chair at the front and sat down.
‘Now,’ she whispered softly, ‘I’ll tell you a story. But you must stay quiet as little mice.’
‘Papa, wake up. Please, wake up. You’re late.’
Mikhail opened his eyes and a spike of morning sunlight lanced into them. He winced. He was on the floor of his own living room, curled up in his coat, a bottle nestled to his chest. An empty bottle. He swore softly under his breath, only to discover that his mouth tasted like cow dung.
‘Papa, you got drunk!’
Mikhail sat up and scrubbed a hand through his hair. The ceiling swooped, then settled, and a heavy pulse started up behind his eyes and echoed dully in his ears. His mind struggled. It felt oddly empty, like the inside of a drum. And a soft female voice whispering words he couldn’t quite catch in his ear.
‘I wasn’t drunk, Pyotr.’
‘You were, you know you were.’ The boy’s eyes glared, a long, sulky beat. ‘And now you’re late for work.’
‘What time is it?’
Mikhail felt an unfocused anger rise inside him – he wasn’t sure at what or at whom, but he knew somehow he had lost control and he hated his son seeing him like this. ‘Pyotr,’ he said sharply, ‘I’ll drink if and when I have a mind to. I don’t need your permission, boy.’
Mikhail rose to his feet and groaned. Fuck it, this was a hangover like none he’d experienced before. His whole brain felt dislocated. He made his way out to the tub of water in the back yard, stuck his head in it and kept it there until blood reached his brain. Today he’d have to ride Zvezda hard.
His shirt was wet round the collar and stank of alcohol, and of something else. He sniffed the sleeve cautiously. Was it her? The scent of her skin on his arm? The sudden memory of Sofia’s face in the darkness, her mouth soft and full as she whispered words to him. What words? Damn it, what words? He couldn’t remember. He shook his head but nothing became clearer. Had the vodka done this or…? Dimly he recalled Rafik being there last night. What had the gypsy to do with it? He headed back into the house where the boy was staring out of the window.
‘Pyotr,’ he said gruffly, ‘you know I’m like a bear with a sore head if I sleep too long. You were right to wake me. Spasibo.’
His son continued to look out at the street, his back rigid, elbows stiff at his sides. Mikhail felt an urge to wrap his arms round his stubborn son’s young frame, to hold on to it, to keep it safe and guard it from grain hunters and fire starters and slogan sellers. Instead he went into his own room, shaved, changed his shirt and when he came out again Pyotr was waiting for him.
‘Papa, what happened last night?’
Last night. Mikhail shook his head again, trying to clear the blurring that smudged his thoughts at the very mention of last night. What did happen? And why do I feel Sofia so close?
‘What happened to the grain and the sacks, Papa? All the piles of them that the Procurement Officers stacked in the truck. People are saying it was stolen. That you were… involved.’
The boy’s face was tense, as if he was frightened to hear the answer. They both knew of the infamous case of the boy, Pavlik, who only last spring had reported his own father to the authorities for anti-Soviet activities and the Politburo had used it as a major propaganda tool. One of Pyotr’s feet kicked again and again at the floorboards.
‘No grain was taken,’ Mikhail said firmly. ‘There were only four sacks.’
‘They say that’s not true.’
‘Then they’re lying.’
The boy shuffled his feet.
‘Pyotr, stay away from the barns today. That fire didn’t light itself and Fomenko will be looking for a culprit.’
The fresh air cleared Mikhail’s head. Dusty white clouds trailed along the top of the ridge on each side of him as he cantered down the dirt road, past the cedar tree that marked the village boundary and out into the valley which lay before him, sun-baked and vibrant with movement. The bushy green foliage of the potato crop rustled in the fields and stooped figures wielded hoes and rakes across the long mounds. The whole kolkhoz workforce was already hard at it, striving to fulfil Aleksei Fomenko’s labour quotas. One thing Mikhail couldn’t deny was that Fomenko had pulled and prodded and bullied the Tivil collective farm into some semblance of productivity. He might be a bastard, but he was an efficient bastard.
Above, a solitary skylark soared up into the brilliantly blue sky, its wings fluttering like heartbeats. Mikhail envied its effortless flight. He used to work at the N22 aircraft factory in Moscow and he missed that wonderful sense of freedom that came with flying, but freedom was a word that had no meaning these days. He wondered how Andrei Tupolev was getting on with the development of the ANT-4 aeroplane, and allowed himself a moment to indulge in the images of its corrugated Duralumin skinning, like wave ripples in the sand. And the full-throated roar of its hefty twin engines that-
Abruptly Mikhail cut off the sounds in his head. Why torment himself? Those days were gone. He heeled Zvezda into a longer stride and the horse huffed through its broad nostrils, pricked its ears and responded with ease. They were travelling fast, kicking up a trail of dust behind them, the valley widening out along the silver twist of the river into a flat plain dotted with clumps of pine and alder. It came as a surprise when he looked up and spotted a lone figure standing at the roadside some way ahead.
He recognised her at once, that distinctive way she had of cocking her head to one side, as if expecting something. She was watching him, one hand shielding her eyes. The worn material of her skirt was almost transparent in the strong sunlight and her fine fair hair ruffled round her face in the breeze. He reined Zvezda to a walk and approached with care, so as not to coat her in dust.
‘Good morning, Sofia Morozova. Dobroye utro. You’re a long way from home.’
She looked up with a wide generous smile. ‘That depends where home is.’
The smile was infectious. ‘Are you walking all the way to Dagorsk?’
She flicked at a fat blowfly that was irritating the horse’s eye. ‘I was waiting for you.’
‘I’m glad, because I have something to ask you.’
Mikhail slid off the saddle and landed lightly in front of her, the reins loose in one hand. The top of her head came up to the level of his lips, no higher. A good height for a woman.
‘Do you know what happened to the grain last night?’ he asked, aware again of how disconcertingly foggy his mind became at the mention of it.
Her eyes were an intense piercing blue, capturing his attention and holding it with their directness. But now she was looking at him strangely, as though disturbed by the question.
‘You were there,’ she said, shifting her gaze away from him and towards the village. ‘You saw them.’
‘That’s what I don’t understand.’ He ran a hand through his windblown hair and found himself studying the long white curve of her neck, exposed by the way she’d tucked her silver-blonde hair behind her ear, just where it caught the sunlight. ‘I was there,’ he said. ‘But somehow it’s all mixed up in my mind and I can’t make sense of it. Pyotr claims I was drunk, and God knows I have a sledgehammer at work in my head this morning, but…’
She turned to look at him expectantly.
He shook his head. ‘I remember the fire, and you at the pump and a man with spectacles sweating over my best vodka but then…’ He stepped closer. ‘Just tell me, Sofia, how many sacks of grain were in the truck before everyone ran off to fight the fire?’
For a moment Mikhail thought she wasn’t going to reply. Something in her eyes changed, a shutter slid down inside them. Before she even spoke, he knew she was going to lie to him. For some reason he couldn’t quite understand, the thought made him feel sick.
‘Mikhail, there were four sacks on the truck before the fire started and four sacks still there at the end of the night.’
He said nothing.
‘Rafik is sick,’ she said.
He tried to find a connection between Rafik and the truck, almost catching hold of it this time before it slipped through his fingers and vanished.
‘I’m sorry to hear that Rafik is unwell,’ he said.
‘You don’t look so good yourself.’
‘That’s because I need to know what went on last night. Please, Sofia, tell me.’
She looked away.
He seized her arm. The feel of it, the strength contained within its slender form, reminded him suddenly of having that same feeling at some point the previous evening, a point when he was standing close to her in the darkness, his skin touching her skin, her breath warm on his ear. But why? Where? That’s when the blurring started again in his mind, like mist on the tips of a tree’s branches, swaying and shifting so there were no clear edges. His mind shied away from last night like Zvezda shied at a snake.
He shook her arm. ‘How many sacks, Sofia?’
A stab of anger made him drop her arm and in one easy movement he swung himself back up into the saddle, but whether the anger was at her for lying or at himself for not remembering, he couldn’t tell. The old leather of the saddle creaked and a small green lizard shot out from between Zvezda’s hooves. The girl flicked her hair so that it sprang out from behind her ear, luminous in the clear air. All these things registered in Mikhail’s head, each with a kind of indelible imprint. He knew he would not forget this moment.
Gathering the reins in one hand, and on the verge of urging the horse into a gallop, at the last second he looked down again at Sofia. And something in her held him. Something in her intent gaze, something he couldn’t leave behind. He stretched out an arm. Instantly she seized it and he swept her up on to the horse behind him.
At first neither spoke. Sofia leaned forward and felt the hard muscles each side of Mikhail’s ribs where she rested her hands to hold on. The moment her feet lifted off the ground as she swung up on the horse, she felt the past drop from her arms like a heavy bundle of dead sticks she’d been dragging round with her, and she left them there, lying in a spiky jumble in the dirt.
She’d have to pick them up. Of course she would, she knew that. But later. Right now she felt alert, happy and alive, and all that mattered was being here on his horse. With him so close she could smell the fresh clean male scent of him and study the strong curve of the back of his head and spot how his shirt collar was fraying where it chafed against his skin. She wanted to wrap her arms around his body and hold herself tight against him, feeling his sun-warmed back against her breasts, to burrow inside his jacket and shirt, her cheek next to his naked skin, and listen to his heart beating.
Instead she held on lightly and let her own body move with the rhythm of the horse beneath her. It was travelling at a good pace. Fields of potatoes dashed past in long straight ridges as far as the eye could see, occasionally edged with a haze of clover flowers that drew the greedy bees to them. Was she a greedy bee? Drawn to her own personal flower?
But he wasn’t hers. She was stealing him. An ache started up in her chest and her fingers fluttered involuntarily against his ribs, making him half turn his head to her.
‘Are you all right back there?’ he asked.
She could see the dark length of his eyelashes and a shadow on his jaw where he hadn’t shaved well this morning.
‘I’m fine. Your horse must possess a strong back to carry the two of us so effortlessly.’
Mikhail laid an affectionate hand on the horse’s neck, fingers kneading the heavy muscles. ‘You and I are no more than a gnat’s wing to Zvezda. He’s used to hauling massive carts all day round Dagorsk.’
‘For your factory?’
‘No, for a Soviet haulage business. You didn’t think he rested in a stall with a net of hay to chew on and a young filly to amuse him till sundown, did you?’ he laughed. ‘Like I’m sure Comrade Deputy Stirkhov spends his days.’
She could feel the laughter ripple under the tips of her fingers, vibrating his rib bones, and it echoed in a joyous rush through her own veins.
‘Mikhail, you are too free with your insults.’ She pointed up to a wood pigeon whose heavy wings flapped noisily as it swooped low over their heads. ‘I expect that bird is in the pay of Deputy Stirkhov, carrying our every word back to its master.’
He laughed again and raised two fingers in an imitation gun, aiming at the pigeon.
‘I mean it,’ she said softly. ‘You should take more care.’
He shrugged his big flat shoulder blades as if she’d laid an unwelcome weight on them. ‘Of course you’re right. You’d think I’d have learned by now. That’s why I’ve washed up here in this backwater instead of…’ His words trailed into a sigh.
‘Instead of where?’
‘Did you like Moscow so much?’
‘I liked the Tupolev aircraft factory.’
‘Is that why Rafik calls you Pilot?’
‘Yes. But I was never a pilot. I’m an engineer. I worked on the engine designs and stress testing of the ANT planes.’
‘That must have been exciting.’
A pause. Two dragonflies chased alongside for an iridescent second before darting back to the river.
‘Yes.’ That was all he said.
‘Very different from a clothing factory out here in the middle of nowhere, that’s certain,’ she said lightly. ‘Sewing machines aren’t much good at flying.’
He laughed once more but this time it sounded empty. ‘Oh yes, I’m well and truly earthbound these days.’
It wasn’t hard to picture him soaring through the clouds, eyes bright with joy, up in the freedom of the blue sky. But she didn’t ask the obvious question, made no attempt to search out the why or the how. Instead she laid her cheek against his shoulder. They rode like that in silence and she could feel the thread between them spinning tighter, drawing them together.
After several minutes, as though he could hear her thoughts, he said flatly, ‘I was dismissed. I wrote a letter. To a friend in Leningrad. In it I complained that some of the equipment was agonisingly slow in arriving at the N22 factory because of incompetence, despite the fact that Stalin himself claimed to be committed to expanding the aircraft industry as a major priority.’
‘Foolish,’ she murmured and gently tapped his head. His hair felt soft.
‘Foolish is right.’ He leaned back a fraction in the saddle, so that his shoulder pressed harder against her cheek. ‘I should have realised all employees in such a sensitive project would have their letters monitored. Bloody idiot. It was only because Andrei Tupolev himself intervened for me that I wasn’t sent to one of the Siberian labour camps. Instead I was exiled out here in, as you so aptly put it, the middle of nowhere. But I’m an engineer, Sofia, not a bloody clothes merchant.’
‘You were lucky.’ Sofia sat up straight once more. ‘You must be careful, Mikhail.’
‘I admit I’ve had a few run-ins with Stirkhov and his Raion Committee already. I’m an engineer, and since all the big public show trials of the engineers he doesn’t trust me and is always wanting to interfere.’
‘What show trials?’
It slipped out. She wanted to cram the words back inside her mouth.
‘Sofia, you must have heard of them, everyone has. The trials of the industrial engineers. The first one was the Shakhty trial in 1928. Remember it? Fifty technicians from the coal industry. The poor bastards were accused by Prosecutor Krylenko of cutting production and of being in the pay of foreign powers. Of taking food out of the mouths of the hungry masses and of treachery to the Motherland.’
She could feel his back growing rigid.
‘Everyone clamoured for the deaths of these men, who were forced into confessing incredible and absurd crimes, slavish and servile in court. They betrayed the whole engineering industry, humiliated us. Endangered us.’ He paused suddenly and she wondered where his mind had veered to, but she soon found out.
It was in a totally different sort of voice that he said, ‘You’d have to be blind and deaf and dumb not to know of the trials. They were a huge spectacle. Used by Stalin as propaganda in every newspaper and radio broadcast, in newsreels and on billboards. We were completely bombarded for months.’ Abruptly he stopped speaking.
‘I was ill,’ she lied.
‘Blind and deaf,’ he murmured, ‘… or not in a position to read a newspaper.’
‘I was ill,’ she repeated.
‘You can read, can’t you?’
‘Yes. But I had… typhoid fever. I was sick for months and read no newspapers.’
He said it so coldly she shivered. They rode the rest of the way into town in silence.
The town of Dagorsk seemed to press in on Sofia as she walked its pavements alongside Mikhail. The buildings were tombstone-grey and crowded on top of each other, either old and dilapidated or new and scruffy. There was beauty there in some of the fine old houses but it was hidden under layers of dirt and neglect. Doors and windows remained unpainted because paint was scarcer than white crows these days, and the pavements were broken and treacherous. It used to be a quiet market town tucked away on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, but since Stalin had vowed in 1929 to civilise the backward peasants of Russia and to liquidate as a class the kulaks, the wealthy farmers, Dagorsk had been jolted suddenly into the twentieth century. The austerities of Communism cast a shadow over the town: shop windows were rendered empty black holes and goods had become impossible to obtain.
Factories had sprung up on the edge of the town and were turning the air grey with the soot from their chimneys. The people had changed too. Gone were the easy-going exchanges, the reassurance of a familiar face, as new forbidding apartment blocks and tenements filled up with strangers looking for work. Or, even worse, strangers who had been exiled to this remote region because of crimes committed against the State. Dagorsk was crawling with people avoiding each other’s eyes, and with cars and carts avoiding each other’s axles, as the web of suspicion and paranoia spread through the streets. Sofia felt uneasy.
‘It’s always frantic here,’ Mikhail said as they walked quickly past a squat onion-domed church that lay in ruins. ‘It’s why I choose to live out in the peace and quiet of Tivil, though I’m not so sure my son agrees with me. He’s still young. I think he’d prefer the energy of Dagorsk.’
‘No, I get the feeling he likes the countryside. Especially the forest.’
‘Maybe. He certainly enjoys working in Pokrovsky’s smithy in his free time.’ He sounded pleased. ‘And you?’
‘I’m not good with crowds.’
‘So I noticed.’
He smiled at her and she realised that since leaving the horse in the haulage yard and setting off on foot through the maze of streets, through the press of other people’s bodies, she had gravitated nearer and nearer to Mikhail. He had slowed his stride to her pace and brushed against her, aware of her unease. She could feel the weight of his arm beside her, the nearness of his shoulder. Did the smile mean he had forgiven her the lie?
‘My spinster aunt didn’t like crowds either, she preferred pigs,’ Sofia said, because she wanted another of his smiles.
‘Yes. One gigantic sow in particular, called Koroleva. She used to walk the pig up the mountain twice a year, regular as clockwork. It was to meet up with a farmer and his boar from the next valley who walked up from the other side of the mountain, rain, wind or shine. They’d spend a few days up there away from all the crowds while the pigs enjoyed more than just the pine nuts, and then they came down again until the next time.’
‘I bet they produced strong litters after all that walking.’
‘Yes, good sturdy ones. But as a child it took me years to realise that Koroleva wasn’t the only one getting serviced on the mountain. Regular as clockwork.’
He threw back his head and laughed. ‘You’re making it up.’
‘No, I’m not.’ She flushed slightly.
They stood still for a moment, smiling into each other’s eyes. She loved him for his laugh in a world where people had forgotten how to make that sound. He threaded her arm through his and guided her along the twists and turns up to the central square, steering her past the clutching hands of the beggars that pulled at her clothes like thorns. In time they came to a halt at a broad crossroads where the radio loudspeakers were blaring out into the street. It was one of Stalin’s speeches read by Yuri Levitan, hour after hour of it. Oblivious to the long queue of silent women outside the bakery, Mikhail turned Sofia to face him, holding her shoulders. His grey eyes were bright with curiosity and his mouth curved in an echo of his earlier laughter.
‘Sofia, what exactly are you doing here?’
‘I’ve come to visit the apteka, the chemist on Kirov Street. For Rafik.’
She knew it wasn’t what he meant. He meant to know what was she doing in Tivil, but she wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. It was too soon to tell him about Anna, too soon to be certain he wouldn’t report her as a fugitive from one of the forced labour camps. If he did, all hope of saving Anna would be lost. He watched her intently, then his fingers took hold of her hand, turned it over and placed a fifty rouble note from his pocket on its palm. One by one he wrapped her fingers over the note.
‘I must leave you now, Sofia. Go buy yourself some food.’ Gently he touched a fingertip to her cheek. ‘Put some flesh on your bones.’
His hand was so male. She noticed that about it. She’d been cut off from maleness for so long. His palm was broad and his fingernails short and hard. She took a deep breath. Now was the time to ask.
‘Mikhail, will you give me a job?’
‘Oh Sofia, I-’
‘I’ll do anything,’ she rushed on. ‘Sweep floors, oil machines, type invoices… and I can sew too, if-’
A passing motorcycle roared up the street, smothering the life out of her words, but not before she had seen despair leap into Mikhail’s face.
‘I’m sorry, Sofia. There are queues of people at my factory gate every day, nothing but pathetic bundles of rags and rib bones, people who are desperate.’
‘I’m desperate, Mikhail.’
He frowned. His gaze moved over her body in a way that made her blush. ‘You’re not starving,’ he said quietly.
‘No. That’s true. Thanks to Rafik I’m not starving. But-’
‘And you’ll have work on the farm.’ He smiled again. ‘I hear you’re the famous tractor driver who will lighten the load of the harvesters this autumn.’
‘Work on the kolkhoz is no use to me,’ she said impatiently. ‘I’ll do all I can for them and it’ll put a roof over my head and food in my stomach but it won’t provide me with what I need, which is-’ She stopped.
‘I’m sorry, Sofia. I can’t.’
‘Just one or two days a week?’
‘You don’t seem to understand,’ he said bleakly. ‘I can’t give work to everyone. I have to choose. Choose between who earns enough money to eat that day and who doesn’t.’ His eyes grew as dark and flat as the pavement under their feet. ‘I’m forced to decide who lives and who dies. It’s…’ he looked away at the road ahead, ‘my penance.’
‘Please,’ she whispered, ashamed to beg. Their eyes held each other. ‘It is life or death, Mikhail. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t ask. I need money.’
He stared at her a moment longer and she could see herself through his eyes. She was filled with disgust at what must look like her greed. She stepped away from him.
‘Think about it anyway,’ she said with a try at lightness and a smile that cost her dear. ‘Thanks for taking me on your horse. And for this.’ She held up the note and ducked out into the road, dodging a handcart piled high with old newspapers tied together with wire. Her disappointment was so solid it almost choked her. She’d spoiled everything.
When she reached the other side of the road she turned to wave and saw that Mikhail was still standing exactly where she’d left him on the pavement, staring after her, but he was no longer alone. Beside him stood a slight female figure in a light summer dress. The dress had a patch near the hem but otherwise looked fresh and clean, unlike Sofia’s own shabby skirt. With a shock she recognised Lilya Dimentieva, the same woman she’d seen so intimately entwined with Mikhail last night, the one who’d come to the house to whisper with Zenia. The one with the child, Misha. That one.
She was smiling up into his face with tempting brown eyes and, as Sofia watched, Lilya slipped her arm through Mikhail’s, rubbing her shoulder against him like a cat. Together they set off down the street.
Sofia was furious. She wanted to snap something brittle between her fingers. Something like Lilya Dimentieva’s thin neck. She was furious with Mikhail and knew she had no right to be. He wasn’t hers.
She hurried down Ulitsa Gorkova with long unforgiving strides, indifferent now to the crowds milling round her, as though she could outpace her rage at that possessive little movement of Lilya’s. But she couldn’t. It burned as fiercely as hell fire, melting her from the inside.
As Sofia emerged from the gloomy apteka into the bright sunlight on Kirov Street, she clutched Rafik’s paper package in her hand and headed down towards the factories hunched together on the river bank. Here the River Tiva had widened out to a busy thoroughfare where long black barges nudged up alongside the warehouses and men were shouting and hurling ropes. Sofia looked at its oily restless surface and wondered how far a small rowboat might travel on it. It was something to consider.
She had no trouble finding the Levitsky factory. It was an ugly red-brick building that rose three storeys up from the muddy bank, with derricks jutting out over the river at the rear, and at the front a set of studded pine doors large enough to swallow carts whole. Attached to it at one side was a modern concrete extension with rows of wide windows that must flood the place with sunshine.
Is she in there? With you, Mikhail? Are you at this very moment holding out a glass of chai to her? Or lighting her cigarette, your fingers brushing hers, so that you can lean close and smell her perfume? Even catch a glimpse down the front of her pretty summer frock?
Sofia’s cheeks slowly coloured. She stood outside the factory for over an hour, and at the end of that time she shook herself and walked away, pushing past the bezprizorniki, the hollow-cheeked street urchins who scavenged on the edge of survival by thrusting whatever they had to sell under the noses of passers-by. Today it was Sport cigarettes for ten kopecks each. They smelled foul.
She retraced her steps to Lenin Square, which was dominated by an imposing bronze statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself, his arm upraised in exhortation. Alongside him were the colourful propaganda plakati that declared Smert Kapitalizmu! Death to Capitalism and Workers of the World, Unite!
The first person Sofia saw was Zenia. The gypsy girl was standing in the shade under the spreading branches of a lime tree near the newspaper boards with her bare arms draped round the neck of a young man, his hand curled snugly round her waist. He was wearing a uniform with a pale blue cap and epaulettes, the uniform of OGPU, the State Security Police. Quickly Sofia whirled away in the opposite direction, nipped past the open archway of a market hall and ducked round a corner.
‘Ah, what have we here? The beautiful tractor driver from Tivil, I do believe.’
It was Comrade Deputy Stirkhov from Raikom. And he was blocking her path.
Davinsky Camp July 1933
‘Sofia is dead.’
‘No. You’re lying.’
‘Anna, you’ve got to stop this. This stupid waiting.’ Tasha glanced up from the cards in her hand. ‘You’ve got to accept the fact that she’s not coming back. Not ever. For fuck’s sake, who in their right mind would turn up in this shithole unless-’
‘Shut up, Tasha,’ Anna said, but without rancour. ‘Sofia will come.’
They were sitting on Anna’s bed board playing poker with shabby homemade cards and, as usual, Nina was winning. The stakes were threads of cotton yanked from their skirts.
‘Nina, you’ll be opening a clothing factory soon,’ Anna laughed and threw down her hand of cards in disgust. ‘Who dealt me this rubbish?’
‘I did.’ It was the new girl, Lara. She was nineteen and tall, with pale skin and pale hair. None of them mentioned it, but she reminded them of Sofia. Somehow filled a gap for them all. ‘Anna,’ she asked with a quick flick of an ace, ‘what makes you believe she’ll come back? The temptations out there must be so strong.’
Tasha and Nina exchanged glances but Anna ignored them. ‘You don’t know her,’ she said firmly.
‘But Tasha has a point, she can’t be in her right mind to risk coming back here.’
‘She promised me.’
‘But a promise in here,’ Lara explained gently, ‘is not the same as a promise out there.’ She nodded towards the world beyond the barbed-wire fences. ‘In the real world people don’t gamble for pieces of thread to mend their clothes. And they don’t keep insane promises.’
‘The trouble with you, Lara, is that you haven’t been in here long enough yet.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It drives us all a bit insane.’
Sofia is dead.
Tasha’s words jammed in Anna’s head like needles and she couldn’t pull them out. Yet still she refused to believe them and, as the night hours crawled past, she set about breathing life into her memories of Sofia. She was convinced that if she let her friend walk and talk and laugh and cry in her head, it would help to keep her walking and talking and laughing and crying out there in what Lara called the real world.
But at the same time she knew Tasha was right: only someone mad would return to Davinsky Camp out of choice. For the very first time doubt crept down her spine with cold fingers.
What is out there, Sofia? What is holding you?
She’ll come. I know she’ll come. She is tenacious.
Even as a girl she had possessed that tenacity. Anna recalled a story Sofia had told her one day on the trek to the Work Zone, a story about her childhood.
The sound of the whip was like a branch snapping, over and over. That was what Sofia had said. When she was eleven years old, her father was tied to a tree in the centre of the village and whipped to death in front of her. He was a priest. But in January 1917 he was known to be working with the Bolsheviks and that was as good as a death warrant. The troops of Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias, rode the eight versts from Petrograd, their horses’ bridles jangling in the cold still air as they entered the village, and they had unleashed their knotted knouts on him. He didn’t scream or curse, just prayed silently into the bark of the tree.
Sofia had waited till after the funeral, then in the early morning mist she plaited her long blonde hair into a thick braid down her back, pulled on her lapti boots and took herself into her father’s store shed in the back yard. There she filled a sack with a mixture of their winter-storage vegetables that she’d grown herself: potatoes, swedes and a few handfuls of turnips, and set off on the long road to Petrograd.
The heavy sack hung down her back like a dead animal. Ice lay on the sides of the road and the clouds above were a dirty white, the smears of sooty fingerprints pressed into them. She walked fast as though she could outpace the grief that snapped at her heels, taking big bites out of her. The world had shifted. She could hear it clicking into a new position both inside and outside her head. At times when she looked at the familiar landmarks along the way – the old water tower, the sawmill, the lopsided weathervane on top of the barn – she barely recognised them.
Her mind felt as brittle as the ice under her feet. She had a great desire to yell at the top of her voice, but instead she thought about her father’s limp body stretched out on the kitchen table. She had hugged it close and refused to let go. She cried into his fingers and kissed the cuts on his neck, but when they took his body away from her to put it in a box, she knew she was going to have to build a new life for herself. Her uncle had offered her his own house as a roof over her head but he’d told her it was up to her now to put aside her books – the ones she and her father had loved to read together – and start earning a living. She tightened her grip on the sack.
The city of Petrograd smelled of danger. There was a tension in the air that Sofia breathed in the moment she stepped on to its pavements and it made her blood pump faster, though she couldn’t understand why. She had always loved Petrograd – not that she’d been in its busy streets more than a dozen times in her life, but even so – with its tall pastel-painted houses, its elegant shops and the glittering people who drifted in and out of them on the wide boulevard of Nevsky Prospekt. The place pulsed with the constant noise of traffic, an animated jangling of carriages and cars and trams.
Ice edged the gutters and hung like frozen tears from the balconies, as she pushed onward to the street market in Liteiny, but business was bad there today. No one had roubles to spend. So after three hours she scooped up what was left of her sack and headed back to the bustling centre, always taking her bearings from the golden Admiralty spire just like her father had instructed her to do.
The sky was white and glossy, as if it had a store of snow up there, hidden behind glass. In her quilted coat and her bright yellow hat and mittens that she’d knitted herself, Sofia moved fast to keep out the cold. But that sense of nervousness was strong again, the feeling of a city holding its breath, and she studied the people around her carefully to discover where this strange sensation was coming from. The ones in fur coats and silk scarves hurried along the streets noisily, talking in loud voices, but the ones in the shabby jackets and the cloth caps, she noticed, huddled in tight groups on street corners among the dirty ridges of old snow, their heads close together.
She edged towards one ragged group and watched them with interest. Yes, this was where the tension lay. She could see it billowing off the men along with the smoke from the hand-rolled cigarettes they clutched between their fingers so ardently, like a badge of membership. She swallowed hard, then shifted the sack into a more comfortable position on her shoulder and headed for the huddle of three men. They were tucked in the mouth of an alleyway next to a laundry that spelled out its name in coloured glass, and she couldn’t help noticing that the shoes of all three men had holes in the toes. She moved closer, swinging her sack.
‘Go away, little girl.’
The words were muttered by the youngest of the three when he spotted Sofia standing near enough to overhear their conversation. He had very round brown eyes with eyelashes longer than a girl’s, and thin bony wrists.
‘Go away and play.’
It was the way he said play that annoyed her. ‘At least I’m busy working,’ she retorted, giving him a cool look that was meant to irritate.
‘So are we, durochka.’
The second man bared small white teeth at Sofia and asked, ‘What’s in the sack, little girl?’
‘Something to interest you.’
‘What’s that? Kerensky’s head?’
The three men laughed and tugged at their caps. Sofia knew the name. Aleksandr Kerensky was head of the Provisional Government.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Vegetables. Good ones, not half rotten.’ Their mouths and their eyes opened wider at the mention of food. ‘I thought you looked hungry,’ Sofia added, keeping it polite this time.
‘Of course we’re hungry,’ the third man said in a mild voice. He was older than the other two, with deep creases scored in his cheeks and a sadness that sat around his mouth. ‘The whole of Petrograd is hungry, the bread rations are miserable…’ As he spoke a carriage swept past with four matched horses and a liveried coachman, the driver moving with easy arrogance through the slush and sending up a spray of ice on to the pavements. A slow ironic smile crept across the third man’s face and he shook his head. ‘Well, maybe not every bastard in this city has an empty belly.’
Something struck Sofia as odd then. These men were not quite what she had expected. Oh yes, their faces were sharp-edged and their clothes thin and patched, marking them clearly as part of Petrograd’s underclass, yet they didn’t stand around with a posture of defeat. Their heads were up like prize cockerels hungry for the fight. Their eyes burned with the expectation of… She struggled to work out what it was and then it came to her: the expectation of triumph.
Triumph over what?
She swung her sack again, trying to waft the smell of turnips under their noses to regain their attention. ‘Interested?’ she prodded.
The eyes of the men followed the sack.
‘We have no money.’
‘I didn’t think you did.’
‘So what do you want in exchange?’
‘That’s my business.’
‘How old are you, child?’
‘OK, let’s have a look at what you’ve got in there.’ It was the one with the girl’s eyelashes. He reached forward to take the sack from her but she stepped back nimbly.
‘No, I’ll show it to you.’
Sofia started to open up the sack but again the bony wrist shot out and big-knuckled fingers began to close on it. Something inside her knew instinctively that if this man snatched the sack from her she would never see it again – nor any cigarettes in exchange.
She threw the word at him with all the strength she had and saw the man’s eyes widen with alarm. As he started to recoil, she followed it quickly with a thump of her fist right in the middle of his skinny chest. He stumbled backwards, limbs clutching at air.
‘Little devil,’ he cursed.
‘Serves you right,’ the older man chuckled.
‘Here, girl,’ said the one with the teeth. ‘If you’re so tough and want cigarettes, smoke this one.’ He thrust a smouldering butt at her. It looked disgusting. There were no more than a few puffs left in it and one end was damp with spittle.
She knew it was a test of some kind. With a casual shrug of her thin shoulders, she took the cigarette, put it to her lips and inhaled. The three men grinned as she swallowed smoke, choked back a cough and blinked furiously as her eyes filled with water. She pushed her mouth into a smile.
‘So, what’s your name?’ the older man asked.
Gently he removed the cigarette from her fingers, took a long drag on it himself and tossed the remains into the gutter where it hissed.
The men immediately exchanged a glance.
‘Any relation to the priest, Morozov?’
The question caught her by surprise. Her throat tightened at the mention of her father. She nodded.
‘He was well-known here,’ the bony-wristed man said, and his whole manner had changed. It was as soft as his eyelashes.
‘My father.’ She managed to squeeze the words from her throat.
‘Well, Sofia,’ the older man bent towards her and lowered his voice to a whisper, ‘there’s going to be real action today, so a basinful of vegetable soup in the belly will give us all the stomach for it. My name is Igor.’ She could see his sad mouth curve into a smile. ‘I think we can do business.’
Sofia took up a position outside the Alexandrinsky Theatre, where there was a constant bustle of cars and carriages and patrons in their finery. She sneaked in close whenever she could, touting her cardboard tray of cigarettes, but more often than not she was shooed away by the uniformed attendant. It made her feel like a stray dog.
The cigarettes had been a good idea, easy to sell. Out of the forty-eight she had started with, she was down to seven. Not bad. She was looking around for her next customer when she spotted a man in a top hat and a dark cape with bright silk lining heading straight towards her on the icy pavement. He planted himself firmly in front of her and looked down at the tray through tiny half-moon spectacles. She inspected him back. He was glossy, like a fur coat is glossy. Even his hair shone like boot polish in the glow of the theatre entrance.
‘Hello, little cigarette girl.’
He picked up one of the greyish cigarettes and held it stiffly between finger and thumb as though it might bite. Then he shifted his gaze to Sofia’s face. Suddenly she felt she was the one about to get bitten.
‘It’s good tobacco,’ she lied.
‘Oh yes? So where did these come from? Stolen from your father’s pocket?’
She wasn’t going to admit they were soup cigarettes. Igor had jumped at her idea. He and his fellow strikers had stood around a big iron brazier on a patch of wasteland on the snowy banks of the Fontanka, a whole group of gaunt-cheeked faces, and heated her vegetables in a massive pan over the flames, turning them into a soup that drew men from the street corners across the city. Each paid one cigarette. Soup cigarettes.
‘Yes,’ Sofia said and looked the man straight in his soft-lidded eyes. ‘They’re from my father’s pocket.’ She paused and let her shoulders droop. ‘He’s dead.’
It made him blink. He pulled a five-rouble note from his wallet and dropped it on her tray.
‘You’re very pretty, my dear. Maybe you need someone to take care of you now.’ He slid a good imitation of a fatherly smile on to his face. ‘You don’t want to be standing out in the cold on a night like this, it could be dangerous.’
She twitched her plait, making it swing in an arc on to her shoulder. He watched it, fascinated.
‘You’ve bought my cigarettes,’ she said flatly, ‘not me.’
With a precision she was proud of, she spat on the ground next to his shoe, a habit she had acquired from her afternoon companions. If her father had been here, he’d have cuffed her, but he wasn’t here any more. She snatched up the money, thrust the tray and its contents into the man’s hands, then slipped away into the dark streets.
She should go home now. Curfew was at eight o’clock. It would be foolish to linger. But already she could hear the marchers and their shouts ringing out as they advanced on Palace Square. She’d just take a quick look. That’s all.
It was like being part of a wall. That’s what it felt like to Sofia, a good strong wall. She saw herself as a brick, a small and flimsy one admittedly, but still a brick. Her arms were linked with Igor on one side and a vociferous woman on the other, and their arms were linked with other arms, and more arms linked with more arms, right across the width of the road, hundreds of them blocking all traffic and causing chaos in the city. Behind them was row after row of other linked arms, and in other streets and other squares the demands were shouted out in voices that grew bolder with each brick added to the wall.
‘We want bread!’
‘We want work!’
‘Down with the Tsar!’
Before the crowd could finish the words, the sound of horses’ hooves was heard advancing at speed and a troop of cavalry burst into the street, charging straight at the head of the marchers with the intention of crushing the leaders. The sight made Sofia’s legs tremble but she was certain the wall would hold fast. It wouldn’t break; it was strong and invincible. Her knees felt weak and something was stopping her from breathing properly, but surely the wall wouldn’t break.
‘Igor!’ she cried out.
‘Death to the Duma!’ he bellowed at the oncoming horses. ‘Death to the Duma!’
She could see the animals’ breath now, rising like incense in the street as they came out of the darkness, and then she saw the determined faces of the soldiers, eaten into strange shapes by rage. Her heart turned into a wild thing behind her ribs and she clutched tight to the arms on either side of her.
Then the sabres flashed.
A woman screamed in pain and the wall broke. Arms were snatched away and bodies were pressed against shop fronts, anything to avoid the scything of blades as the horses charged. Sofia could hear their big hearts beating as their hooves pounded on whatever and whoever fell under them. Screams and panic flared through the crowd, people fled, stumbled, ducked into alleyways as the night air was torn apart as easily as the wall had been.
Sofia ran. Igor had been ripped from her in the stampede but the woman on her left had yanked her into a side street and together they hurtled away from the metal sound of the hooves, the echo of each other’s footsteps giving them hope. They twisted and turned and dodged round corners, ducked between fences, gasping for breath, dragging icy air into their lungs. Sofia neither knew nor cared where she was. Strange streets crowded in on her and she could hear the breath of the woman at her side growing harsher, felt her stumble.
‘This way.’ Sofia steered them into a quiet avenue where large houses were set back behind tall imposing gates. Here at last they’d be safe. She knew she should be thanking God for their escape but she could find no words for Him. Instead she felt only a dull anger simmering hot in her stomach. To be hunted through the streets like an animal filled her with sick humiliation.
‘They treat us like vermin,’ the woman whispered as she slowed to a walk.
‘I’m not a rat.’
‘You can certainly run as fast as one, girl.’
‘Are you a Bolshevik or a Menshevik?’ Sofia had heard both words thrown around this afternoon.
In the dark she could barely make out the woman’s face, but she saw the headscarf lift and heard the grunt that the woman gave. It could have meant Da. Yes. Or it could have meant Shut your mouth, suka.
At that moment a lone cavalry officer appeared at the end of the street and in a flash he had heeled his horse into a gallop, the tip of his blade carving a path through the damp night air and straight to the woman’s throat.
The woman broke into a run.
‘No!’ Sofia shouted. ‘He’ll ride us down!’
‘Stupid girl, we are going to die whatever we do.’
To Sofia’s surprise the woman dropped to her knees in the middle of the road, head bowed, hands clasped together, and started to pray.
The horseman was closing, sabre ready to strike.
When Sofia looked back on this moment, it was as if time stopped in this quiet avenue in Petrograd. Stillness filled her young mind. The panic and fear that had been banging holes in her ribs seemed to drain out of her, leaving her mind clear and white. She waited until the horseman had raised himself to a standing stance in the stirrups and the blade was cutting through the thread of the woman’s prayers as it swept towards her defenceless neck. Then Sofia leapt forward.
She came at the horse from the side and slammed her fist down on to the animal’s rump with all her strength. Startled, the creature whinnied and jinked sideways away from her, but she followed and slapped it again and again, harder each time. It reared up on its hind legs, twisting round to face its attacker. The officer shouted a command and sawed at the reins but it was too late. Unbalanced by his attempt at a sabre-strike on the woman, he was thrown backwards and crashed down on to the road.
He lay immobile. Sofia darted forward and snatched up the horse’s reins. The animal was panicked but she knew horses and was not going to let this one escape. She murmured to it, resting a hand on its sweating hide as she slowly drew the reins towards her. The horse rolled its eyes and bared its teeth at her, prancing on its toes, but it submitted to her calming touch.
The woman clambered to her feet. ‘God preserve you, my little rat!’ she shouted with a great laugh of relief, striding over to the unconscious officer lying on the freezing ground. She thudded her boot twice into the side of his head. ‘God answered my prayers, soldier.’
‘Listen!’ Sofia hissed.
A new sound broke the silence. Running feet, a troop of them, pounding the night air. Sofia stared down the road and made out a tall youth racing up towards her. Behind him a black stain spread out, flowing in all directions like spilled ink. More troops, but this time on foot.
‘Quick!’ she shouted to the woman and pulled the horse round.
By the time the youth reached them they were both on the horse, one in front and one behind the saddle, so all he had to do was make for the stirrups. As he did so he released a battle cry that ripped from his lungs and echoed from the walls around them. It both startled and delighted Sofia. Then he kicked the skittering horse into an easy gallop away from his pursuers, handling it with skill, and within seconds the troops were a receding stain once more. In Sofia’s hand was the sabre.
They rode hard and in silence, avoiding the main thoroughfares, keeping to any street that was dark and shadowy. He seemed to know the layout of Petrograd intimately, as though accustomed to chasing through its alleys, and several times he swerved under a bridge or down unexpected passageways to avoid a sudden surge of uniforms. They were everywhere, but always he kept the horse one step ahead of them.
Seated behind him, Sofia wrapped her arms around his back, feeling the strength of his spine and the rise and fall of his ribs as he breathed hard, sometimes even a sudden thud of his heart through the thin material of his jacket. At times his thick red scarf flapped at her face and he made little yips of encouragement to the horse. As they wound their way through the streets she began to recognise landmarks, a shop here, a factory there, and knew they were approaching the spot where she had entered the city just this morning. She tapped his broad shoulder blade and called out.
‘This is my road.’
Immediately he reined the horse to a walk and she slid easily off the back, landing on her feet in the snow.
‘Do svidania, young anarchist,’ he called. ‘Spasibo. Thank you, my friend.’ He waved a hand as he swung the horse’s head.
Sofia didn’t wave back. She’d not even seen more than a shadow of his face, but she watched him ride away like a ghost into the night, the woman hunched awkwardly in front of him. She waited until he had disappeared from view completely before she turned and set off on the long walk home in the dark. Only then did she let loose the wide smile that was caught on her lips and the shiver of excitement that had been trapped in her bones. Tonight she had learned a lot. With a whoop that echoed through the still air, she lifted the sabre she’d stolen from the officer and whirled it above her head in a circle, cutting slices out of the night.
But already she missed the energetic young rider, missed the warmth of his body against her chest. It was with a strange reluctance that she kept her feet walking away from the city, and one of her father’s favourite words – tenacity – floated down into her young mind, as soft flakes of snow began to fall.
The scarf, the red scarf.
That was the detail that had caught in Anna’s mind and snagged, the way a sleeve catches on a briar. She couldn’t unhook it, however hard she tried. She knew it was absurd even to wonder about it because, with so many young men fighting for the Bolsheviks under the Red Flag, half of them must have been wearing red scarves.
But she couldn’t shake her stubborn brain free from the knowledge that she had given a red scarf to Vasily that Christmas. She had knitted it herself specially for him, and he’d kissed her with a great cry of delight and sworn to wear it always.
So was it him? This impetuous horseman of Sofia’s childhood? Anna always wondered about it and the uncertainty plagued her. Vasily had always refused to take her, Anna, on any of his wild escapades, declaring it too dangerous, yet – if it was Vasily that night – he was willing to ride through the gates of hell with Sofia clinging to his back.
A tiny worm of jealousy squirmed into being and she stamped on it hard. Sofia would never betray her.
Dagorsk July 1933
Deputy Stirkhov’s office was not at all what Sofia expected. It was stylish, with a spacious chrome-legged desk with shiny black top; a gleaming chrome clock and desk lighter; and curved tubular chrome chairs with pale leather seats. Of course it boasted the usual bust of Lenin on a prominent shelf and a two-metre-wide picture of Stalin on the wall, but Lenin with his pointed beard was carved out of white marble rather than plaster, and the portrait of Stalin was an accomplished original oil painting. On another wall hung framed lithographs of Rykov and Kalinin. This was a man who knew how to get hold of what he wanted.
Sofia sat in one of the chairs and crossed her legs, swinging one foot casually despite the pulse in her scarred fingertips pounding like a fresh wound – a sure sign of nerves. She accepted a glass of vodka, even though it was still only mid-morning. She felt it heat the chill that had seeped so suddenly into her bones.
‘Thank you, Comrade Deputy. I didn’t expect to find such a modern office in a town like Dagorsk.’
‘Modern in mind, modern in body,’ he said self-importantly and settled himself behind the expansive desk.
He flicked open a Bakelite box and offered her an elegant tan-coloured cigarette that didn’t look Russian to her. Imported goods were not often to be seen these days, not openly in any case, though everyone knew they were available in the special shops that only the Party elite could enter. She shook her head and he lit one for himself, drew on it deeply and scrutinised her with an appraising look. She still hadn’t worked out exactly what this pale-eyed man wanted from her when he’d suggested a talk in my office.
‘You are new to this area. And to Tivil?’
‘I am very interested in Tivil.’
She didn’t like the way he said it. ‘It’s a hard-working village,’ she pointed out, ‘much like any other. Of no particular interest, it seems to me.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Comrade Morozova.’
He threw back his shot of vodka and poured himself another. Sofia waited, aware of the value of silence with a man like this, who would always be tempted to fill it. He seemed to puff himself up with each drink, his round face growing rounder. His cheeks were shiny, as if he polished them each morning like apples. His suit was crisp, though slightly worn at the elbows, and he had the look of a sleek tomcat. She had no doubts about the sharpness of his claws.
‘Tivil,’ he said flatly, ‘is not like any of the other villages in my raion. It keeps tripping up my officers and making fools of them. They go out there to ensure quotas are filled, that sufficient livestock and crops are handed over, that taxes are paid and the required number of labour days are worked for the raion, digging ditches and mending roads. But what do they come back with?’
He leaned forward in his chair and stared at her expectantly. She stared back and something flowed into the silence between them, something menacing.
‘They come back with lists,’ he snapped. ‘Lists all neatly ticked, goods checked off, each page endorsed with an official stamp.’ His fist came down on the desk, making the clock quiver. ‘It’s nonsense. At the end of each week there is a discrepancy between what is and what should be. That’s why I went out there the other evening to settle matters myself.’
Sofia sipped her drink and showed little interest in his tale of woe.
‘But it happened again,’ he growled. ‘Everything went wrong. And I know who to blame.’
Stirkhov hunched his head between his shoulders. ‘That’s not your business.’
‘So why,’ she asked with just the right touch of impatience, ‘have you asked me here?’
‘Because you are an outsider. You are not yet a part of that close-knit community. Instead of shitting all over each other to gain extra privileges for themselves like other villages do, the Tivil bastards keep their mouths shut and stare at you with stone-hard eyes as if you’d crawled out from under a dog turd. Yet I can’t…’ frustration made him fumble for words, ‘I can’t find the crack in their shell that will…’ He shook his head from side to side and lifted his glass to his lips.
‘A man like you would keep a Party spy in their midst,’ Sofia said amiably, ‘I’m certain.’
‘Of course.’ He waved a dismissive hand. ‘But the bedniak is worse than useless except for petty tittle-tattle. Spends too much time inside a bloody vodka bottle.’ He seemed oblivious to the irony as he knocked back his third vodka of the morning.
‘So why have you asked me here?’
‘To warn you.’
‘To warn me? Of what?’
He smiled smoothly. ‘Of danger.’
‘What kind of danger?’
‘Word is going round that it was you who started the fire.’
Her breathing grew tight. She gave a light laugh but Stirkhov wasn’t smiling now.
‘That’s absurd,’ she said. ‘I had nothing to do with it. Why on earth would I set fire to the barn?’
‘No, Comrade Deputy Stirkhov, I assure you I bear no grudge against the village. My uncle has kindly taken me in and I am grateful to him and to Tivil. Who is spreading such malicious rumours? Tell me. Is it your spy? Because if so, you should get rid of the fool. Believe me, I wouldn’t ever commit such a criminal act against Soviet property or…’ She stopped and released her grip on the edge of the desk. Her knuckles were white. ‘Thank you for the warning, Comrade Deputy. I will take care. It’s obvious that whoever torched the barn is trying to shift the blame on to me.’
He was observing her with shrewd eyes. ‘Interesting,’ he murmured softly. ‘Not much like a gypsy, are you?’
‘My father’s sister, who brought me up, was married to Rafik’s brother.’
Stirkhov picked up his gold-tipped fountain pen and scribbled a note on the pad in front of him, considered it for a moment, then placed his elbows on the desk.
‘Let me see your dokumenti, comrade.’
It was an offence not to carry identity papers at all times, papers that would state her place of residence, her date and place of birth and her father’s name. And to leave the kolkhoz without official permission to do so was a second offence. She recrossed her legs, slowly, and watched his eyes follow the movement.
‘Deputy Stirkhov, I have a suggestion to put to you first.’
He stood up, walked round to her side of his desk, perched his plump bottom on its edge and rested a hand on her knee. She refrained from slapping his wrist away.
‘What kind of suggestion?’ he asked.
‘It seems to me that you need someone new in Tivil. Someone… with fresh eyes.’
‘Someone like you.’
‘Exactly like me.’
His smile returned, a smile meant to charm, and the tip of his pink tongue popped out for a brief second. ‘You will report to me only.’
‘And in exchange?’
‘You pay me. Each week. One hundred roubles. Fifty now to seal the agreement.’
‘Hah! You must think me stupid.’ He leaned over her and she could smell French tobacco on his breath. ‘Don’t underestimate me, Comrade Morozova.’ His hand tightened on her knee. ‘You bring me information and then we’ll talk money.’
She laughed and stood up, tipping his hand off her leg. ‘An empty stomach dims one’s eyes and ears, Deputy Stirkhov. I do not hear well when my stomach growls.’
She held out a hand, palm upwards.
He looked at it, then at her. And licked his lips.
‘Very well. Ten roubles now.’
He narrowed his eyes.
‘Fifty,’ she repeated. ‘It will be worth it to you.’
‘It had better be.’
‘It will, I promise.’
He reached into his inside pocket and produced a fifty-rouble note which he placed in her hand. As her fingers curled round it, he stepped forward to kiss her but she swung her head, so that his lips barely brushed her ear. She hid a shudder, lowered her eyes demurely and escaped to the door.
‘Comrade Morozova,’ Stirkhov said sharply. ‘I expect much of you.’
She gave him a dazzling smile. ‘So do I.’
‘I saw you watching me.’ Zenia stepped out into Sofia’s path as she left the Raikom offices. ‘I’m supposed to be at work in the factory already but…’ her cheeks flushed and she looked away shyly.
The young gypsy girl’s wild hair was tamed under a bright yellow scarf tied at the nape of her neck, and her scoop-necked blouse, though old, was clean and showed more of her smooth olive skin than perhaps Rafik would approve of. A green cotton skirt swung from her hips. Sofia could understand why any soldier would come calling.
‘Zenia,’ she said, ‘you look lovely. Who was your friend?’
Zenia blushed deeper. ‘His name is Vanya.’
‘He works for OGPU, I see. The Security Police.’
Zenia’s black eyes darted defensively to Sofia’s face. ‘I haven’t told him anything. About you, I mean.’
Sofia stepped nearer and could smell the musky scent of sex on her. ‘Zenia,’ she whispered, ‘the Security Police are clever. You will tell him things without even knowing you’re doing it.’
Zenia tossed her head scornfully. ‘I’m not a fool. I don’t say…’ but she paused as though remembering something and her eyes clouded. ‘I don’t say anything I shouldn’t,’ she finished defiantly.
‘I’m glad. Guard your tongue, for Rafik’s sake.’
Zenia looked away again.
‘It’s all right, Zenia, I won’t say anything.’
The dark eyes narrowed suspiciously.
‘I won’t say anything about Vanya. To Rafik, I mean,’ Sofia added.
Zenia smiled, a sweet, grateful smile that made Sofia lean forward and brush her cheek against the girl’s. ‘But be careful. They will be stalking Tivil village after what happened with the Procurement Officer and you may be their way in.’
‘He loves me,’ Zenia said simply and flounced away, young hips swaying and head held high, attracting glances from passing men.
‘He loves me,’ Sofia echoed, as if trying the words for size in her own mouth. Then she turned and retraced her steps through the shabby streets back towards the river.
Mikhail’s office was dark. Its small window let in a square patch of sunlight that was now sliding across the floorboards towards the door, as if trying to escape. He was often tempted to relocate to an office in the bright new extension he’d had built alongside the old factory, but always changed his mind at the last moment because he knew he needed to be here, overlooking the factory floor, visible to his workers each time they raised their heads from their machines. It discouraged malingering.
His office was up a flight of stairs that led off the vast expanse of the factory floor, so the incessant rattle and clatter of the bobbing needles were as much a part of his worklife as breathing. Nothing more than a wall of glass divided him from his workforce, which meant he could look down on the rows of hundreds of sewing machines and check the smooth running of his production line at a glance. He’d installed modern cutting machines in the extension but in here the machines were so old and temperamental that they needed constant attention, damn them. He had to watch them like a hawk because spare parts were like gold dust and the girls at the machines weren’t always as careful as they should be.
He stood looking out at them now, hands in his pockets, feeling restless and unable to concentrate. On his desk a stack of forms, permissions, orders and import licences awaited his signature but this morning he could summon up no interest in them. He loosened his tie and rolled up the white sleeves of his shirt. She’d unsettled him with her lies. With the challenge in her eyes, as though daring him to do something but refusing to say what it was.
He laughed out loud. At himself and at her. Whatever it was that Sofia Morozova was up to, he was glad she’d arrived in Tivil like a creature from the forest, wild and unpredictable. She made his blood flow faster. In some indefinable way she had altered the balance in his mind, so that he was left with the feeling that he was flying high in the air once more. He gave another laugh but then frowned and lit himself a cigarette, trying to breathe her in with the smoke. All kinds of memories were stirring, ones he’d thought were dead and buried but now were coming to life. They picked and prodded and chipped away at him so that he ached all over. What was it about Sofia that had set this off? Just because she was fair-haired and blue-eyed and had a fiery spirit like…?
No. He slammed the door shut on it all and firmly turned the key. What good did looking back do? None at all. He drew hard on his cigarette and exhaled over the glass, fogging it with smoke so that the women and their machines became an indistinct blur. He tried to imagine Sofia down there, working all day at one of the benches, but he couldn’t. It twisted his brain into shapes it refused to settle in. Sofia was a skylark, like himself. Too much of an individual in a country where individuality and initiative were stamped on by the relentless boot of the State. Conform or die. Simple.
A knock on the door distracted him.
‘Come in,’ he said but didn’t turn. It would be his assistant, Sukov, with yet another pile of endless paperwork for his attention.
‘Comrade Direktor, you have a visitor.’
Mikhail sighed. The last thing he wanted right now was an ignorant official from Raikom breathing down his neck, or a union inspector looking for trouble.
‘Tell the bastard I’m out.’
An awkward pause.
‘Tell the Comrade Direktor this bastard can see he’s in.’
It was Sofia. Slowly, savouring the moment, he turned to face her. She was standing just behind his assistant, eyes amused, breathing fast as though she’d been running and, even in her drab clothes, she made the office instantly brighter.
‘Comrade Morozova, my apologies,’ he said courteously. ‘Please take a seat. Sukov, bring some tea for my visitor.’
Sukov rolled his eyes suggestively, the impertinent wretch, but remembered to close the door after him. Instead of sitting, Sofia walked over to stand beside Mikhail at the glass wall and stared with interest at the machinists at work below. Her shoulder was only a finger’s width away from his arm. A faint layer of brick dust lay down the side of her skirt and on the angular bone of her elbow where she’d nudged against something. It made her look vulnerable and he had to stop himself from brushing it off.
‘A pleasure to see you again so soon – and so unexpectedly.’ He smiled and gave her a formal little nod. ‘To what do I owe this treat?’
She gave him a sideways glance, raising an eyebrow at his ironic tone, but instead of answering she tapped the glass with one finger.
‘The worker ants,’ she murmured.
‘They work hard, if that’s what you mean.’ He paused, studying the way her skin whitened under the curve of her jaw. ‘Would you really want to be one of them?’
She nodded. ‘It’s money.’ Abruptly she swung round to face him. ‘It’s very noisy in here.’
‘You mean you don’t notice?’
He shook his head. ‘I’m used to it. It’s quieter here than down there in the sewing room. I issue earplugs but half the women don’t bother to wear them.’
She looked out at the hundreds of heads bent over the machines. ‘What nimble fingers they have.’
‘They have to work fast to meet their quotas.’
‘Of course, the quotas.’
‘The curse of Russia,’ he said and touched her shoulder, just on the spot where a tear in her blouse was mended with tiny neat stitches.
She didn’t draw away. ‘It looks to me,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘as though the machines are working the women rather than the other way round.’
‘That is Stalin’s intention. No people, just machines that do what they’re told.’
‘Mikhail!’ Sofia hissed sharply and glanced towards the door. In a low whisper she warned, ‘Don’t talk so.’ Her eyes met his. ‘Please.’
The door opened and they stepped apart. Sukov entered with a tray that he set down on the desk with a show of attention that made Mikhail want to laugh. He was a pale-skinned young man with tight blond curls, who usually made a point of resenting any menial task now that Mikhail had elevated him from the tedium of quality control to Direktor’s Assistant. But he was well in with the Union Leaders and knew how to keep them off Mikhail’s back, so Mikhail tolerated his idiosyncrasies. He was astonished to see two pechenki on a china plate. Where on earth had Sukov found biscuits? A backhander from somewhere, no doubt. Mikhail would remember that.
‘Spasibo,’ Mikhail said pointedly.
Sukov rolled his eyes once more and tiptoed out of the room.
‘I apologise,’ Mikhail laughed as they settled down opposite each other at the desk, ‘for my assistant’s excessive discretion.’
‘Well, he must think it’s your lucky day. First one female visitor and now another.’
She said it with eyes sparkling, deliberately provoking him, but he wasn’t blind.
‘If you mean Lilya, she walked with me to the factory gates, that’s all.’ He picked up one of the glasses of tea in its podstakanik, a metal holder, noticed it had a picture of the Kremlin on it, swapped it for the other one with a picture of Lake Baikal and presented it to her. ‘She’s in need of a job.’
He offered her the plate with the two biscuits. She took one.
‘No,’ he said, ‘she’s not like you. Not at all like you.’
She bit into her biscuit, a crisp sharp snap.
‘Shall I tell you a joke?’ she asked.
Her words made him almost choke on his tea in surprise. ‘Go ahead.’
She leaned forward, eyes bright. ‘Two men meet in the street and one says to the other, “How are you?” “Oh, like Lenin in his mausoleum,” comes the reply. The first man cannot work it out. “What do you mean? Why like Lenin?” The second man shrugs. “Because they neither feed us nor bury us.”’
Mikhail threw his head back and roared with laughter. ‘That is very black. I like it.’
She was grinning at him. ‘I knew you would. But don’t tell it to anyone else because they may not see it quite the way we do. Promise me.’
‘Is that what we Russians are reduced to? Neither dead nor alive?’
‘I’m alive,’ she said. ‘Look.’ She put down her tea on the desk, raised her arms above her head and performed a strange kind of snake dance with them in the air. ‘See? I move, I drink.’ She sipped her tea. ‘I eat.’ She popped the rest of the biscuit into her mouth. ‘I’m alive.’ But her blue eyes slowly darkened as she looked at him across the desk and said softly, ‘I’m not dead.’
It was as if an electric shock hit him. Abruptly he stood up. ‘Sofia, let’s get out of here.’
His hands almost fitted round her waist as he swung her up on to the rusty iron perch of the freight wagon. She was so light he thought she might take flight in the clear bright air.
‘It’s a good view from here,’ she said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she gazed out across the drab muddy waters of the River Tiva.
‘And from here.’ Mikhail was still standing among the weeds and dirt of the disused railway siding, looking up at her face.
She smiled. Was she blushing? Or was it just the breeze from the river tickling her skin? It wasn’t much of a place to bring her to but there was nowhere else, nowhere private anyway. He’d walked her past a string of warehouses, down to the railway line that tracked along the river to the point where the rails forked into this forgotten siding. Screened by scrub and trees, it was used as a graveyard for abandoned freight wagons. He chose one without sides, tossed a stone at a sharp-faced rat that was sunning itself on what remained of the wooden planking and lifted her on to it.
He leapt up easily and sat beside her, legs draped over the edge. He noticed her shoes were new and finely stitched, and when she bent to brush dust off them he saw again the white scars on two of her fingers and wondered how they came to be there. He felt an absurd desire to touch their shiny, vulnerable surface. Somewhere out of sight the sound of a train wheezing its way into the station reminded him that a large consignment of army uniforms had to be freighted out today. He should be overseeing to ensure there were no slip-ups.
‘To hell with it,’ he said.
‘To hell with what?’
Her gaze left the river and studied his face. Her eyelashes were long, catching the sunlight and even paler than her hair. ‘Tell me what you mean.’
‘I mean Russia. This Motherland of ours has become a crucible and we’re all caught in it. Men and morals of every kind are being melted down and reshaped. No one can stay the way they were.’ He looked at her fragile bone structure and wondered what kind of steel held it together. ‘We all have to re-form ourselves.’
‘I’ve tried.’ He tossed a stone in a high arc towards the river in front of them, which was dragging itself northward, brown and lifeless, its surface filmy with white-flecked pollution pumped from the waste pipes of Dagorsk’s factories straight into its waters. A merchant ship, heavy with rust, steamed downstream, sending a wash of ripples behind it that spread, like fear spreads, with a whisper and a murmur, stirring up mud from below. ‘But right now, I’m not interested in changing anything. Least of all you.’
A smile flickered to her lips but she looked away as if to keep it secret.
‘Sofia, look at me.’
She turned back to him, shyly.
‘Why did you come to my office today?’ he asked.
‘Because there’s something I want to ask you.’
‘Ask away.’ He said it easily but he felt a part of himself tighten.
‘Are you proud of your father? Of what he did?’
Mikhail had a sense of scaffolding falling away, leaving him unsupported, balanced precariously on a ledge.
‘Isn’t every son proud of his father deep in his heart?’ he responded in the same light tone but it sounded unconvincing, even to himself.
‘Why do you ask such a question?’
She looked at him with that odd directness of hers, head tilted to one side, pinning him down, and then suddenly she smiled her widest smile and let him go.
‘I wondered what kind of relationship you had with your father,’ she said softly, ‘because you obviously love Pyotr very much. He’s a fine boy. I know people are reluctant to talk about the past these days because it’s so dangerous but… I just wondered, that’s all.’
Mikhail knew there was more to it but had no wish to push her in that direction. Besides, to talk of his son gave him pleasure. ‘Pyotr and I are too alike. I see so much of myself at that age in the boy. That unshakeable belief that you can mend the world. It’s enviable in some ways because it gives your life a rigid structure. Like the model bridge that I’m building, each girder firm and inflexible. Except believers’ girders come from blueprints laid down by someone else, by Lenin or Stalin or God or Mohammed. It doesn’t come from within.’
‘So you no longer think you can mend the world?’
‘No, I leave the world to take care of itself. I have no more interest in saving it.’
She let her gaze drift with the river. ‘All right, so you cannot save the world. But would you save a person? One individual?’
This was the question. He could feel it, as though a wheel had started to turn. Although she asked it casually, this was the question that had brought her to his office, he was certain. Would he save an individual?
‘Save them from what?’
‘That’s a big question.’
On her lap her fingers twisted round each other and Mikhail couldn’t take his eyes off their imperfections in her otherwise perfect flesh. He felt if he stared hard enough he would read in them what it was that was driving their owner. The fingers were long but broad at the tips, the nails short and pale as pearls except for the two on her right hand. They looked accustomed to hard labour. Farm work? Or was it something worse? Why had she never heard of the Shakhty trial? Was it because she’d been dragging trucks down deep mines or carting rocks out of the earth like a pack-animal?
Hell on earth, that’s what the labour camps were, everyone knew it and whispered it in secret corners. People committed suicide every day of the week rather than be sent to that kind of slow death. But how could this fragile creature have survived it with her spirit still so warm and so intact? Where was the bitterness and the anger that turned prisoners into hollow husks, unrecognisable to their families? Surely she couldn’t be one of them. He must be mistaken.
She was waiting for his answer, not looking at him.
‘Would I save an individual? That would depend,’ he said very deliberately, ‘on the person. But yes, if it were the right person I would try.’
She lifted her hands to her mouth but not before he’d seen her lips tremble. The sight of that weakness, that momentary dropping of her guard, touched him deeply.
‘That’s a big answer,’ she whispered.
Mikhail reached out and took one of her scarred hands in his, wrapped his own large hands around it to keep it safe.
‘Why?’ she murmured.
‘It’s just the way I see things,’ he said, stroking one of her damaged fingers with the tip of his thumb. He could feel the ridges on it. ‘Someone has to fight back.’
‘But you said you have no interest any more in changing the world.’
‘Not the world, but maybe my small corner of it. I’m no good at following another man’s orders, especially when that man is Josef Stalin.’
Sofia gasped and glanced quickly round their sleepy sunlit corner. ‘Don’t, Mikhail.’
He looked at her gravely. ‘I’m not easy to control, Sofia. Ask Tupolev at the aircraft factory, ask Deputy Chairman Stirkhov here in Dagorsk, they’ll all tell you how difficult I am.’
He lifted her hand and brushed his lips along the back of it, feeling the pulse of her blood. She watched him intently as he spoke.
‘When you let yourself become an impersonal cog in the vast machine that is the State, it’s all too easy to forget that you are a person and you do things you later regret. But I’m Mikhail Pashin. Nothing can alter that.’
‘Mikhail Pashin,’ she echoed. ‘Does the name Dyuzheyev mean anything to you?’
The word came out too fast. Her shoulder, slender in the colourless little blouse, leaned against his and he could feel the heat of her seeping into his flesh.
‘I’ve seen people, Mikhail, who have been robbed of who they were. By Stalin and his believers.’ Her voice was no more than a murmur. ‘Don’t underestimate what they can do to you.’
He touched one of the scars on her fingers. ‘Is this what they did to you?’
Their eyes held and it was as though she threw wide the doors inside herself and let him in. She opened her mouth to speak again but a noise caught his ear, the scrape of something hard on metal.
‘Shh,’ Mikhail murmured and placed a finger over her lips.
Her eyes widened, growing wary, but she made no sound as he slipped off the flatbed and lifted her down. They stood still, both listening. After a moment he pointed silently to a covered freight wagon a few metres behind them. Its rusty rear wheels were dislodged off the rails, enmeshed in weeds and blackened chunks of planking that had rotted off the wagon and fallen to earth.
Sofia nodded. She took a breath and stretched up on tiptoe so that her mouth was close to his ear. ‘It’s not safe to-’
Noise exploded around them as the chilling crunch of a squad of army boots quick marched into the quiet of their haven. A magpie lifted into the air with a raucous cry of alarm that sent a pair of pigeons clattering up out of their dust-bath into the trees. Twelve soldiers poured into the siding, driving out the privacy of moments ago, and swarmed over the four box wagons that sat lethargically in the sunshine. After a brief glance the officer ignored Mikhail and Sofia, but from one wagon there rose a shout of terror.
A man came hurtling out of it. Mikhail felt Sofia’s body tense. The man had a dense grey beard and was dressed in black, but something flashed on his chest as he tore past the flatbed, something golden that caught the sun and betrayed him. It was a crucifix. In his hand was a studded bible, clutched fiercely as he ran.
‘Mikhail!’ Sofia cried, heading into the path of the pursuing uniforms.
Instantly Mikhail seized her, dragged her back into his arms and kissed her hard. She struggled and lashed out but he didn’t release her, his arms holding her rigidly against him. He felt the thin material of her blouse tear a fraction at the back as he fought to keep her still, bending her head back, his lips crushing hers.
The soldiers shouted to one another as they raced past the embracing couple but they did not break their stride. A moment later came the crack of a rifle shot and a scream of pain. Sofia froze in Mikhail’s arms. Still his mouth was on hers, his teeth touching hers, silencing her, but her blue eyes were huge with anger. He could feel the sparks from them on the skin of his face.
He wanted to shake her, to rattle those eyes until they could see straight. Instead he eased the pressure of his grip on the flesh of her shoulder so she wouldn’t bruise. He was aware of her hip bone cutting into his stomach, her breasts tight against his chest. Another rifle shot. A shout of triumph. Then the splash of water as a body hit the river’s slick surface and was swallowed into the filth beneath.
Sofia shut her eyes and her body went limp. Mikhail held her on her feet, his arms still around her but gently now. His lips released hers and she buried her face in his shoulder.
‘You did nothing,’ she moaned.
‘I kept you from getting us both killed,’ he said sharply into her hair. ‘An informer had already signed that man’s death warrant. ’
The soldiers marched back out the way they’d come, indifferent to the lovers, and immediately the pigeons settled down in the dust again, strutting with curiosity round the fluttering wafer-thin pages of the bible where it lay in the dirt.
‘You didn’t even attempt to save that man from death,’ Sofia accused him.
‘I told you. Only for the right person.’
He could hear her breathing, fast and furious. They stood like that for a long while in silence, letting the tremors pass, feeling the heat of their bodies together drive out the chill of death that had invaded the air they breathed and the ground they stood on. Her hair felt soft as down on his cheek and smelled of sunlight, while somewhere unseen another train growled its way towards Dagorsk station.
Gently, as if he might break her, Mikhail lifted her head off his shoulder and drew back so he could look at her face, but he didn’t release his hold on her. Her limbs felt fragile, thin as kindling sticks, yet her eyes burned. He took her face in his hands, slowly studied the fine lines of her full lips, the tilt of her eyebrows and the delicate flare of her nostrils, and felt something come alive deep within himself that he’d thought was dead for ever. He recognised it instantly. It was trust. Long ago he’d learned to exist without it, each day, each month, each year, dimly aware of the dull ache of loss, but suddenly here in this unlikely place it had leapt back to life. Bright and gleaming, polished to perfection, like a newly minted rouble. He wanted to shout with joy to the skies. Because without trust it was impossible to love.
Softly, frightened that this magical creature in his arms might vanish before his eyes, he kissed her mouth. It tasted of sugar from the biscuit earlier and of something else that he couldn’t place. Her lips parted and a faint moan escaped as her body melted against his. His hands caressed the long line of her spine, fingers exploring each bone of it, gentling the muscles of her back, sliding hungrily down to her narrow waist. Her arms twined round his neck with an urgency that set his blood racing, her mouth opened to his probing tongue and the sweet taste of her flooded his senses. He neither saw nor felt anything but Sofia in his arms.
A young soldier was facing them across the dusty platform of the flatbed wagon. Patches of sweat darkened the khaki material under his arms, a rifle bristled in his hand.
‘Stand apart,’ he repeated and took aim at Mikhail’s head.
‘Do nothing foolish,’ Mikhail murmured to Sofia as he stepped back from her, one step, no more. ‘We’re doing no harm here,’ he said reasonably to the soldier.
‘You were loitering near an Enemy of the People, that superstitious propagandist of bourgeois ideas we hunted out of the wagon.’ The soldier’s face was thin, his brown eyes single-minded, one of Stalin’s believers. ‘I requested permission to come back to make sure you are not subversive members of his religious cell.’ He swung the rifle barrel from one to the other and back again.
‘Comrade,’ Mikhail said, easing himself forward so that he stood partly in front of Sofia, ‘we know nothing about the man in hiding here. We’d never seen him before and had no idea he was in the wagon.’
‘Show me your papers, the pair of you.’
Mikhail felt rather than saw Sofia flinch. It was fleeting but unmistakable. Her eyes sought his and told him all he needed to know. He smiled at the young soldier. ‘Certainly, comrade,’ he said easily and started to walk round the flatbed, his shadow staying behind with Sofia as though reluctant to leave. ‘I am direktor of the Levitsky factory and here are my dokumenti.’
He was within touching distance of the soldier now, could see the beads of sweat on the young man’s upper lip. The rifle was still pointing at him.
‘Here,’ he said and from his trouser pocket he withdrew a packet of cigarettes along with a lighter and his identity papers, at the same time nodding casually towards Sofia as if she were nothing. ‘The girl’s husband works for me, so I’d appreciate it very much if you’d just leave her out of this.’ He gave a shrug. ‘You’re a man of the world, comrade, you understand how these things work. She amuses me today but her husband is a valued engineer and I couldn’t afford to lose him just because he got wind of my… well, let’s call it a dalliance with his wife.’ He laughed and offered a cigarette.
The soldier took one and accepted a light. ‘I see,’ he said, removing another cigarette, which he slipped behind his ear. He twisted his mouth into a leer at Sofia and shook his head dismissively. ‘Not to my taste,’ he said with a sneer, exhaling smoke. ‘Not enough flesh on her and breasts like peas. I like something I can grab by the handful.’
You can grab my fist by the handful in your bloody mouth, you bastard.
But Mikhail kept his fist at his side and handed over his papers instead. He drew on his cigarette and glanced across at Sofia who looked poised to run. He gave a small shake of his head. He saw the soldier’s eyes glint greedily as he opened the documents and found a hundred rouble note inside.
‘I think we understand each other,’ Mikhail said.
‘Of course we do, Comrade Direktor. Girl, piss off and sell your skinny cunt elsewhere today.’
Sofia hesitated, eyes focused on the soldier’s weapon as though she had other ideas.
‘Go,’ Mikhail said.
She gave him a long look, then turned and raced away with loose-limbed strides. Mikhail remained with the soldier leaning against the wagon, keeping him talking and smoking until he was sure Sofia was safe, then he walked briskly back to the factory. In his office the glass she’d used was still on his desk and he lifted it up, touching his lips to the spot where hers had drunk from it.
Davinsky Camp July 1933
Hundreds of skeletal figures in ragged clothes stood in rows in front of the shabby wooden huts, waiting. The women’s patience stretched beyond endurance. It had been a hard day out in the Work Zone and an exhausting march back to camp, but now they were being made to stand in the compound. They stared at the ground, slapping at the marsh flies and mosquitoes.
Two hours they’d waited for the roll-call to begin under grey evening skies, no talking and hands behind backs. Around them the barbed-wire fences and well-guarded watchtowers breathed out a menace that the prisoners had learned to deflect with their own private rituals: a memory here, a snatch of a song there. Or even a shifting of weight from one foot to the other in a secret internal rhythm inside their lapti, their birch-bark shoes.
The door to the building finally opened. The Commandant emerged and all eyes turned to admire his smooth plump cheeks, the way you admire a pig’s fat flank before slitting its throat. He strutted, swished a long lead-tipped cane, ordered the start of evening roll-call, but his speech was slurred, his tongue slow and laboured. He strode through the rows while the numbers were called out, disgusted by the fleshless bodies and the bloodless lips, but his cane enjoyed its daily dance on fragile bones and tender skin.
‘You.’ He rapped a shoulder. ‘Name?’
‘Prisoner 1498.’ Eyes on his leather-clad feet. ‘Fedorina, Anna.’
‘Convicted under Article 58, section-’
The lead tip of the cane slipped under her chin and raised her head, silencing her. She looked straight at the Commandant, at his soft loose lips and his greedy unfocused eyes, and coughed. A slender thread of blood and sputum flew from her lips to his. He lashed out with his cane on her cheek and scrubbed his mouth with his sleeve, but turned and lurched drunkenly away from her.
She managed not to smile. But the faintest of chuckles issued from Nina at her side and Anna was aware that the whole row of women experienced a surge of fresh energy.
An idea came to Anna when she was drenched in sweat, labouring on the road construction, mashing up rocks into gravel with a hammer she could barely lift, and she wondered why on earth she hadn’t thought of it before. There was something she had to ask Nina, but today the big Ukrainian was working in a different brigade, so Anna had to bide her time.
She spent the day trying to focus her mind on something neutral, such as how fast a single tree could repopulate its small patch of forest when its companions were hacked down, given the savage Siberian winters and the small mammals and cross-bills that nibbled the seeds from the fallen cones. Or whether the stars existed before our own sun in the vast arch of the northern sky, or the other way round. But as soon as the women were herded into their crocodile formation for the return trek, she couldn’t stop herself whispering her question to Nina.
‘Nina, there’s a civilian worker in the office, isn’t there? The tall dark-haired one.’
Her big-boned companion nodded her head, like a horse chasing flies. ‘Yes. She lives in the civilian quarters and deals with the paperwork.’
‘You talk with her sometimes, I’ve seen you.’
Nina laughed softly. ‘I think she fancies me.’
Anna smiled. ‘Would she know about any escapees and what happened to them? Surely there must be a record in the office.’
It wasn’t much to go on. Just a flicker of Nina’s eyes to one side, before she shrugged her broad shoulders and said, ‘Knowing how drunk our beloved Commandant is most of the time, I don’t think there’s much chance of an efficient filing system in his office, do you?’
But the flicker of the eyes was enough for Anna.
‘Nina,’ she muttered, ‘you’re lying to me.’
‘Please, Nina.’ Anna brushed her arm against the other woman’s sleeve. ‘Tell me.’
They shuffled along in silence for a few steps, the sky drained of colour as the sun slid away from them. Around them nothing but the vast pine forest listened to the sighs of the hundreds of women.
‘What have you heard?’ Anna pressed.
Nina spoke quickly. ‘An unnamed female escapee from this camp was reported found at the railway station in Kazan.’ She hesitated, then added. ‘Found dead, shot in the head.’
Anna’s feet stumbled, blind and boneless. White noise, the sound of pain, filled her head. Nina was still speaking but Anna couldn’t hear her words.
‘No,’ she choked, ‘it’s not her.’
Her lungs closed up completely and she couldn’t breathe. She stumbled, bent double, fighting to drag in air, and the crocodile behind her shuffled to a halt.
‘Move yourself, suka, you bitch!’ The nearest guard raised his rifle butt and brought it down with impatience on the small of her back.
She crunched to her knees on the dusty pine needles, but the shock of the blow jerked her lungs back into action. Nina yanked her on to her feet and into some kind of forward motion before the guard could strike again.
‘That bastard needs his rifle butt shoved up his arse,’ Tasha muttered from behind.
‘It won’t be her,’ Anna whispered. ‘It won’t be Sofia.’
Beside her Nina nodded but she said nothing more.
After that, Anna had no ability to control what went on in her head. It took all her strength just to keep her feet and lungs working long enough to prevent a repetition of the rifle-whipping. Sweat gathered in sticky pools in the hollow of her throat and her thoughts seemed to slide into them and drown.
Throughout her years in the camp she had carefully steered her mind away from the razor-edged memories. But now, despite all her efforts, it returned again and again to the day in 1917 that she still thought of as Cranberry Juice Day. She shivered, despite the heat of the evening.
The day had started well in the Dyuzheyevs’ drawing room.
When Anna moved her bishop, Grigori Dyuzheyev had frowned and tapped his teeth with a long finger.
‘Anna, my girl, you are becoming lethal. I’ve taught you too well.’
Anna laughed, looked out of the window at the snow drifting down from a leaden sky and tried to hide the ripple of pleasure she felt. Papa wasn’t interested in chess, he was over by the fire buried in yet another of his dreary newspapers. But when she was young she had badgered Grigori to teach her and she’d learned fast. It seemed she had a natural flair for strategy and now, four years later, she was threatening to steal his king from under his nose. He never gave her any quarter and made her battle for every piece.
But at the very last moment she saw his heavy eyebrows swoop together in a spasm of alarm at the prospect of losing to a twelve-year-old slip of a girl. Suddenly she’d had enough. She didn’t want to humiliate this generous man, so she left the back door open for his king and let him win.
‘Well done, my girl,’ Grigori snorted his dragon sound. ‘That was close, by God. Next time maybe you’ll do better – if you’re lucky!’
Papa glanced up from his paper and chortled. ‘Got you on the run, has she, my friend?’ But he leaned his head back against his armchair and stroked his whiskers the way he did when he was unhappy about something.
‘What is it, Papa?’
He tossed the copy of Pravda aside.
‘It’s this damn war against Germany. It’s going so badly for us because of sheer incompetence and two more factories are on strike here in Petrograd. It’s no wonder young men like Vasily are up in arms and on the march these days.’
‘They should be horsewhipped,’ Grigori growled. He blew out smoke from his cigar in a blue spiral of annoyance.
‘Grigori, you can’t hide yourself away among your Italian paintings and your Arab stallions and refuse to see that Russia is in crisis.’
‘I can, Nikolai. And I will.’
‘Damn it, man, these young people have ideals that-’
‘Don’t give me that tosh. Ideology is a word used to hide evil actions behind a cloak of justice. These bloody Mensheviks and Bolsheviks will bring about the disintegration of our country, and then we can never go back.’
‘Grigori, I love you like a brother, but you are blind. The Romanovs’ Russia is not an ordered Utopia and never has been. It’s a doomed system.’
Grigori rose to his feet and strode over to stand with his back to the log fire, the colour deepening in his whiskered cheeks. ‘Do these fools really think their Party membership card will be the answer to all their problems? I tell you, Nikolai, they have a lot to learn.’
‘Maybe it’s we who have a lot to learn,’ Papa said hotly.
‘Don’t be absurd.’
‘Listen to me, Grigori. Do you know that Petrograd, this glorious capital city of ours, has the highest industrial accident rate in Russia? At the Putilov works alone there are fifteen accidents a month and no one is doing a damn thing about it. No wonder the unions are angry.’
‘Papa,’ Anna interrupted, quoting something she read herself in the newspaper the day before, ‘this is the twentieth century, yet nearly half the homes in this city are without a water or sewage system.’
‘Exactly my point. But does Tsar Nicholas care? No, no more than he does about the bread shortages.’
‘That doesn’t mean we have to face the downfall of the tsars,’ snapped Grigori.
‘I rather fear it does,’ Papa retorted.
‘Enough, gentlemen!’ From her place on the sofa beside the fire Svetlana Dyuzheyeva scolded her husband and his friend, shaking an elegant finger at them both. ‘Stop your politicking at once and pour us all a drink, Grigori. Anna and I are bored to tears with it all, aren’t we, malishka?’
But Anna wasn’t actually bored. Recently she’d taken to dipping into Papa’s newspaper when he’d finished with it and was alarmed by the reports of sabre charges by the cavalry in the street. Blood had been spilled on both sides.
‘Isn’t Vasily supposed to be here by now?’ she asked, but was careful to keep her concern out of her voice.
‘The infernal boy is late again,’ Grigori grumbled as he went over to the drinks table and picked up the vodka bottle.
The furnishings in the drawing room were as ornate and elaborate as the house itself, all elegant tables and highly polished cabinets on delicately carved legs. Two electric chandeliers glittered down on beautiful ornaments of fine porcelain, each as thin as paper.
‘Give him time,’ Svetlana smiled, as indulgent as ever.
Anna abandoned the chess table with its inlaid squares of ivory and ebony and took up a new position on the padded window seat.
Don’t die without me.
She whispered the words to the window pane and watched it cloud over with the warmth of her breath, blocking off the white frosted world outside.
Don’t die without me, Vasily.
All kinds of imaginings jostled each other inside her head as the reason why Vasily hadn’t yet appeared, each one sending shivers racing down her spine.
‘Are you cold?’ asked Maria, Anna’s governess, who was quietly bent over a piece of needlework on her lap.
‘No, I’m not cold.’
‘Anna, why don’t you come and sit over here by the fire?’ Svetlana Dyuzheyeva asked with an encouraging smile. ‘It’s warmer than by the window.’
Anna looked round at her. Her own mother had died when she was born, so her ideas of what a mother should be were all pinned on Svetlana. She was beautiful, with alabaster skin and soft brown eyes, and she was kind. Vasily complained that she was too strict but when Anna whispered it to Papa, he said it was for the boy’s own good and, in fact, a sound thrashing from time to time would keep him more in line, instead of roaming the streets with the trade unionist demonstrators and getting himself into trouble.
‘No, thank you,’ Anna replied politely to Svetlana. ‘I prefer to sit here.’
‘Don’t worry, he won’t be much longer, I’m certain,’ Svetlana smiled gently. ‘Not when he knows you’re here.’
Anna nodded to please Svetlana, though she didn’t believe a word of it. She knew too well how strongly the activity in the streets drew Vasily into its coils. On the other side of the window the lawns were covered in a crisp coating of fresh snow that glittered sharp and silent in the intermittent sunshine, as they tumbled away from the house like billowing white skirts all the way down to the lake. With her fingertip she made a tiny round space in the mist on the glass, exactly like a bullet hole, and put her eye to it. The drive was still empty.
She couldn’t ever remember a time in her life without Vasily’s laughter and his teasing grey eyes, or his soft brown hair to cling to when he galloped her round the lawns on his back. But recently he had become more elusive and he was changing in ways that unnerved her. Even when he did sit quietly at home she could see his mind was rushing out into the streets. Turbulent, he called them, and that just frightened her more. That’s when she suggested she should go with him.
‘Don’t be silly, Anna,’ he’d laughed and his laughter hurt. ‘You’d be trampled to death. I don’t want you to be harmed.’
‘That’s not fair, Vasily. I don’t want you to get hurt or be trampled to death either.’
He laughed and shook his head, drawing himself up taller. She’d noticed he was growing so fast these days, he was leaving her far behind.
‘Life’s not fair,’ he said.
‘It should be.’
‘That’s the whole point.’ He waved his arms around in exasperation. ‘Can’t you see, that’s why we’re all out demonstrating on the streets for a fairer society, risking…’ He stopped the words before they came out. ‘The government will be forced to listen to us.’ The grey of his eyes swirled with as many shades as the sea up at Peterhof, and Anna wanted to dip a finger in it.
‘Vasily,’ she said impatiently, ‘take me with you next time. Please, Vasily, I mean it.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like out there, Annochka. However bad you’re imagining it, it’s far worse.’ Slowly his eyes darkened, like the tide coming in. ‘The government leaves us no choice but violence.’ He took her hand between his own and chafed it hard. ‘I don’t want you hurt, Anna.’
And now she was stuck here gazing out of the window, wondering where he was. Don’t die without me, Vasily.
There was the swish of a troika, the jingle of its bells.
Before she’d even jumped off the window seat, the door swung open and in strode a tall youth with grey eyes that sparkled brighter than the chandeliers. A dusting of snow still lay on his brown hair as though reluctant to be swept away, and his cheeks glowed red from the wind. He brought a great swirl of vitality into the room, but instead of his usual immaculate jacket and trousers he was wearing what looked to Anna like horrible workman’s clothes, brown and baggy and shapeless. A flat cap was twirling in his hand.
There was a bustle of kissing cheeks and shaking hands, then Vasily bowed very stylishly to Anna.
‘Don’t look so fierce, Anna,’ he chided her. ‘I know I promised to be here earlier but I was… distracted.’ He laughed and tugged at a lock of her hair but she was not ready to forgive him yet.
‘I thought you’d had your head cut off,’ she said accusingly and turned her back on him, just in time to catch Papa giving Grigori an amused wink.
She flounced over to the chaise longue where Svetlana was sitting, elegant in a dove-grey costume, the sleeves trimmed with smoky fur at the cuffs like bracelets. Anna inhaled the wonderful scent of her and glared at the three men.
Vasily came over and knelt before her on the Persian rug. ‘Annochka,’ his voice was low and it made her scalp tingle, ‘please forgive me for being late.’
‘Vasily, I was so…’ but before the words scared for you rushed out of her mouth, something in her sensed he would not welcome her fears, so she changed it just in time, ‘… so tired of waiting. To dance.’ She kissed his cheek. It smelled of tobacco. ‘I want you to dance with me.’
With another elegant bow that made her heart thump, Vasily swept her up into his arms and twirled her round and round, so that her dress billowed out like a balloon.
‘Mama,’ he called, ‘let’s have some music for our ballerina. ’
‘Let me,’ Grigori offered, moving over to the grand piano at the other end of the room. ‘Here, how’s this?’ With a flourish he struck up a lilting piece.
‘Ah, a Chopin waltz,’ Svetlana sighed with pleasure and rose to her feet, as graceful as the swans on the lake. ‘Doktor Nikolai, will you do me the honour?’
‘Enchanted,’ Papa responded courteously and took her in his arms.
They danced round the room. Outside, the world was cold and growing colder each moment, but inside this room the air was warm and bathed in laughter. Smiling down at her, Vasily held Anna tightly by the waist so that as she twirled in circles her cheek rubbed against the rough serge of his jacket. Every bone in her body was transfixed with joy. She blocked out all thoughts of workers and demonstrators and sabres. Vasily was wrong, she was certain. This world would last for ever.
A knock. The drawing-room door burst open and Maria entered, followed by a maid in black uniform and white lace cap who bobbed a curtsy. Maria’s voice was tight and pained.
‘Excuse me, madam, but there’s been an accident.’
All dancing ceased. The music stopped mid-phrase. Anna felt a shiver of shock in the air.
‘What kind of accident?’ Grigori Dyuzheyev asked at once.
‘There’s been trouble, sir,’ Maria said. ‘Down by the orchard. The head gardener is hurt. A bayonet wound, they say, a bad one.’ She was punctuating each sentence with little gasps. ‘By a troop of Bolsheviks. I thought Doktor Fedorin might be able to help.’
Instantly Papa was all business.
‘I’m coming right away. I’ll just fetch my medical bag from the car.’ He was rushing to the door. ‘Tell someone to bring clean water, Svetlana,’ he called over his shoulder and was gone.
Svetlana hurried from the room. Grigori and Maria followed. Vasily was still holding Anna in his arms and she could feel the rapid pumping of his heart.
‘Well, my little friend, it looks like it’s just you and me. Let’s have one last dance,’ he said, his eyes serious. ‘There won’t be any more dancing after today, Anna.’
He started to twirl her round the room again, even though the music had stopped and there were voices shouting outside. He kissed her on the forehead and she inhaled quickly to capture the scent of him. A single shot rang out. A scream outside. Instantly Vasily was pushing her to the floor and bundling her underneath the chaise longue. She could smell old horsehair and the acid tang of her own fear.
‘No, Vasily,’ she whispered.
‘Yes, Anna. Lie still. You must stay here. Do you hear me?’ He was on his knees, leaning sideways to peer into the low gap between the floor and the seat. The lines of his face had changed, sharper now and suddenly older than his fourteen years. ‘Whatever happens, Anna, don’t come out. Stay here.’ He took her hand, kissed a fingertip, and was gone.
But she had no intention of being packed away like a china doll and immediately started to back out from under the chaise longue. She scurried across the floor on her hands and knees, feet catching in her hem, to the window, where she placed her hands flat on the icy pane, nose pressed beside them, looking out. Why was there a pool of cranberry juice in the snow? As though someone’s cold fingers had dropped a jar of it. But next to the pool lay Grigori Dyuzheyev. He looked asleep.
Tivil July 1933
Sofia leaned closer. The gypsy’s answering murmur was faint. His slight figure lay unmoving under the bedcover, a fragile disturbance of the gaily coloured patchwork. At times his eyes seemed to glaze over as they stared up at the ceiling with its moons and planets and its all-seeing eye. The black of his pupils had changed to dull ash-grey.
Gently she took his hand in hers. She couldn’t understand exactly what had happened to make him so ill, and Zenia was no help. When Sofia asked what the problem was, the gypsy girl averted her eyes, looking suddenly younger, and said, ‘You must ask Rafik.’ But he was in no state to answer anything. Though his hand was small and narrow-boned in hers, it felt unexpectedly heavy and possessed a heat that seemed to come from deeper than just skin and muscle. She ran a finger over its knotted veins, willing them to keep flowing.
‘Rafik, my friend, you don’t look so good. Can I give you more…?’ She waved a hand at the murky bottle beside the bed. She hesitated to call it medicine.
Zenia had left the strange-smelling liquid for him before going to work for the day, with strict instructions for a mouthful to be taken every few hours, more if his head pain worsened. But Rafik had sent Sofia to the Dagorsk apteka specifically to fetch something stronger. The pain must be bad. Sofia feared for him as she spooned the white powder on to his tongue. When he closed his eyes his lips continued to move silently, as though his dreams were too powerful to ignore.
She leaned so close her hair brushed his. ‘Stay,’ she whispered. ‘Stay with me.’
A heavy knock on the front door made her jump. She told herself it was most likely some villager seeking Rafik’s help with a horse, but when she opened it she was surprised to find the broad figure of the blacksmith on the threshold.
‘May I come in, Comrade Morozova?’ he said without preamble. ‘I want to speak with you.’
She suddenly remembered the axe, the one she’d stolen. Was that what this was about? She watched his eyes. That’s where she knew how to spot danger. But no, the blacksmith’s were solemn, no threatening ripple disturbing their dark surface. She stepped back and allowed the big man to enter.
His collarless shirt was undone at the neck, revealing thick corded muscles. He was still clad in his leather apron that smelled of grease, but his manner was polite and his voice soft. It was as if he knew his shaven head and massive size were intimidating enough without needing to add to it. The carefully trimmed spade of a beard revealed a touch of vanity that sat oddly with him, and she wondered if there was some woman in his life he was aiming to please.
‘So, Comrade Pokrovsky,’ Sofia said, ‘what can I do for you?’
His brown eyes narrowed as they studied her. ‘I’ve come with an offer for you.’
‘An offer? What kind of offer?’
‘You’re offering me a job?’
‘Yes. Zenia told me you were looking for one. Is that right?’
‘Then I’m here to offer you one.’
‘I’m not at my best with a hammer and bellows,’ she said with a smile.
He frowned, then opened his mouth wide and roared with laughter. The sound almost took her head off. ‘Not in the forge. In the school.’
Sofia folded her arms and said nothing. This didn’t feel right.
‘Well?’ the blacksmith urged.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Why have you come to me with the offer? Instead of the schoolteacher herself?’
‘Oh, she’s busy with the children – she lost her other assistant. Anyway she…’ He paused, his heavy beetle-brows pulled together, and Sofia wasn’t certain whether the look he gave her was one of annoyance or embarrassment.
‘Go on,’ she said softly.
He drew a deep breath, filling his barrel-chest until it stretched the seams of his shirt. ‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘she wants my opinion.’
Sofia blinked. ‘Of me, you mean?’
He nodded, studying her closely.
‘But I spoke to her only last night at the school,’ she said.
A small silence grew between them. Sofia was the one to break it.
‘Elizaveta Lishnikova must have considerable respect for your judgement.’
He shrugged. ‘She has made mistakes in the past. She’s not good with us… peasants.’ He showed his big teeth in a smile. ‘Like the last teacher she employed. He’s gone now.’
‘So what will you report back to her?’
He chewed ponderously on his beard, the way a bull chews on the cud. ‘That you have a smile that would keep the boys in order. A soft voice that would comfort the little ones. That your eyes are sharp and trust no one, but you’re the kind of person to have at your back in times of trouble. Unless,’ his eyes narrowed to slits, ‘unless you’re coming with a knife, that is.’
Another silence landed between them.
‘Comrade Pokrovsky,’ Sofia said after a moment, unfolding her arms, ‘would you care to join me for a cup of tea?’
They didn’t talk much. Just sat at the table holding their cups and eyeing each other with interest. Sofia could feel the suspicion in the room as solid as a third person, but neither seemed to mind it much. They were used to living with it, breathing its fumes, and both were careful not to mention what went on in the village the previous night. She looked at his hands. Scarred and lined, the forge imprinted in the shape of every massive nail and knuckle.
‘Have you always been the blacksmith in Tivil?’
‘All my life. And my father before me.’
‘The village must have changed a lot.’
He clamped his lips shut and said no more, but his dark eyes were not so cautious and a deep anger sparked in them. She looked away to give him a moment to hide it.
‘So you’ve known Rafik for many years?’ she said.
‘I have. He’s the best man you could wish for when handling a horse.’
‘And when handling a mind?’
He leaned forward, fists on the table, making it creak. ‘Seen him do it, have you?’
‘It’s frightening, isn’t it?’
‘What is it he does?’
The smith’s hand stroked the smooth skin of his head, as if unconsciously protecting the contents of his skull.
‘It’s gypsy enchantment,’ he growled.
‘What kind of gypsy enchantment?’
‘Chyort! How would I know, girl? An ancient power of some kind, I suppose.’ Sofia watched him spread his arms out wide, taking in the whole baffling breadth of the universe. ‘It might be,’ he added in a lower voice, ‘drawn from the black arts, for all I know.’
She laughed softly. ‘I don’t think so.’
He reached across the table, plucked out a thread of her hair and wound it round his thick finger. ‘Rafik can twist your mind as easily as I twist your hair. If you’re his niece, as he claims you are, you must know all about gypsy skills, anyway.’
Sofia’s heart thumped. She wasn’t usually so clumsy, damn it. This blacksmith may have lived in a Ural village all his life but he was no fool and he kept laying snares for her to run into, just as he would for the animals in the forest.
‘My aunt married Rafik’s brother but I possess no gypsy blood.’ That was the story she and Rafik had concocted and she was determined to stick with it. ‘So I was taught nothing of their traditions or ways.’
He unwound the blonde strand on his finger and dropped it into the palm of her hand. ‘That explains it then.’ And he laughed, a boisterous sound, though she couldn’t for the life of her see the joke.
‘Stop teasing the girl, Pokrovsky.’
‘Rafik!’ Sofia leapt to her feet.
The gypsy was standing in the doorway. His slight frame looked unsteady, leaning heavily on the doorpost of his room. How long he’d been there she wasn’t sure, but she sensed it was no more than a moment or two. His shirt, which should have been a pale grey, was dark with sweat.
‘Rafik, you should be in bed.’
‘No.’ He accepted the arm she offered him and let her lead him to the maroon armchair. ‘We are under a cloud, black as…’ Rafik lifted the corner of his mouth in a thin smile, ‘as Pokrovsky’s fingernails over there. It hangs above us and-’ He stopped. Listened to something. Sofia didn’t know if it was to something inside or outside his head.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked quietly.
‘Not the village in danger again?’ Pokrovsky moaned.
‘No.’ Rafik turned his black eyes on Sofia. ‘No. It’s you, Sofia.’ He pulled himself to his feet and skirted a hand over her head without actually touching her. ‘It’s cold,’ he murmured. With jerky movements he wiped a large red handkerchief across his face. ‘Now,’ he said calmly, ‘we will take you to the kolkhoz office to-’
A rap at the door interrupted him. He nodded, as though it was what he’d been expecting. Sofia saw a flicker of something tighten his lips – was it pain, or was it knowledge of what was to come? – before he walked to the door and opened it. A shaft of bright sunlight rushed in.
‘Good day to you, Comrade Fomenko.’
The kolkhoz Chairman stood more than a head taller than the gypsy and for one fleeting moment Sofia thought he was going to brush Rafik aside, there was such determination in the way he stared straight at her, ignoring the two men. It made her uneasy.
‘Comrade Morozova,’ he said brusquely, ‘you haven’t registered yet as a resident of Tivil, I am told.’
‘I was just about to take her down to the office to do so,’ Rafik responded quickly.
‘Good. We need her in the fields. You’ll be assigned to a brigade, Comrade Morozova.’
Sofia’s tongue dried in her mouth. Just the mention of the word brigade sent a cold shiver through her. She made no comment, just returned his stare. Did this man think of nothing but his fields and his quotas? But his observant grey eyes were giving nothing away. They turned and studied Rafik for a long moment, then with a brisk nod of his head, he was gone. Sofia felt the sapping of energy inside the izba, as though something had been sucked out of the room.
‘Pokrovsky,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘tell your teacher that if she wants an answer, she must come and ask me herself.’
‘I lied to Mikhail.’
‘It was for his own good,’ Rafik pointed out.
‘He knows I lied to him.’
‘It was to protect him. The less he remembers about the sacks, the safer he is.’
‘I know. But-’
‘Leave it, Sofia.’ There was an edge to his voice.
‘Sometimes, Rafik, you scare me.’
‘Good. Because you scare me, my dear. Like you scared Fomenko.’
‘That’s why he came himself to check up on you. It’s clear he’s not sure about you. Our Chairman likes to be in control, so yes, you worry him.’
Sofia laughed softly and felt his answering smile strengthen the bond that had forged between them.
‘Are you sure this is such a good idea?’ she asked.
They were making their way down the dusty street to the kolkhoz office. It was by far the most conspicuous izba in the village, draped with placards and colourful posters listing the latest production figures and urging greater commitment from kolkhozniki. To emphasise the point, painted in large letters above the door was the statement: First Five Year Plan In Four. No one was going to accuse Stalin of not driving his people hard. Grey clouds were creeping up on the horizon, hovering above the ridge as if waiting for a chance to slip down into the valley. There was no breath of wind to scour Tivil clean. The smell of burned wood and ash still hung between the houses like a physical presence.
Rafik had changed into his bright yellow shirt and was walking carefully, one hand lightly on Sofia’s arm for support. She knew the effort was too much too soon, but she hadn’t argued against it. Never again would she put Mikhail’s life in danger the way she had today in Dagorsk because of her lack of dokumenti. Just the thought of how close it came, of the rifle pointed at his head, sent acid surging through her blood.
As they passed the blacksmith’s forge, Pokrovsky raised an oily hand but Sofia only had eyes for Mikhail’s son, Pyotr, who was standing there with him. He was a small figure beside the great bulk of the blacksmith, a pair of tongs clasped in his young fist. The boy wiped a hand on his heavy burlap apron and then across his mouth, leaving a smear of grease. Sofia smiled at him but he didn’t respond.
‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ Sofia told him. ‘You should be resting.’
‘Don’t fuss. If you don’t register as a member of this kolkhoz today people will start asking questions.’ His black eyes sparked at her. ‘You don’t want that, do you?’
‘No, I don’t want that. But neither do I want to see you ill.’
A drawn-out growl rattled inside his chest. ‘And I don’t want to see you dead.’
The man behind the desk stood no chance. He was in his forties and was proud of his position of authority in the kolkhoz, the set of his mouth faintly smug. His steel-rimmed spectacles reflected the bright lamp that shone on his desk, despite the sunshine outdoors, and his hand kept fiddling with the cord of the telephone, the only one in the village. A telephone was a status symbol that he did not care to be parted from, even for a moment.
‘Identity papers, pozhalusta, please, Comrade Morozova,’ he asked politely. He stroked his moustache, held out his hand and waited expectantly.
Sofia hated the office from the second she stepped inside it. Small, crowded, littered with forms and paperwork. Walls covered in lists. Just the stench of officialdom turned her stomach. She’d seen how it could warp a man’s mind till people became nothing but numbers, and sheets of paper became gods demanding blood sacrifice.
‘Dokumenti? ’ the kolkhoz secretary asked again, more forcibly this time.
Sofia did exactly as Rafik had instructed her. She took a folded blank sheet of paper from her skirt pocket and placed it on the desk. The man frowned, clearly confused. He picked it up, unfolded it and spread its blank face in front of his.
‘What is this, comrade? A joke?’
Rafik rapped his knuckles sharply on the metal desk, making both Sofia and the man jump.
‘No joke,’ Rafik said.
Words in a language Sofia did not recognise started to flow from the gypsy’s mouth, an unbroken stream that seemed to wash through the room in waves, soft, rounded sounds that made the air hum and vibrate in her ears. A resonance echoed in her mind. She fought against it, but at the same time her eyes registered that the man at the desk wore a blank expression, as though the waves had swept his mind as empty as a beach at low tide. Sofia swore she could even taste the salt of sea spray in her mouth. She wondered if her own face looked as blank.
‘No joke,’ Rafik reiterated clearly.
He walked round the desk, his bright yellow shirt as hypnotic as the sun, till he was standing beside the man. He placed one hand heavily on the secretary’s shoulder. The other slapped down with a loud crack on the sheet of paper.
‘Identity papers,’ he purred into the man’s ear.
Sofia saw the moment when understanding flooded the man’s eyes. It was as sudden and savage as a punch in the stomach. He blinked, ground his teeth audibly and gave a brisk nod of his head.
‘Of course,’ he muttered in a voice that had grown thick and unwieldy.
While Rafik returned to stand beside Sofia, the man rifled through drawers, yanked out forms, flourished the Red Arrow kolkhoz official stamp. But she barely noticed. All she was aware of was the tang of salt on her tongue and Rafik’s arm in its yellow sleeve firm against her own. How long it was before they stepped out into the street again, Sofia wasn’t certain, but by the time they did so, the clouds had slunk into the valley and Tivil had lost its summer sheen. In her pocket was an official residence permit.
‘Rafik,’ she said quietly, ‘what is it you do?’
‘I wrap skeins of silk around people’s thoughts.’
‘Is it a kind of hypnotism?’
He smiled at her. ‘Call it what you will. It kills me slowly, a piece at a time.’
He could barely breathe.
With an arm round his waist and taking most of his weight herself, she walked him round to the patch of scrubland at the back of the office, away from watchful eyes. With great care she eased him to the ground. He sat there trembling, knees drawn up to his chest, eyes focused on the ridge of trees beyond the river. Without warning he was violently sick. Sofia wiped his blue lips with her skirt.
‘Better,’ he gasped. ‘In a moment I’ll be… better.’
‘Shh, just rest.’
Sofia wrapped her arms around him, drawing him on to her shoulder and accepting the guilt into her heart.
‘Thank you, Rafik,’ she murmured.
‘Now,’ he said in a voice held together by willpower, ‘tell me why you are here.’
He didn’t touch her. The sinewy hands that in some inexplicable way possessed the key to people’s minds lay lifelessly on his lap. He did not even look at her. The piercing eyes were closed, no waves being sent to wash out the truth. He was leaving it up to her to tell him.
Or not to tell him.
Sofia hurried to the stables. She wanted to reach them before Fomenko spotted her running loose instead of heading to one of his blasted brigades. The track was rough under her feet, rutted and patterned with hoof prints. She had come in search of Priest Logvinov and was nervous. He was the kind of person around whom someone always got hurt – and she couldn’t afford to get hurt. Not now, not when she was so close.
The experience with Rafik in the office had made her doubt her own thoughts and it had taken an effort to drag her mind away from Mikhail. But it was her body that was less controllable. It kept reliving flashes of memory, the feel of Mikhail’s mouth on hers, so hard it hurt at first and then so soft and enticing that her lips craved more. She walked harder, faster, driving herself to concentrate on other things.
She reached a cluster of dingy wooden buildings that rose haphazardly around three sides of a dusty courtyard. They were set far back enough from the village to take advantage of the gentle slope that climbed up towards the ridge. Here, on this higher ground, Sofia caught the breeze full in her face and the scent of the forest, dense and secretive.
‘Is Priest Logvinov around?’ she asked a dark-skinned youth who was sweeping the yard with slow, lazy strokes. He had scabs on his head and his bare arms.
‘In with Glinka,’ he muttered, tipping his head towards one of the open stable doors without breaking the rhythm of the hazel broom.
‘Spasibo,’ Sofia said.
The gloom inside the stable came as a relief after the harsh glare in the courtyard. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. She inhaled the smell of horse and hay, at first seeing no one. Just a row of empty stalls, fresh straw on the floor and buckets filled with clean water. The horses were out working in the fields or hauling timber out of the woods, but the stamp of a hoof and a soft murmur drew her to the far end.
The priest did not turn at her approach, though Sofia was sure he knew she was there. His tall scarecrow figure in a sleeveless deerskin jerkin was draped over the low door that fenced in one of the stalls, his knuckles rhythmically kneading the forehead of a small bay mare whose eyes were half closed with pleasure. Close to her side stood a black colt on spindly legs much too long for him. He must be the one born the other night. He stamped the ground in a show of bravado as she approached and rolled his long-lashed eyes at her.
‘That’s a fine colt,’ she said.
‘He has the Devil in him.’
The colt thudded a hoof against the back board as if to prove the point.
‘Priest, were you here in Tivil before the church was closed down?’
He twisted his head round to look at her. His long thin neck pulsed with a web of blue veins, his red hair hanging lank and dull, but his green eyes still burned.
‘Yes, I was the shepherd of a God-fearing flock. In those days we were free to worship our Lord and chant the golden tones of evensong as our consciences dictated.’
The sadness in his voice touched her. He was a strange man.
‘So you were familiar with the church building inside? Before it was stripped of decoration and painted white, I mean.’
‘Yes. I knew every inch of that House of God, the way I know the words of the Holy Bible. I knew its moods and its shadows, just as I had known the moods and shadows of my flock as they clung to their faith. Lucifer himself stalks the marble corridors of the Kremlin and he drags his cloven foot over the hearts and minds of God’s children.’ His gaunt face crumpled. ‘An eternity of hell fire awaits those who forsake God’s laws because they are stricken with fear.’ His voice grew hoarse with sorrow. ‘Fear is a stain spreading over this country of ours.’
‘It is unwise to say such things aloud,’ she warned. ‘Take care.’
He spread his scarecrow arms wide, making the colt snort with alarm. ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.’
‘Priest,’ she said softly, ‘you don’t yet know what evil mankind is capable of, but if you carry on like this, believe me, you soon will. It eats into your humanity until you don’t even know who you are any more…’ She stopped.
His green eyes were staring at her with fierce sorrow. She lowered her gaze, turned away from him and asked the question she’d come to ask.
‘Was there a statue of St Peter in the church before it was closed down?’
‘Where did it stand?’
‘Why the interest?’
‘Does it matter to you? I need to know where it used to stand.’
The colt suckling and the scratch of the hazel broom over the yard were the only sounds to be heard. At last Priest Logvinov scraped a hand across his fiery beard.
‘They came one Sunday morning, a group of Komsomoltsky,’ he said bitterly. ‘They tore down everything, destroyed it with hammers. Burned it all in a bonfire in the middle of the street, tossed in all the ancient carvings and icons of the Virgin Mary and our beloved saints. And what wouldn’t burn they took away in their truck to melt down, including the great bronze bell and the altar with its gold cross. It was two centuries old.’ She expected him to shout and rage, but instead his voice grew softer with each word.
‘The statue of St Peter?’
‘Smashed.’ His fleshless frame shuddered. ‘It used to stand in the niche beside the south window. Now there’s a bust of Stalin in its place.’
‘I’m sorry, Priest.’
‘So am I. And God knows, so is my flock.’
‘Stay alive. For them at least.’
‘I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is.’
Again she had the sense of a man teetering on the edge of wilful self-destruction and it filled her with a profound gloom. Quickly she thanked him and left the stables, but as she retraced her steps down the rutted track back to the street she became uncertain as to what exactly had upset her.
What was wrong? Was it fear for Rafik? Or was it because of Mikhail? And the way Lilya had rubbed her shoulder against him as though she owned that piece of his flesh. Were her own carefully constructed defences crumbling so easily?
The wind seemed to ripple through her mind, stirring up her thoughts, and it carried to her again Priest Logvinov’s words. Fear is a stain spreading over this country. And then she understood. She’d heard almost the same words months ago from Anna’s mouth.
Anna. Whose fragile heartbeats would fade away if she didn’t reach them soon.
The church – or assembly hall, as it was now called – was the only brick-constructed building in Tivil. Grey slabs of corrugated metal tipped with soft yellow lichen covered the roof. The walls were divided by rows of narrow, tapered windows set with plain glass, though one was boarded up. A reminder of the violence on the night of the meeting. A stubby open-sided tower sat above the door. Presumably where the bell had once hung. The tower was empty now, full of nothing but warm air and pigeons.
Sofia tried the large iron handle but the door didn’t budge. She cursed and pushed harder. Chyort! But she was beginning to realise that Chairman Fomenko was not the kind of person to leave anything to chance, certainly not the safety of his assembly hall. She took a good look up and down the street but at this hour there wasn’t much activity, just a child and his goat ambling out to the fields, but closer in the shade sat two old women. They wore headscarves and long black dresses, despite the heat, and seemed almost to be part of the landscape. As Sofia approached them she realised one was reading aloud from a book on her lap.
‘Dobroye utro, babushki,’ Sofia said with a shy smile. ‘Good morning.’
The old woman with the book reacted with surprise. Her ears were not good enough to have heard Sofia’s soft footfalls. The book slid instantly under a handwoven scarf, but not before Sofia saw it was a bible. It was not against the law to read the bible but it labelled you, if you did. It marked you out as someone whose mind was not in line with Soviet doctrine, someone to be watched. Sofia pretended she hadn’t seen it.
‘Could you tell me who has a key to the assembly hall, please?’
The woman who had not been reading lifted her chin off her chest. Sofia saw the milky veil of blindness over her eyes, but her hands were busy in an effortless clicking rhythm with knitting needles and a ball of green wool.
‘The Chairman keeps it,’ she said. She tilted her head. ‘Is that the tractor girl?’
‘Da, yes, it’s her,’ responded the other. She puffed out her lined cheeks into a warm smile. ‘Welcome to Tivil.’
‘Spasibo. Where will I find Chairman Fomenko?’
‘Anywhere where work is being done,’ said the blind babushka. ‘Poleena and I expect him to arrive here any moment now to count the number of stitches I’ve knitted so far this morning.’
Both old women gave good-natured chuckles that fell into the sunlight warming their laps.
‘But his house isn’t far, just the other side of the chu… of the assembly hall. His is the izba with the black door. You could try there.’
‘Thank you. I will.’
But the black door didn’t respond to her knocks. So she retraced her steps to the church and started to circle its walls, just as she’d done before. Then it had been furtive and in darkness, her ears alert for any stray sound. This time she inspected the building openly, seeking a way in.
Edging through weeds along a narrow side-path to the gloomy rear of the church, she came to a door, so old it looked like part of the stones. It was barely head height, half hidden behind a prickly bush, and it bore the raw marks of her knife blade around its heavy iron lock. In the daylight now she fingered the stubborn lock and wondered why it looked so well oiled.
‘Trying to find something, are you?’
Sofia snatched back her fingers and swung round. Behind her stood a narrow-shouldered man in a rough smock. He was smoking the stub of a hand-rolled cigarette and had a face that made Sofia think of a rodent, small-featured, sharp-toothed.
‘I’m looking for a way in.’
‘You could always use a key, but that’s just an old unused storeroom in there.’ His expression made Sofia’s skin crawl.
‘I’m told that Chairman Fomenko has the key to the hall, but he’s not at home.’
‘Of course not. He’s out working in the fields.’
Sofia tried to step round him but he blocked her path and gave her a slow smile that she didn’t like.
‘Your name, I recall from the meeting the other night, is Sofia Morozova. Mine is Comrade Zakarov.’
Instantly Sofia’s chest tightened. She recalled Zenia’s words: Boris Zakarov. He’s the Party spy round these parts. So he wasn’t creeping up behind her by chance.
‘Why so eager to get inside our hall, Comrade Morozova?’
‘I think that’s my business, don’t you?’
‘If you made it mine, I might be able to help you.’
‘Do you have a key?’
He took a long pull on his cigarette. ‘I might.’
She stared at him coldly. ‘I dropped a key of my own at the meeting. It got lost in the stampede and I need to look for it, that’s all.’
‘What value do you put on this key of yours?’ he asked, smiling his toothy smile. ‘Worth a kiss?’
His words echoed in a cold cave inside her mind. Here’s a crust of mouldy bread. Worth a kiss? Here’s a scrap of felt for gloves. Worth a kiss? Here’s a pat of butter. Worth more than a kiss? How much more?
She brushed past Boris Zakarov without a word, only to run directly into Aleksei Fomenko himself. He was striding up from the low field by the river, a net of cabbages over his shoulder and a long-legged wolfhound at his side. He didn’t look pleased to see her idling on kolkhoz time.
First, know your enemy.
She’d learned that lesson well. Know him. And seek out his weak spot. More than anybody in the village, Aleksei Fomenko was the greatest threat to her. But his weak spot was well hidden.
His back was turned towards her as he opened the door to his house. His was a proud, muscular back that had no fear of turning on anybody – Sofia envied him that. From behind she studied the neatness of his ears, emphasised by the short cropping of his brown hair, and she felt certain his mind was equally neat. A line of sweat ran down the spine of his working man’s cotton shirt. Why on earth did this Chairman of a large collective farm concentrate so hard on being a common peasant? What was driving him?
‘Have you registered?’
His manner was curt, but the look he gave her was again one of sharp interest. It occurred to her that he was a man more curious about others than he was willing to admit. Zenia had told her he wasn’t married, so Sofia wondered what his home was like. It was clear that he expected her to wait outside, but she didn’t. After the dog entered, its claws clicking on the wooden flooring, she followed him in.
‘Yes, I have registered,’ she said.
But her eyes darted quickly round the room she’d entered. Know your enemy. What did this lair tell her about the man? It was startlingly barren. Nothing on the walls, strictly no bourgeois frills or pretensions. A chair, a table, a stove, some shelves, and that was it. Chairman Fomenko obviously didn’t believe in pampering himself. Instead of a property of distinction worthy of a kolkhoz Chairman, the house was indistinguishable from any of the other village izbas. He kept the floor well-swept and the roof beams free of cobwebs. It was the house of a tidy mind. Or a secretive one.
No clues, except the dog. Sofia extended her hand. The animal touched her fingers with its damp black nose, and when it was satisfied, it allowed her to run a hand down its grey wire-brush coat. It was an elegant Russian wolfhound, a bitch with a narrow muzzle and soft brown eyes that gazed up at Sofia with an expression of such gentleness that she felt herself fall a little in love with the creature. But it was no more than a minute before the hound returned to its position next to Fomenko’s thigh and stayed there.
‘She’s beautiful,’ Sofia said. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Hope. An unusual name for a dog.’
He rested a hand on the hound’s head, fingers instinctively fondling one of its ears. He looked at Sofia as though about to explain the name, but after a second’s thought he made an abrupt turn and picked up a large iron key from a shelf of books at the rear of the room. It was too far away for Sofia to read any of the titles. He moved briskly now as though pressed for time, but when it came to handing over the key, he paused.
‘You lost something in the hall, you say?’
‘Yes. A key.’
‘I can’t spare time to help with a search myself, comrade, but if I give you the key to use, you must return it to the office as soon as you’ve finished with it.’
‘Then report to the potato brigades.’
‘I’ll work hard.’
Still he weighed the key in his hand. She had a feeling that, despite being short of time, he still had something to say to her. That made her nervous. He subjected her to a careful scrutiny, his grey eyes so intent that she had a sudden sense of the loneliness inside this man and of the effort he put into hiding it.
‘A tractor driver will be of great use to our kolkhoz next month when we start harvesting,’ he said thoughtfully.
‘I’m glad.’ She had no intention of still being in Tivil next month.
‘But everyone knows that a tractor driver can also inflict great damage to the crops if he or – more to the point – she chooses.’
‘Comrade Chairman, I am offering myself as a helper, not a wrecker.’
‘But it is significant that the moment you appear in Tivil, a barn burns down and sacks of grain go missing.’
Sofia’s pulse thudded in her throat. ‘It is a coincidence that someone else here is manipulating.’
‘How do I know?’ she shrugged. ‘I’m new here.’
‘That is my point.’ He lifted the key and tapped it against the line of his jaw. ‘Come to the office at noon tomorrow. I’d like to ask you some questions.’
‘Chairman, I take exception to such a demand. I am here to give assistance to the kolkhoz of my uncle.’
His grey eyes caught her out. ‘In which case you won’t mind answering my questions, will you?’
‘Questions about what?’
‘About where you’ve come from. Who your parents were. About your family.’ He paused again and observed her closely as he added, ‘About your uncle.’
‘Uncle Rafik is not well.’
‘It’s interesting how often the gypsy is sick after the Procurement Officers have come calling in Tivil.’ He gave an ironic half-smile. ‘So often, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if there is a connection.’
‘I believe he grows sick at heart when he sees the village suffer.’
Fomenko didn’t like that, his mouth tightened. ‘He should be sick at heart at the thought of the men and women and children going hungry throughout our towns and cities. It is my job to make sure they don’t, by making this kolkhoz productive. We must help fulfil our Great Leader’s Plan.’
The pause he left demanded a patriotic response, but the words wouldn’t come to her tongue. Instead she held out her hand for the key.
The church was cool, hushed, as Sofia locked the door behind her. The sunlight slid through the windows in bright golden beams that captured the dust and strengthened the shadows. She breathed deeply, shocked to find she was shaking.
How could Fomenko have that effect on her, just by breathing the same air? She stared down at her palm and almost expected to see the imprint of his fingers there. But that was foolish, so she pushed it aside and looked around her. Gone were the icons, gone the mosaic images and the gold latticework that once lined the central nave. No candles, no collects to honour the Mother of God. The soul of the building had been painted over with stark white.
For a moment she was rooted there, wondering what her father would have made of it. Then she took a deep breath. That’s the way it is now. Accept it. Don’t waste time grieving for what can never be brought back. You’re here for Anna, only Anna. Now search this barren place, just like she told you to.
Quickly she sought out the bust of Josef Stalin’s head. It was easy to find, displayed prominently in a niche on the side wall, as Priest Logvinov had said. She stared with dislike at its lifeless eyes and arrogant chin, wanting to climb up there to give it the same treatment the Komsomol thugs had given St Peter.
No risks. Not now. Get on with the search.
First she examined the bricks beneath the niche. Her fingers traced the outline of each one, seeking a loose corner or some disturbed mortar that would indicate a hiding place. But no, the bricks were smooth. She traced them all the way to the floor with no success and then knelt on the boards and set to work, running a hand along each one, tapping it, picking at its edges, testing if it would lift or rock unevenly. Nothing. Nothing at all. Except the cold lead of disappointment in her stomach. Frustrated, she crouched on the floor, elbows on her knees, and stared at the white wall. Where? Where was the hiding place? Maria had whispered to Anna that a secret box was concealed here, but where, damn it, where? Where would someone hide something they didn’t want found?
The oak door rattled. She leapt to her feet. Someone was trying to enter.
‘Comrade Morozova, are you in there?’ It was the Party man, the weasel man, the informer, Comrade Zakarov.
Quickly she scanned the wall beneath the head of Stalin one last time. A box buried at St Peter’s feet. That’s what she’d been told, but it was so little. Abruptly she dropped to her knees.
‘St Peter,’ she whispered, ‘grant me inspiration. Please, I’m begging. Isn’t that what you want, you and your God? Humility and supplication?’
Nothing came. No shaft of sunlight to point the way. Sofia nodded, as though she’d expected no less, and just then the door shook again, louder this time. ‘Comrade Morozova, I know you’re in there.’
She had to leave. She made her way up the central aisle and inserted the key in the lock. As she did so, a longing for Mikhail came with such force it took her breath from her.
‘Mikhail,’ she whispered, just to feel his name on her tongue.
He could help her. But would he? If she told him all she knew about Anna and his past and about what was hidden in the church, would he turn her away like a thief? He’d said he would help the right person but was she that right person? Was Anna? He was in a position of authority now and worked for the Soviet State system, he had a son whom he loved. Would he risk it all if she asked?
Would you, Mikhail, would you? You’d be insane to do so.
She straightened her shoulders and turned the key. If she asked for his help, she risked failure. And failure meant death. Not just her own.
Davinsky Camp July 1933
The cat crept into the camp out of nowhere. Its arrival occurred at the end of one of the fierce summer storms that were sweeping through the region. The small creature picked its way daintily round the puddles in the yard as if walking on eggshells. It was young and painfully thin, its bedraggled fur a sort of non-colour, neither grey nor brown but somewhere in between. But there was a jauntiness to it that attracted attention in a world where limbs were heavy and movements slow.
The women couldn’t help smiling. A group of them tried to encourage it into a corner but it looked at them with scornful green eyes and slipped effortlessly through their legs. It scampered straight into one of the huts, gazed with interest at the array of bunks and leapt up on to Anna’s. It nudged its bony little head against her arm and plunged its needle claws into her blanket, kneading with a steady rhythm that tore holes in the threadbare material. Anna touched its head, a light tentative brush of her fingertips over the damp fur, and immediately the young cat started to purr.
The loud rackety sound of it did something to Anna. Happiness sprang into her chest like something solid. She could feel it warm and contented in there, soothing the inflamed passages in her lungs. Like the cat, it seemed to have come from nowhere. She scratched a finger under the animal’s furry chin until it stretched out its neck with pleasure and watched her through half-closed eyes, totally content.
‘I’m sorry I have no food to give you, little one.’
Other prisoners were gathering round the bunk board.
‘It’s so pretty,’ one crooned.
‘It needs meat.’
‘Don’t we all!’
‘It’ll be riddled with fucking fleas,’ Tasha warned.
Anna laughed. ‘Fleas, bed bugs, mosquitoes, marsh flies – what’s the difference?’
The young animal suddenly hiccupped and everyone chuckled. Tasha put out a hand to stroke its soft fur. But at that moment one of the guard dogs outside barked and the cat hissed, flattening its ears, its sharp claws raking Tasha’s skin.
‘Fuck the little bastard!’
The cat shot off the bed, its hollow belly low to the floor, and disappeared out of the door in a flash. Several of the women chased after it.
‘I hope they eat the miserable piece of gristle,’ Tasha said, sucking at her hand.
‘Oh Tasha, that’s what this place does to us. I’m sure they will. Eat it, I mean. I just hope the poor little creature has enough sense to head straight for the barbed wire.’
‘Wouldn’t we all like to do that?’
‘Give me your hand. Here, this will help.’ She took Tasha’s hand between her own and pressed hard to stem the blood. The tiny needles had done no more than scrape the surface and the trickle soon stopped.
‘Thanks,’ Tasha said. She went over to the grimy window to watch the chase.
But Anna didn’t hear because she was staring blindly at the wall opposite. The brief sensation of a hand pressed hard against her own had already whisked her back to that day at the Dyuzheyev villa when the dancing had been stopped for ever by a light knock on the door.
‘No.’ Maria had hissed the word. ‘No, Anna.’
Twelve-year-old Anna had come hurtling out of the house, but her governess seized her with a grip that hurt and yanked her back on to the front steps, tight against her skirt. Maria placed one hand on Anna’s shoulder and the other gripped her hand. She was not going to let go.
‘Say nothing,’ she breathed, not taking her gaze from the group spread out on the drive in front of her.
Grey uniforms were everywhere, red flashes on their shoulders. Snow trampled and dirty under their boots. A circle of rifles, glinting in the sun, was aimed at the three figures in the centre of it: Vasily, Svetlana and Grigori. Grigori was splayed awkwardly on the snow in a sleep that Anna knew wasn’t sleep and in a pool of red juice that she knew wasn’t juice. She choked and gasped for air. Svetlana was kneeling beside her husband, a terrible low bone-scraping moan escaping from her lips, her head bowed to touch Grigori’s chest. There was more of the cranberry juice on the front of her beautiful grey dress and on her sleeve. On the fur and on her chin.
Vasily looked strange. He was standing stiff, his limbs rigid as he spoke to the soldier with the peaked cap, the one with a revolver still pointed at Grigori’s motionless body. The words that rushed out of Vasily were hot and angry.
‘You’ll get the same, whelp, if you don’t stop yapping.’ The soldier’s eyes were hard and full of hate. ‘You and your family are filthy class enemies of the people. Your father, Grigori Dyuzheyev, was a parasite, he exploited the workers of our Fatherland, he had no right to any of this and-’
‘No.’ Vasily was struggling for control. ‘My father… treated his servants and tenants well, ask any of them what kind of-’
The soldier spat on the snow, a jet of yellow hate. ‘No one should own a house like this.’ His moustache twitched with anger. ‘You should all be exterminated like rats.’
The soldier swung his gun so that it was pointing directly at her. ‘You. Come here.’
Anna took one step forward but that was as far as she could go with Maria still holding her tight.
‘Leave her alone,’ Vasily said quickly. ‘She is only a servant’s brat.’
‘In that dress? What kind of fool do you think I am? No, she’s one of your kind. One of the rats.’
‘Leave her,’ Vasily said again. ‘She’s too young to make choices.’
‘Rats breed,’ the soldier snarled. Without shifting the aim of the gun he turned his head to address a boy of about sixteen standing to attention at his shoulder, his cap low over his forehead. He was wearing ragged boots and his chest was heaving. Anna noticed that despite the chill winter air his young skin was damp with sweat. His uniform was someone else’s cast-off, with sleeves and trousers flapping loose and a telltale hole just over his heart.
‘Son, fetch the rat.’
The boy looked directly at Anna. His pupils were so huge she feared they would swallow her up, black and bottomless. She glared back at the boy as he started towards her.
‘No, comrade.’ It was Maria. Her voice was as cool and crisp as the snow. ‘The girl is mine. My daughter. I am a servant, a worker, and she’s a worker’s child, one of the Soviet proletariat.’
‘No worker wears a dress like that.’
‘They gave it to her.’ Maria gestured to the body of Grigori and to Svetlana bent over him. ‘They like to dress her up in fine clothes.’
The soldier rubbed an old scar on the side of his head and Anna saw he had no ear there. He turned to Svetlana. ‘Is it true? Did you give the brat the dress?’
Svetlana ignored the soldiers but smiled lovingly at Anna.
‘Yes,’ she said quietly, ‘I gave dear Annochka the dress. But you are the rats and the scum. My husband spent his life at the Foreign Office helping his country. What have you ever done for Russia? You are the rats that will gnaw the heart out of Mother Russia until there is nothing left but blood and tears.’
The shot, when it rang out in the stillness of the January day, made Anna jump. Her feet would have skidded off the step if Maria had not held her. She bit her tongue, tasted blood. She saw Svetlana hurled backwards off her knees, her head flying so fast that her neck was stretched out, revealing blue veins and translucent white skin above the grey collar. A red hole flowered in the exact centre of her forehead and leaked dark tendrils.
Vasily roared and ran to her.
Anna stared at the soldier boy in the too-big uniform and cap, rifle steady in his hand, and realised he was the one who had fired the bullet. The older soldier placed a proud hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Well done, my son.’
The other soldiers murmured an echoing contented sound, passed from one to the other, so that rifles relaxed and attention lapsed.
Vasily came fast. It took no more than a second for the knife in his hand to sink into the soft throat of the older soldier in command, the one without the ear, and for Vasily to leap up the steps and vanish into the house. Anna smelled the sweet familiar scent of him as he raced past her, his ugly road digger’s jacket flapping against her cheek, making it sting. The soldiers fired after him and a bullet grazed Maria’s temple, but they were too slow. Their shouts and stomping feet echoed in the marble hall and up the stairs as they searched. There was the sound of glass shattering inside.
Anna barely moved her lips but she turned her eyes to Maria and whispered, ‘Do you think he’s safe now? Vasily has escaped, hasn’t he?’
Her governess’s face was grey as stone except for the small trickle of blood at her hairline. She was staring at the body of Svetlana. It was only then that Anna realised tears were pouring down her own cheeks. She dashed them away, scraping her cold fingers over her face, and that was when she saw Papa. He was running, except to Anna it looked like flying. His long dark cloak was billowing out around him like great black wings, as he ran up the slope of the snow-covered lawn to the drive, his face twisted in anguish at the sight of his two dearest friends sprawled on the trampled snow.
‘Stop there!’ one of the soldiers shouted.
He was older than the rest, with heavy-set shoulders and troubled brown eyes that kept darting back to the body of his superior lying on his back in the snow.
‘What happened?’ Papa demanded. ‘Why have you shot these people?’ Anna could see the tick in his cheek muscle. ‘I shall report you.’
‘Who are you?’ the older soldier raised his voice.
‘I am Doktor Fedorin. I was tending to someone wounded by your men here.’
He stepped back and dropped on one knee next to Grigori. His eyes glanced over at Anna. Almost imperceptibly he shook his head. He touched first Grigori’s wrist, then Svetlana’s, his head bowed. Anna saw his lips move soundlessly and a deep shudder gripped him. She felt it ripple in an echo through herself.
‘The boy killed my comrade here,’ the soldier growled.
Papa looked up. Slowly rose to his feet. ‘What boy?’
‘The Dyuzheyev son.’
Papa stood very still. ‘Where is he?’
‘My men are searching for him now.’
Papa looked at Anna but said nothing.
‘I am taking over this house,’ the soldier suddenly declared. ‘I requisition it in the name of the Soviet people and-’ He stopped abruptly and pointed at the black Oakland parked further along the drive, its headlamps sparkling in the sunshine. ‘Whose is that vehicle?’
‘It’s mine,’ Papa said. ‘I’m a doctor. I need a car to visit the sick.’
‘The rich sick,’ the boy soldier spat. ‘The sick that possess big houses and big bank balances.’ He pointed his rifle at the Oakland and fired. The windscreen exploded and glass flew like ice.
The older soldier scowled. ‘Why ruin a perfectly good car? We could use it for-’
‘It is American. It stinks of injustice just like this doctor does.’
‘Tell me, Doktor,’ the older man in command demanded sharply, ‘do you also live in a big house? Do you also keep servants? Do you own horses and carriages and more silver samovars and fur coats than you can ever use?’ The man took a step closer. ‘Do you?’
Anna saw Papa’s eyes go to the silent bodies of Svetlana and Grigori. Suddenly he yanked the handsome silver watch from his waistcoat pocket. ‘Here,’ he shouted, ‘take this. And these.’ He hurled his cigar case and his beaver hat on to the trampled snow at their feet. ‘And take my house too, why don’t you?’ His heavy bunch of keys hit the boy’s toecap. Papa’s rage frightened Anna. ‘Take everything. Leave me nothing, not even my friends. Will I then be fit to doctor your glorious proletariat? And are you fit to decide who is fit to be cared for and who isn’t?’
The boy’s eyes filled with loathing.
Anna watched Papa take four long strides towards her. Odeen. Dva. Tri. Chetiri. One. Two. Three. Four. Her heart leapt at the sight of his familiar reassuring smile, at his eager blue eyes, his hair ruffled by the wind. The cloak that so many times had wrapped her close against his warm cigar-smelling body swirled in welcome, as though seeking her out. His hand reached for her and she felt Maria’s fingers uncurl.
There was a loud crack. Anna knew now that it was the sound a rifle makes when it’s fired. The boy, she thought, shooting at the car again. She expected Papa to be angry with him, but instead his mouth jerked open into a silent ‘oh’ and his eyes rolled up in his head, so that only their whites showed. His knees went soft. And then he was falling, face first like he used to do in the enticing waters of the Black Sea to amuse her when they spent the summer at their dacha. Face first into the snow. The back of his head was blown open. The boy soldier was gripping his rifle proudly.
Anna ripped herself free of her governess and started to scream.
Tivil July 1933
Zenia dealt the tarot cards, the gadalniye karti. Her hands were quick and skilful. Each card laid neatly on the table, flicking a second and a third to overlap it. The images of noose and naked bodies and long curved sickle tumbled on top of each other. The room was gloomy, shutters closed, the air scented with a cloying ball of goose fat that hissed and spat in a dish of beaten copper. In the centre of the table sat a basket of woven birch bark, a lid of coarse netting stretched over it, a knife positioned in a vertical line across its surface. The blade pointed due east. Inside the basket something moved.
The shadows shifted and Rafik’s voice was deep with tension as he placed a hand on the knife and said, ‘Again, Zenia.’
The gypsy girl gathered the cards. Shuffled and dealt again. The same. Noose and sickle and pink-skinned naked bodies entwined in long curling loops of silvery hair.
‘The lovers,’ Zenia announced. ‘They bring death to Tivil.’
An intake of breath as a shutter vibrated, though there was no wind. Rafik picked up a teacup that stood on the table, the one Sofia had drunk from earlier in the day with Pokrovsky. At the bottom of it tea leaves were bunched and spread into intricate shapes that Zenia had studied.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked, though in his heart he didn’t doubt his daughter’s reading.
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘A journey for her. One that brings sorrow to Tivil.’
They both gazed at the brown envelope that lay next to the basket. On it was written one word: Sofia. Rafik felt the weight of each of the bold black letters.
‘Tonight,’ he said. ‘I will walk the circle.’
The field was emptying. Sofia stood, straightening her cramped muscles, and watched the women head back towards the village in twos and threes, their chatter adding to the tinkling bell of the cows as they ambled in for the night.
‘That’s it for today,’ the woman tending the next potato row called across to her. ‘Come on, you can finish now. Enough for today.’
Sofia shouldered her hoe. ‘So Chairman Fomenko does allow us to stop work eventually, then?’
The woman chuckled and together they trudged up the valley, talking quietly about the condition of the crop this year, while the evening sun sent their long shadows skimming ahead of them. It was as they approached the cedar tree that Sofia spotted the huddle of three children crouched in the dust at the base of its wide trunk, playing a game of some kind with small stones and a rubber ball. A pair of bright brown eyes met hers and looked away quickly. It was Pyotr. Sofia felt an unexpected tug at her heart at the realisation that he was nervous of her.
She waved to him and smiled to coax him into friendship, but part of her felt like going over there and giving the boy a good shake. She didn’t, of course. She was just as nervous of him, that’s what was so stupid. They were uncomfortable together, too well aware of each other’s weakness. He knew she was a fugitive, and she knew he hadn’t reported her. Not yet, anyway.
Sofia blinked. A skinny little form had detached itself from the group and skipped over to her. Sofia halted, and her companion from the field nodded pleasantly and walked on. She had her husband’s meal to cook. It took Sofia a moment to recognise the narrow face and uncombed hair at her side. It belonged to one of the girls from inside the schoolroom last night, one of the silent little mice.
‘It’s me, Anastasia.’
‘My mother said to thank you.’
Anastasia glanced furtively around with exaggerated care, though no one except the two boys was within earshot. ‘For the story.’
‘It was my pleasure.’
The girl grinned up at her, little mouse teeth showing. ‘We asked our teacher if you can come in again. Will you?’
Well, that explained the Pokrovsky visit. And why a number of the women in the potato field this afternoon had gone out of their way to include her in their banter.
‘Da,’ Sofia smiled. ‘Yes, I’ll come in again. If I’m officially invited.’
‘Did you hear that, Pyotr? Comrade Morozova might be coming into our school!’
Pyotr looked up from his position in the dirt. His gaze darted to Sofia’s face.
‘But you’re a tractor driver.’
‘Yes.’ She could see the uncertainty disturbing his young eyes and knew he was trying to deal with questions he couldn’t answer. Would it be so bad to have a fugitive in his school? Should he report it? What would happen if he did? Or if he didn’t?
‘Pyotr, I am many things.’ She laughed, to show him she understood. ‘Don’t-’
The other boy jumped to his feet, his knees dusty, his eyes sharp. With a sinking heart she remembered him from the meeting, the youth who looked as if he’d stepped out of a propaganda poster.
‘Has Chairman Fomenko been informed of this?’ he asked.
‘Don’t be silly, Yuri.’ Anastasia waved a dismissive little hand at him. The gesture made Sofia smile, it was so obviously copied from her teacher. ‘The school is run by Comrade Lishnikova, not Chairman Fomenko.’ She turned to Pyotr with a bright expression. ‘Isn’t it, Pyotr?’
The boy shrugged and tossed a stone high into the cedar branches.
‘Don’t take any notice of Pyotr,’ Anastasia sighed apologetically. ‘He’s sulking because his father is leaving Tivil.’
Leaving. Sofia’s heart knocked against her ribs.
Pyotr traced the outline of an aeroplane in the dust. His shaggy hair was falling over his face, hiding any expression from her.
‘Pyotr, is your father leaving Tivil?’ she asked softly.
Reluctantly he nodded. ‘He’s going to Leningrad.’
One word. That’s all it took, and the evening sky grew dark.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘This morning, Sofia, with you eating my biscuits, I had no interest in tomorrow. I was enjoying today too much to think about leaving.’
‘You could have told me.’
‘Would it have changed anything?’
‘Except make me… more aware of what I had and… of what I was losing.’
The look Mikhail gave her in response made her pulse quicken. It made the long wait alone in the dark worth every minute. The sun had set several hours ago but she had sat patiently on the edge of the stone water trough in the stableyard, listening to the contented sighs and snores of the horses while a bat flitted erratically above her head, snatching mosquitoes out of the air. She was growing used to waiting for him.
By the time she caught the steady tread of a horse’s hooves on the approaching slope, the moon had risen and the stars glimmered like diamond splinters in the great arc of black night that hung over the mountains of Tivil. The air was moist. Her skin was chilled in the breeze, her breathing fast and shallow. When Mikhail walked into the yard leading the big horse Zvezda on a loose rein, both man and animal moved with a tired step, limbs heavy and heads low. It had been a long day. He carried his jacket slung over his shoulder and a leather saddlebag hooked on to the pommel. In the colourless shaft of moonlight they seemed to drift like ghosts, silver and luminous. For one moment Sofia believed they were figments torn from her dreams. Only the metallic ring of the hooves convinced her otherwise.
His head lifted, eyes astonished. And the smile he gave her roused such a need to touch him that she forced herself to remain seated. If she stood, she might steal the rein from his grasp and slip her own hand in its place.
‘Sofia,’ he said, ‘is something wrong?’ His easy smile slipped into a frown of concern.
Instantly he strode forward. His face was divided by shadows, so that she was uncertain of his thoughts. The way he leaned over her made her sway towards him, the tip of her hair brushing his sleeve.
‘What is it?’ he asked urgently.
‘You’re leaving Tivil.’
He drew himself upright again with a light laugh. ‘Oh, is that all? I thought it was something serious.’
She swayed away from him, silenced by his indifference. He stepped aside and started to unbuckle the horse’s girth. The animal blew out its stomach with a snort of pleasure. Mikhail ran a hand over Zvezda’s thick neck, so that it gleamed in the sheen of moonlight.
‘Spasibo, my friend,’ he said softly and Sofia was jealous of the deep affection in his voice. Without looking round he asked, as though it were unimportant, ‘Did you get my letter?’
‘I gave a letter to Zenia to deliver to you. I knew I wouldn’t be back until late tonight because I had to finish writing a report. Didn’t you receive it, the letter?’ He swung round and gazed intently at her face.
‘No. I came here straight from working in the fields.’
She didn’t know what he meant by that. A bat dipped close to their heads as though listening in on their conversation, before swooping up over the grey outline of the stable roof and disappearing into the darkness. The freedom of its movement suddenly galled Sofia. She felt a spike of anger at Mikhail, who seemed to possess that same freedom, able to travel anywhere, but considered it too inconsequential to mention.
That was when she said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Now he was looking at her as if expecting a response, but a response to what? She had the feeling she was missing something here, something big. Mikhail opened his mouth to speak, but just then the horse stamped its foot impatiently and instead he gathered the reins in his hand.
‘Come on, my midnight wanderer.’
Sofia didn’t know if he was talking to her or the horse, but was content when together they left the yard and walked into the sweet-scented stable where she lit an oil lamp. Mikhail unsaddled Zvezda and started brushing him down with long soothing strokes. Sofia filled the water bucket and hay net. They worked in companionable silence, except for Mikhail’s low murmurs to the horse, and Sofia enjoyed the ordinariness of working alongside him; it gave her a sense of satisfaction she hadn’t expected. When eventually he blew out the lamp, they retraced their steps into the yard. She was taken by surprise when he stopped by the trough where she had been sitting earlier.
‘You must be cold after waiting so long.’
He took up his jacket and draped it over her thin blouse, his hands lingering on her shoulders. She could smell the scent of him wrapped around her body and it released some of the tension from her skin.
‘Tell me what was in the letter, Mikhail.’
‘I’m not sure that you’ll want to hear this.’
‘It’s about tomorrow.’
Her stomach tightened. ‘You’re going to Leningrad.’ Her voice sounded flat.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Weren’t you going to say goodbye? Or is that what the letter was for?’
‘If you haven’t yet read my letter, how did you know I was leaving?’
‘Pyotr told me.’
‘Ah yes, Pyotr. The boy is unhappy at being left behind in Tivil.’
She stared at him aghast. His face lay in deep shadow.
‘You’re abandoning your son?’
There was an odd little pause, a kind of blink in time, then Mikhail placed a hand on her arm and shook it hard. The movement shocked her, as did his rough laugh.
‘So you think me a deserter,’ he said.
She had offended him.
‘The boy will survive.’
‘I’m sure he will.’
But will I?
‘The delegations meet for only a few days.’
‘Yes. It’s the summons to report to the Committee of Soviet Production and Distribution. An annual chore that…’ He stopped, removed his hand from her arm and stepped back. One half of his face slid into the moonlight and she could see that his cheek muscle was taut. ‘You thought I was going away for ever,’ he said quietly. ‘Didn’t you?’
‘You thought I was going off permanently to the bright city to enjoy myself without my son and without saying goodbye… to you.’
Sofia ducked her chin to her chest miserably and nodded again. Then the fact that Mikhail was coming back to Tivil in just a few days sank in and got the better of her. She looked up at him with a wide grin.
‘It wasn’t your going away that I minded. It was that I wouldn’t get to ride on Zvezda any more. I’d have to walk all the way to Dagorsk.’
He threw back his head and laughed, and the unfettered joy of it made her blood pulse. A sudden gust of wind played with his hair as if it would laugh with him. Sofia wanted to touch the long line of his throat with her fingers to feel the vibration inside it.
‘Come,’ he said.
He drew her arm through his, heading out of the courtyard and down the slope towards the silent village. Walking with him at night felt secretive and involving, as though the darkness belonged just to them. She breathed deeply, the rich damp odour of the black earth bringing a sense of belonging into the empty corners of her mind. Her fingers rested on his forearm.
‘Shall I tell you a story?’ he asked.
‘If it’s a funny one. I’m in the mood to laugh.’
‘I think this one will amuse you.’
She lengthened her stride to his. On either side, cabbages looked like shaggy grey chickens roosting for the night.
‘Tell me,’ she said.
‘Well, you recall the steep flight of stairs up to my office at the factory?’
He chuckled and she found herself smiling in anticipation.
‘My assistant, Sukov – remember the cheeky bastard who brought us our tea this morning? – he fell down them today. All the way from top to bottom and broke his leg in two places.’
Sofia halted and stared at his delighted smile. ‘What is remotely funny about that?’
Mikhail’s smile widened, but his eyes were dark and serious. ‘He was coming to Leningrad with me in the morning. Now it means there’s a train seat and a travel ticket going spare.’
The river gleamed like polished steel in the moonlight. Sofia waded into it, naked. Even the touch of the chill water on her skin couldn’t cool the heat in her blood.
One week with Mikhail. She was to have one whole week. Just the two of them. It was more than she’d ever dared hope for, much more. Just the thought of it set her heart drumming in her chest and she gazed up at the dazzling array of stars above, as if they’d been put there tonight just for her. She laughed out loud. The happiness wouldn’t stay inside, it just bubbled out into the silent night. She splashed a spray of water up towards the stars and laughed again when she heard a plop in the water where some night creature took fright at her antics.
Sleep had been impossible. She could no more close her eyes than she could close her heart, so she had come down to the river, alone and unseen, and washed away the dust of the fields from her limbs.
Anna, are you looking at this same moon? These same stars? Waiting for me. Oh Anna, I’m coming, I promise. Hold on. I’ll know. By the end of this week together I’ll know if I can ask him to help. Your Vasily. She hesitated, then spoke the words aloud this time so that her ears would have to hear them.
‘Your Vasily. Don’t hate me, Anna. It’s for you. I swear it’s for you.’
She plunged under the surface of the water, a cold black world where it was impossible to tell which way was up and which way was down.
A shadow, among many shadows. The night was full of them: the swaying of branches in the breeze, white drifts of mist rising to swallow the paths, a fox or a vole scampering on its nocturnal run. But still she saw the shadow.
She was dressed and standing on the river bank when the narrow track across the river changed fleetingly from silver to black, then again further along. Instantly she was alert and retreated into the overhanging curtain of a willow tree. From there she watched the shadow and quickly made out that it was a man, and that he was walking away from her. The moonlight painted the back of his head and sketched his long limbs, and for one breathless moment Sofia thought it was Mikhail come to seek her out. But then a wisp of light caught the long back of the ghost-dog at the shadow’s side and she realised it was Aleksei Fomenko with his hound.
Fomenko? What was the Chairman doing prowling the night? From behind the feathery veil of willow leaves she observed them, the way they strode along the wooded track without hesitation. Both man and animal knew the way.
The way to where?
There was just enough breeze to rustle the night. It shuffled the leaves and sighed among the branches, just enough to hide the brush of her skirt on a thorn or the crack of a twig underfoot as she followed them.
The dog worried her. The animal’s ears were sharp, but it seemed intent only on what lay ahead. Sofia stayed a good distance behind them, concentrating hard on the small sounds of their movement to guide her through the forest. They were tracking up over the ridge and her mind raced for an answer to explain Fomenko’s surprising night-time wanderings.
A lover? In the next valley?
It was possible. She’d heard no mention of any woman in his life. The idea of this self-controlled man losing himself to such an extent appealed to her, his desires getting the better of his quotas. That thought made her smile and quicken her pace. Around her the forest grew darker, the trees denser, denying the moon anything more than a trickle of its pale light through the thick canopy of foliage. The path beneath her feet became steeper as they passed from valley to valley and then higher into the mountains, and still the man and dog pushed on. Sofia’s pulse began to quicken. Thoughts flickered in her head. Moths fluttered against her face.
The dog whined as its claws scrabbled up a gulley. The sound of it was so familiar it made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She became convinced she knew where they were heading.
It was strange to be in the clearing again. So much had changed for her in the last few days, yet here everything seemed the same. The hut still leaned like an old man and the boughs of the fallen tree still lay white as dead bones in the moonlight, but Sofia didn’t venture among them. Instead she sheltered in the undergrowth, tight against a tree trunk, and watched a flame flare into life in the small window of the hut after Fomenko had entered with the dog.
Was he meeting someone?
That time when she hid down by the stream and came back to find the two men in the hut and the horse outside, she was sure now that it had been Fomenko and that the dog had been Hope. But this time there was no other man. This time he was on his own, alone and secretive. Secrets always meant weakness. Know your enemy. Know his weakness. She listened to the sounds of the night, eyes fixed on the yellow rectangle of the window, but a sudden snort right behind her made her leap from her position. Her blood raced. She swung round but could make out nothing among the black shapes of the forest.
A person? A moose? Even a bear?
Damn it, she wasn’t waiting to be clawed to death. Ducking low, she crept out into the clearing, aware that she was now visible to watchful eyes. She moved silently to the window and with caution peered in at one corner, but she needn’t have worried. Aleksei Fomenko was kneeling on the dusty floor, totally engrossed. His long back in the familiar work shirt was angled towards her, but she could just see that he was bent over a hole in the flooring. A hole? She hadn’t noticed one when she slept here. It was explained by the sight of two wooden planks lying to one side, the floorboards, and next to them a candle, its flame casting uncertain light round the room. Sofia eased further along the window frame and over his shoulder she caught a glimpse of what was holding his attention so seriously. A khaki-green square object. It took her a moment to recognise it for what it was
A two-way radio, all dials and pointers and knobs. A sudden burst of static took her by surprise and she ducked down below the sill, her breath raw in her throat. A secret radio. Why did the Chairman need a secret radio?
As she crouched low to the earth, her mind struggled to find an explanation. Was it to connect him directly to OGPU, to give him a direct line to the secret police where he could betray the secrets of his kolkhozniki in private? But what was wrong with the office telephone? Did this radio bypass the normal channels and take him straight to the man at the top? She shook her head. No, she told herself, don’t get carried away. Probably just a secret lover crooning sweet-talk in his ear. She decided to risk another glimpse and slid up slowly till her eyes were again on a level with the cobwebbed glass. This time she took in more of what was in front of her: the stillness of Fomenko’s powerful shoulders, the earphones on his head, the mouthpiece he was murmuring into, the notebook open at his side and covered with lines of dense writing.
Why on earth would he need notes for a lover?
With a small sense of shock she became aware of the dog. It was stretched out on the floor, licking dirt from one paw with long sweeps of its tongue, but abruptly it stopped. Its head lifted, eyes and ears alert. It gazed at the closed door and, making no sound, it raised its lips to show its teeth in a silent snarl. Sofia didn’t know what its quick ears had picked up but she wasn’t going to hang around to find out. She pushed herself away from the hut and raced away back down the track to Tivil.
Davinsky Camp July 1933
After the business with the cat, Anna lay awake, propped upright against the damp wood of the hut wall to ease her breathing. Beside her on the bed board lay a squat, nervy woman, who spent every waking hour angry and resentful to the point where she could barely sleep at night. She lay on her side staring wide-eyed at the degraded world inside the hut, hating it with a passion that was killing her.
Anna didn’t want to be like that. She didn’t want to hate until that was all that was left inside her. She’d seen it again and again, the way prisoners died from hate, and she tried to spit its insidious bitter taste from her mouth, but sometimes it was hard. Especially without Sofia to make her laugh. She missed Sofia.
Ever since the cat she had missed Sofia even more. Sofia would have known how to rid her head of the images that swarmed inside it. It was that stupid cat’s fault, scratching Tasha’s hand like that. Because now that Anna had let that terrible day back into her head, it settled there, gnawing at her and refusing to go away. Even as she hacked away at the branches all day in the forest, trying to block her mind with thoughts of the futile arrogance of the guards or the fragrance of the pine sap, the memory sank its powerful teeth into her and kept dragging her back to Petrograd and that cold winter of 1917.
She had became a shadow after her father died in the snow, no longer a person, just a twelve-year-old shadow inside a cramped and stuffy apartment that belonged to Maria’s brother, Sergei, and his wife, Irina. Her skin turned grey, she rarely spoke and only picked at the barest crumbs of food. But she learned to call Maria Mama and she wore a plain brown peasant dress without complaint and ate black bread instead of white. At night she shared Maria’s narrow cot and spent the hours of darkness lying obediently on the sour-smelling mattress. She never seemed to close her eyes. They had changed from their bright cornflower blue to a dull muddy colour that matched the winter gloom of the River Neva. Yet still she wouldn’t cry.
‘It’s not natural,’ Irina said in a low voice. ‘Her father has just died. Why doesn’t she cry?’
‘Give her time,’ Maria murmured to her sister-in-law as she ran a hand over the silky blonde head. ‘She’s still too shocked.’
‘A shock is what that girl needs,’ Irina said and mimed a quick little slap with her hand. ‘It’s like having a corpse in the house.’ She shivered dramatically. ‘The child gives Sergei and me the creeps, she does. How you can sleep with her in your bed, I don’t know.’
‘Irina, please. She’s silent but she’s not deaf.’
‘No, you’re not deaf are you, Anna? Just wilful. Well, child, it’s time to snap out of it and give your poor Maria a chance to get on with her own life. She’s starting a new job tomorrow and can’t spend time fretting about you.’
Anna’s muddy eyes turned to Maria, panic fierce in them. ‘Can’t I come with you?’ Her voice was barely a whisper. ‘I can work too.’
‘No, my love.’ Maria kissed her forehead in the dark. ‘I’m working in a factory, putting washers on taps. It’ll be noisy and dirty and unimaginably boring. You’ll enjoy it much more here with little Sasha and Aunt Irina.’
‘You might die tomorrow. Among the taps.’
Maria put an arm round Anna and rocked her gently. ‘Neither of us will die, I swear to you. You must wait patiently for me to return.’
A soft moan escaped from the back of Anna’s throat.
Anna spent the day at the window. She kissed Maria goodbye at the door of the first-floor apartment and then ran to the window to wave to her all the way down the street, but the moment Maria was out of sight, a suffocating blackness swarmed into her mind. It stopped her breathing. Air wouldn’t go into her lungs and sometimes she had to beat her ribs with her fists, pushing her chest in and out to make air suck in and blow out. Irina clipped her round the ear for doing it, saying she was being silly and mustn’t scare Sasha, who was watching Anna from his colourful rag-rug with a big grin on his face. His ears, which stuck out like wings, listened to every sound she made.
Anna counted. She counted her fingers, she counted the number of blue flowers on the wallpaper, the spots on Sasha’s chin, the chimneys on the roofs, the tiles on the house opposite, the people in the street, the pigeons in the gutter. She even tried to count the snowflakes when they fell from a colourless sky but that was too hard. Only when the sky grew dark and Maria came home, only then did Anna believe Maria was still alive.
They came for Maria in the middle of the night. They barely gave her time to pull a dress on over her nightgown, but she was quick to push Anna firmly against the wall.
‘Stay there,’ she told her fiercely.
So Anna stayed there. But when the big man in the arrogant boots and the long overcoat patted her on the shoulder and told her not to fret, she wanted to bite him. To sink her teeth into his wrist where the ugly blue veins bulged above his black leather gloves and make his blood flow on to the floorboards. Maria said little, but when she bent to pull her felt valenki on her feet, Anna could see the white skin on the back of her neck twitching as if spiders were crawling over it.
It was Sergei who put up the fight.
‘What do you want with my sister?’ he demanded. ‘She’s a good worker. She’s done nothing. We are a loyal Bolshevik family. I marched on the Winter Palace with the best of them. Look,’ he yanked open the front of his nightwear to reveal a livid scar across his chest, ‘I am proud to bear the mark of a sabre.’
‘I salute you, comrade,’ said the man in the overcoat. His face was shrewd. ‘But it’s not you we want to question, it’s her.’
‘But she’s my sister and would never-’
‘Enough, comrade.’ He held up his hand for silence, a man accustomed to being obeyed. ‘Take her outside,’ he ordered two of his soldiers.
‘Maria.’ It was Irina who darted forward. ‘Take this.’ She thrust her own warmest fur hat on to her sister-in-law’s head, a piece of cheese into her hand, and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. ‘Just in case,’ she whispered.
Maria blinked but couldn’t speak. Her face looked frozen.
Just in case? Of what? Anna wanted to scream. What would they do to her, these huge soldiers whose shoulders packed the small room with their hard muscles and their long rifles and the stink of their damp uniforms?
‘And this pretty little kitten with the eyes that would kill me.’ The officer’s laugh held no humour. ‘Who is she?’
‘She’s my niece,’ Sergei said. He placed a protective arm round Anna’s shoulders. ‘She’s not important. She helps with our own baby, so that my wife can spend more time knitting scarves and gloves for our brave soldiers.’
The man walked over, placed his hands on his knees and lowered his face until it was at the same level as Anna’s. He inspected her closely.
‘So. Shall I take you down for interrogation as well?’
Anna gave a faint nod.
He smiled a snake’s smile, and she spat at him. Her spittle hit his cheek and slithered down. Without a thought, his gloved hand slapped her face, bouncing her head off the wall. She didn’t cry, but Maria did.
‘The child didn’t mean it,’ Maria called out. ‘She’s upset and frightened. Apologise immediately, Anna.’
Anna glared at the man. She wanted him to take her wherever Maria was going, so she started gathering more spittle in her mouth.
‘Anna!’ Maria begged.
‘I’m sorry,’ Anna whispered.
Abruptly he lost interest. ‘Come,’ he said. Suddenly they were gone and only the smell of them remained.
Five days. Anna counted the breaths.
Twenty-five breaths in a minute. Fifteen hundred breaths an hour. Thirty-six thousand breaths in a day and night.
She wasn’t so sure about the nights. When you sleep you breathe more slowly. But alone in the bed she didn’t sleep and when she did close her eyes on the sofa during the day, she woke up with nightmares. Irina scolded her for disturbing Sasha with her screams.
Five days. One hundred and forty-four thousand breaths.
On the sixth day Maria came home.
She said little and didn’t go to work. She lay on her side on the bed hour after hour, eyes wide open. Anna sat on the floor beside the cot and twisted her fingers into the quilt because it was the nearest she could get to Maria without touching her. And she knew that if she touched the fragile figure, Maria would break.
So she sat still, made no noise, just fed tiny cubes of pickled beetroot into Maria’s mouth. They turned Anna’s fingers and Maria’s lips the colour of cranberry juice.
When eventually Maria did emerge, her hair was styled differently. Even so, it didn’t quite hide the ugly marks on the side of her neck.
‘What are they?’ Anna whispered.
‘Was it an accident?’
‘Yes,’ Maria said quietly. ‘An accident of beliefs.’
Anna didn’t understand, but she knew she wasn’t meant to.
‘You have to go.’
Anna couldn’t believe the words.
‘You have to go, Annochka. Today.’
‘Don’t argue. You have to go.’
Maria was holding a small hessian bag in her hand and Anna knew it contained her own few belongings.
‘No, Maria, please no. I love you.’
That was when tears started to slide down Maria’s face and the bag shook in her hand.
‘It’s time for you to go, my love,’ Maria insisted. ‘Please don’t look so terrified. Sergei is going to take you to the station and then a good kind woman will travel with you all the way to Kazan.’
Anna wrapped her arms round Maria’s neck. ‘Come with me,’ she whispered.
Maria rocked her. ‘I can’t, little one. I’ve told you, the men who came here to the apartment want to ask me more questions. ’
‘Because they want to know where Vasily is. He killed one of their own when they shot his parents and they don’t forgive that. They questioned me about where he could be hiding and I told them I know nothing but they… didn’t believe me. So they want to ask me more. It’s all right, don’t tremble so, I’ll be fine.’
‘No, no more accidents.’ But Maria couldn’t stop a shiver. ‘Even though your papa is dead they have declared him an Enemy of the People and that means that you are in danger. You must leave. I’ll come for you as soon as I can.’
‘I’ll write to you, so-’
‘No, Anna, it’s too dangerous. In six months, when all this blood-letting is over we’ll be together again. You’ll be staying with a distant cousin of mine but eventually I’ll come and care for you, like I promised your dear papa. I love you, my sweet one, and now we both have to be strong.’ Gently but firmly she detached Anna from her neck. ‘Now give me a smile.’
Anna smiled and felt her face crack into a thousand splinters.
The train jolted to a halt. Mikhail reached across and pulled the leather strap, so that the window slid all the way down. Sluggish air drifted into the carriage from outside, hot and heavy and laden with smuts from the engine. On the platform vendors fought to peddle baskets of food.
‘This compartment is like a bloody oven,’ complained the man in the seat on Mikhail’s right. It was his chief foreman from the factory, Lev Boriskin, a stocky man but powerfully built, with thick grey hair and a habit of fingering his lower lip.
‘I’ll see if there are any rain clouds ahead,’ Mikhail said.
He leaned again towards the window because it meant he would brush against Sofia. She was seated in the corner next to the window, her blonde head turned away from him, looking out at the crush of bodies on the platform. All day she had spoken very little, but could he blame her? From the start things had gone wrong. They had travelled into Dagorsk in a cart with four others, including a married couple who quarrelled at full volume all the way to the station. Then on the platform he had introduced her to Boriskin and to Alanya Sirova, Boriskin’s secretary, a woman of about thirty with ambitious eyes behind thick tortoiseshell spectacles. It was only when he saw Sofia’s face grow rigid with dismay and her gaze turn to him questioningly that he realised he’d forgotten to mention their travelling companions. He’d ushered her into the seat by the window.
‘I thought,’ the foreman said, with a sideways shift of his eyes to Sofia, ‘that as Direktor Fabriki, you should have the best seat. Instead of-’
‘Comrade Morozova has been commissioned to write a report,’ Mikhail cut in sharply, ‘on this delegation. She will cover our contribution to the Committee, as well as our travel arrangements. So I think she is entitled to the window seat, don’t you?’
Boriskin paled, pulled at his lip and shook open a copy of Pravda with a show of indifference. Mikhail sat himself next to Sofia, a barrier between her and his foreman. She looked at him with stern blue eyes, but in their depths he could see a ripple of laughter.
The crowded carriage made it easier. For much of the time there was movement and chatter, as passengers retrieved or replaced packages from the racks above their heads. The man over by the door was constantly fiddling with his pipe and muttering to himself, while Alanya Sirova, on the far side of Boriskin, shuffled documents in and out of her briefcase with a zeal that Mikhail felt certain was aimed at the mythical report. The noise and bustle meant he could talk to Sofia in a low voice without anyone noticing.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured.
‘No need,’ she smiled.
‘It’s a long journey. There’ll be moments.’
‘As long as there’s no quota to them.’ She raised a teasing eyebrow at him.
They couldn’t say more, not with Boriskin at Mikhail’s elbow, but it was enough. He felt the warmth of her arm along the length of his own, and occasionally their feet touched as though by accident. Mikhail was unable to relax, but through half-closed eyes he watched the railway lines snake past the window like silver veins. He once spotted a hawk rising in a spiral, as if weightless on the bleached air, its great wings outstretched. Its shadow fell like a dead body on the field beneath.
‘Look,’ he pointed out to Sofia. And in a lower tone he added, ‘The spirit of Russia.’
‘Don’t,’ she breathed.
Too many hours were spent reading documents that were passed down the line from Alanya Sirova to Boriskin to himself, pages of facts and figures that danced in front of his eyes. He had no interest in the damn things. He became increasingly restless and everyone in the carriage irritated him, especially the pipe smoker and the military man who snored. They all prevented him from being alone with Sofia. Even the well-meaning woman opposite who picked at food constantly, like a plump pigeon, drawing from the depths of a large red carpet bag blinis and kolbasa sausage which she broke into tiny pieces and popped into her mouth. Kindly she offered some to Sofia, but Sofia shook her head.
Vast regions slid past. Forests that stretched for ever, pine trees burnished gold by the sun, and silver birches that shook their delicate threads as the train roared by. Sometimes a river or a ragged village or a crooked water tower appeared to break the monotony, but not often. Once in a long while a bustling station where everyone was shouting and great clouds of white breath shuddered from the engine, while hawkers thrust out filthy hands offering pelmeni or hard-boiled eggs and pickled cucumber in paper cones.
‘Come, Comrade Morozova,’ Mikhail said, rising to his feet at one such station. ‘Time to stretch the legs.’
‘Comrade Direktor,’ Alanya Sirova intervened quickly, ‘first I’d like your comments on this report from-’
‘Later,’ Mikhail said curtly.
He yanked open the door, took hold of Sofia’s hand and escorted her out into the fresh evening air.
‘Do they believe you?’ Sofia asked in an amused voice once they were on the platform. ‘That I’m here as an observer of the delegation?’
Mikhail laughed easily. ‘Who cares? You’re here, that’s all that matters. And they’re so used to the system being riddled with informers that there’s no reason for them to doubt your role. It’s simple really. Alanya Sirova informs on Boriskin, Boriskin informs on me, but who is there to inform on Alanya?’ He grinned at her. ‘You, of course. It makes sense.’
She grinned. ‘Ingenious.’
He carved a path through the jostling crowd to where passengers were replenishing their tea kettles with kipyatok, boiling water from the station samovar. He filled a tea flask and poured a drink for them into a kruzhka, an enamelled metal mug that all travellers carried. They took it over to a quieter spot near the station railing. As far as the eye could see a wide flat plain spread in every direction, dotted with the hunched figures of kolkhoz workers and a few straggling cattle seeking shade in the long evening shadows. The land shimmered in a lazy golden haze as if it had all the time in the world.
‘Have I told you that you look lovely today?’ Mikhail let his eyes feast on Sofia openly at last, as he watched her sip the tea.
‘You did mention something similar earlier this morning,’ she laughed. ‘Thank you for the dress.’
‘If I tell you I chose it because it matches your eyes, will you scoff at me?’
‘OK, the truth is that I grabbed the first garment off the top of the pile in the factory storeroom.’
She looked at him, her blue eyes the exact shade of the cornflowers on the dress. He could see she didn’t believe a word of it.
‘That’s more like it,’ she smiled. Something about the mischievous sideways glance she gave him made the hour he’d spent yesterday, searching out a style and size of dress and jacket that would be perfect for her, worth every second. When he’d handed over the leather satchel to her last night, she had grown soft in the moonlight, seeming to melt inside. It was obvious she was unaccustomed to receiving gifts.
‘Tell me about this conference I’m supposed to be reporting on,’ she said.
‘No, that’s far too dreary. Let’s talk instead about escaping from our chaperones in Leningrad and taking a stroll along the banks of the Neva and through the Field of Mars with you looking like a breath of summer, and we’ll stop for a beer and-’
‘Mikhail!’ She was frowning at him. ‘Tell me about the conference. I need to be prepared. It’s…’ she glanced back at the train, at the dirty windows and the pair of spectacles staring out from behind them. ‘It’s how I stay safe.’
Mikhail felt a sharp surge of anger scald his throat. He was able to laugh off any threats to his own safety, but not to hers. The fact that Sofia felt in danger from these people he employed made him want to sack them on the spot.
‘Very well,’ he said seriously. ‘There are some points you will be expected to remember. First of all, you must express admiration for the much vaunted “liquidation of unemployment”. The expansion of industry has provided jobs for all. This achievement will be mentioned over and over again.’
‘But Mikhail,’ her eyes abruptly lost their summer blue, ‘I’ve seen the unemployed people begging in the streets and queuing hopelessly at the factory gates.’
‘Now that, my dear Sofia, is the kind of comment that will get you tossed into prison for anti-Soviet incitement before you can blink an eye.’
She stared at him and nodded. ‘Tell me more.’
‘No mention of hoarding of coins because the paper rouble is worth nothing. Or of the rampant inflation. Or the wholesale shortage of food and goods because the Kremlin, in its wisdom, is disposing of Russia’s wheat, fish, eggs, butter, petroleum, woodpulp – shall I go on? – to foreign markets at absurdly low prices to gain hard currency or…’
She reached up, pretending to brush a smut of engine soot from his cheek, and let her finger soothe the heat from his skin.
‘Enough,’ she murmured.
He silenced his tongue.
‘Your speech to the Committee,’ she said softly, ‘avoids these issues, I assume.’
‘Oh yes,’ he growled, ‘I can lie with the best of them.’
‘Good. I was just checking.’
‘Remember, Sofia, they look for scapegoats when things go wrong. They attacked Bukharin and even Rykov, though he was Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. Just sit there with your pen and pad, take notes, look serious and say nothing.’
She nodded, her blonde hair bobbing skittishly in the last of the sunlight. ‘Now tell me,’ she said, totally flooring him with that sideways smile of hers. ‘What are the arrangements for sleeping tonight?’
He pulled a face and gave a savage snort. ‘Not good, I’m afraid.’
Mikhail stubbed out a cigarette and lit another. It burned a hole in the darkness of the flat wilderness around him. He was leaning against the wall of the hotel where they were spending the night, though hotel was really too grand a word for it. A wooden building packed with rooms like matches in a box, all crushed against each other. The occupants were carefully supervised and accounted for to OGPU.
He’d been a fool to bring her on this trip, to risk her safety, but to leave her behind in Tivil would have been like leaving behind part of himself. And she’d wanted to come, she’d made that clear with a kiss. He inhaled deeply, recalling the sweet softness of her lips on his in the stables. The night was dark now. Clouds had edged their way down from the north, and he wondered if Sofia were asleep in her bed. Or wide awake, listening to the snores of Alanya Sirova in the bed beside her, and thinking of… what? What do you think of, Sofia?
Mikhail couldn’t sleep, so he’d come outdoors in the hope that the night wind would flush the unwanted memories from his mind. It was always the same when he travelled to Leningrad. It was like travelling back in time, back to his boyhood in St Petersburg. The train that carried him westward and then north towards the Gulf of Finland seemed to unravel his life with each turn of its wheels, as though pulling at the delicate thread he’d used to stitch the years together. The experience was so vivid that it startled him. The whoosh of steam from the engine and the echoing sob of its whistle through ancient forests stirred up images from the past and set them tumbling through his mind.
He didn’t want to eat. And he couldn’t sleep. The important conference lay ahead of him, but his thoughts were elsewhere, just when he needed to be sharp. Two more days of this journey to Leningrad, pistons thundering beneath him as loud as in his head, pointless delays when the train would be shunted into sidings for idle hours at a time. Two more days to drag his senses back to the present.
Which meant only two more days of her soft arm at his side and blue cornflowers spilling on to his knee. But what then?
How do they do it?
Sofia gazed around at the sea of faces, at the concentration on them. Did they really care so much or was it all an act?
The great dome above the hall was supported by massive pale marble pillars. Beneath it rows and rows of packed seats curved in a wide sweeping arc. Sofia tried to concentrate on the speeches, but it was impossible. However eagerly she made herself start listening to each new delegate up on the rostrum, boredom invariably seeped in, as lists of production figures and target levels were recited for each raion. The only rousing moments came when Party slogans were hammered out with fists on the lectern and a thousand voices roared back from the floor as one.
The pillars. Her eyes were drawn to them, instead of to the pad on her lap. Bone-white pillars. Tall and graceful, like pine trees stripped of bark. She couldn’t keep her eyes off them. Each one made her think of Anna, still out there in the forest, her blade slicing through the flesh of a tree. Don’t stop, dear Anna. Breathe, my friend, breathe. She swallowed the rage that rose in her throat at the injustice of it, but she must have made some noise because in the next seat Alanya Sirova turned and studied her.
‘Are you all right?’ Alanya asked.
Still Alanya stared at her. ‘You haven’t written down anything for the last half an hour.’ She nodded at Sofia’s blank page.
Sofia turned her head to look into the suspicious brown eyes. The two women’s communication had so far been stilted, despite sharing a bedroom at night and being seated next to each other for the last six hours in the conference hall. Sofia could feel Alanya’s curiosity like something palpable crouched between them, and was amused by her sudden show of concern.
‘Comrade Sirova,’ she said in a muted tone, giving it just the right touch of condescension, ‘I am listening. This delegate on the platform,’ she gestured to the bearded man in the shabby brown suit speaking so passionately in favour of engineering expansion, ‘is telling us something that is crucial to our understanding of how the Levitsky factory can be moved forward, step by step, until it is able to surpass even our Great Leader’s targets of technological development and progression. It is essential to think things through first and write afterwards.’ She narrowed her gaze. ‘Do you understand me?’
‘Yes, comrade, yes, I do.’ The sleek brown head nodded eagerly.
‘And,’ Sofia continued, ‘I advise you to bear that in mind – if you want to progress further than a lowly secretary. I’m sure you have the ability to do so.’
Alanya’s ambitious eyes gleamed behind the thick lenses of her spectacles and her sallow cheeks took on a pinkish tinge. ‘Spasibo, comrade. I promise I will in future.’
Sofia allowed herself a faint smile. That was Comrade Sirova dealt with. She turned back to the pillars, to the pine trees.
It was out among the pine trees one hot mosquito-ridden afternoon that Sofia had learned from Anna about her visit to Maria, the woman who had been her governess. Maria who, during all those years when Anna was living with a distant cousin in a village hundreds of miles away near Kazan, had never come for her. Never once wrote. Never got in touch. Nothing. As though Anna had ceased to exist. Anna had waited and waited, had pinched her own skin to make sure she was still real, always believing that one day Maria would come. Her lonely young heart clung to Maria’s words: ‘I promise I’ll come for you.’
But she didn’t come.
Now in the damp forests of a Siberian Work Zone, Anna shook her head sadly. ‘I was foolish. I wouldn’t let it go. So when the woman who had taken me in suddenly died – she was trampled by a bull when I was twenty-one – I spent a time grieving for the stern old vixen. Then I took the small amount of money she left me in her will, bought myself a train ticket and travel permit and went in search of Maria. It took me months to get a seat on a train, but finally I travelled back to Leningrad.’
Sofia was honing Anna’s axe, squatting down among the wood-chippings with a flat stone in front of her, keeping down below the eyeline of the guards. Anna was leaning back against a tree trunk, each breath wheezing as she spoke.
‘Don’t talk, Anna. Rest your poor lungs.’
‘No, you must know this. For when you go.’
She didn’t say where, just go. It wasn’t something they talked about, but they both knew it would be soon.
‘Very well, tell me,’ Sofia said, one eye on the nearest guard. His back was turned to them for the time being.
Anna sighed with satisfaction. ‘I found the house.’
She stopped as if that were enough, and when Sofia looked up she saw Anna’s eyes had closed, her thin chest struggling. Her lips were turning blue. Quickly Sofia drew from her pocket her last small scrap of black bread, crushed with the pulp of pine seeds from the forest floor.
‘Here, chew on this.’ She pushed it between her friend’s lips.
Anna took it and chewed, until eventually she dragged a shallow breath into her lungs and then another. Slowly the rhythm returned.
‘I found the house in Liteiny district,’ Anna whispered, ‘the one where Maria’s brother, Sergei Myskov, and his wife, Irina, lived. It was only round the corner from the tap factory.’ She paused, resting a moment, her sunken blue eyes on Sofia’s face. ‘I remembered the iron staircase and the kolodets, a courtyard with a well at its centre. And there was a lion’s head carved above the archway. It frightened me when I was young.’
‘You two!’ The guard had caught sight of them. ‘Get back to work.’
‘Da,’ Sofia called out, ‘right away.’ She started to move, as if to do as ordered, and the guard turned away.
‘Anna, there’s no time now and you’re not-’
But Anna seized Sofia’s wrist. Her grip was still strong. ‘Listen to me. It’s important. You must remember this, Sofia. It will help you.’
Sofia lifted her hand to wipe the sweat from her friend’s gaunt face, but Anna swept it aside impatiently. The flash in her blue eyes reminded Sofia of the old Anna.
‘I’m fine,’ Anna hissed. ‘Just listen.’
Sofia laid aside the axe and crouched beside her, attentive.
‘By the time I found the apartment building it was raining. I was wet through but I barely noticed, I was so excited at the prospect of seeing Maria again after nine years. When I knocked, the door to the apartment on the first floor was opened by a youth with wavy brown hair and ears that stuck out like a baby elephant’s. I recognised him at once.
‘“Sasha?” I gasped. It was Sasha, Irina’s son. He was about eleven then. “I’m a friend of your Aunt Maria.”
‘“Tiotya Maria doesn’t have friends.”
‘What did he mean? Why didn’t Maria have friends?
‘“Where does she live now, Sasha?”
‘“Here?” This was too easy. “May I come in and see her?”
‘He stepped back and called over his shoulder, “Tiotya Maria, a visitor for you.”
‘“Who is it, Sasha?”
‘It was Maria’s voice. I rushed into the room and a pale-faced woman with white hair was sitting in a chair by the window. It was a much older Maria, but still my dearest governess.
‘“Maria,” I breathed, “it’s me.”
‘A tremor ran through the silent figure, then tears started to slide down her cheeks.
‘“My Anna,” she sobbed, and the fingers of one hand clawed at the air to draw me to her chair.
‘I clasped my arms around her neck, while she touched my wet hair and murmured soft words against my cold skin.
‘“Why didn’t you come?” I whispered the words. “I waited for you.”
‘Maria placed a shaky hand over her eyes. “I couldn’t.”
‘“Why didn’t you write?”
‘“Aunt Maria had a stroke.” It was Sasha’s voice. I had forgotten he was even still in the room. “It happened when she was tortured.”
‘My thoughts beat panicked wings in my head. White hair? Maria could not be more than forty. Why white hair? Her eyes were still beautiful, still luminous brown, but over them hung a veil, gossamer-fine, and behind it lay a world of bafflement and confusion. And she hadn’t risen to her feet to greet me. It all made agonising sense.
‘“Oh Maria, my poor dearest Maria. Why didn’t you ask your brother Sergei to write to me? I’d have come…”
‘Maria’s eyebrows gathered in a lopsided frown and she murmured, “Hush.” She glanced quickly in Sasha’s direction and then back again to my face. “It’s not important.”
‘“Of course it’s important. I would have taken care of-”
‘“No, no, not you, Anna Fedorina,” Sasha interrupted roughly. “My parents would never have written to you or wanted you in this house.” He stood with his hands on his hips and his chin jutting forward. “Aunt Maria suffered the stroke when she was tortured on account of her connection with your family, with you and your father and your father’s friends. I grew up on the story of how her hair turned white overnight in the prison cells. Your father was declared a Class Enemy and-”
‘“Shut up!” I shouted.
‘“Leave us, Sasha,” Maria moaned. “Please.”
‘He glared at me for a long moment before marching out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Quiet settled after that. Maria dismissed my apologies for what she’d suffered, so instead I kissed her, told her I loved her and would take care of her now that I had found her again. I made us tea from the samovar in the corner of the cramped room, then I pulled up a stool and told tales of my long years in Kazan. As the daylight started to fade from the room, I risked the question that burned inside me.
‘“Did you ever hear what happened to Vasily?”
‘Maria laughed, soft and low like in the old days. “How you worshipped that boy! You used to trail round after him like a little shadow. Do you recall how you used to make him dance with you? Or maybe you’ve forgotten that.”
‘“No, I haven’t forgotten.”
‘“And he adored you.” She chuckled again. “He came looking for you, you know.”
‘“When? When did he come?”
‘“I’m not sure, I can’t… Think, stupid brain, think.” Maria rapped her knuckles against her own forehead. “I forget everything now.”
‘I stroked the skin soothingly. “It’s all right, there’s no rush. Take your time. Can you remember what he looked like?”
‘The crooked mouth smiled its crooked smile. “Oh yes, he was tall. Grown into a man.”
‘“And still as handsome?”
‘“Yes, still as handsome. He came twice and told me he’d changed his name for safety.”
‘Again the look of bewilderment.
‘“Did you tell him where I was, Maria?”
‘“No, my love, I’m sorry. I couldn’t remember where you were.”
‘“Was he… disappointed?”
‘“Oh yes. That’s why he came twice. To see if I had remembered.” Tears filled her eyes. “But I couldn’t.”
‘I hugged her close and whispered without hope, “Where is he living now?”
‘To my surprise Maria nodded. “He wrote it down.”
‘From a large battered canvas bag that lay at her feet she withdrew a bible, its cover well-worn to a faded black. Tucked inside its pages was a scrap of grey envelope and on it printed in black letters: Mikhail Pashin, Levitsky Factory, Dagorsk. Home: Tivil Village, near Dagorsk. But just as I was holding the piece of paper in my hand, the door to the room crashed open and uniforms marched into the small space, their leather boots and broad shoulders swallowing up the air around us. Five stern faces turned on me. Behind them, with the sternest face of all, stood eleven-year-old Sasha.
‘“Anna Fedorina?” The officer had a black Cossack moustache that seemed to bristle and threaten, but his eyes were calm. “You are Anna Fedorina, daughter of Doktor Nikolai Fedorin who has been declared an Enemy of the People.”
‘“But that was years ago.”
‘The officer gave me a smile that was not a smile. “We don’t forget. Or forgive.”
‘Strong hands seized my arms and dragged me off my feet.
‘“Anna!” Maria screamed, with all the power of her frail lungs, her one good hand clawing the air again. “Let me kiss her, let me kiss my Anna goodbye.”
The soldiers hesitated, then thrust me at Maria’s chair. Maria clamped her arm fiercely round my neck and buried her face in my hair, kissing my cheek, my jaw, my ear, all the time whispering, whispering, whispering. So that when the rough hands stole me from Maria’s grasp, I was aware of nothing but those words:
‘“His mother’s jewels. In a box. He’s buried them in the church under St Peter’s feet. He told me. In the village where he lives.”’
‘Where are you going, Comrade Morozova?’
Sofia had risen to her feet in the conference hall. She couldn’t bear it inside this hothouse of lies and paranoia a moment longer. All the promises of quotas impossible to achieve, and the incessant ranting against wreckers and saboteurs – it set off a griping pain in her stomach, as though rats were chewing in there.
Alanya Sirova’s expression was poised halfway between curiosity and suspicion. ‘Are you leaving?’
‘Da. Yes, I have work to do.’
‘But I thought-’
‘While Comrade Direktor Pashin and Comrade Boriskin are away reporting to the Committee,’ Sofia tossed her pad and pen on the lap of Alanya’s navy blue suit, ‘I want you to take notes of everything that goes on here.’
The secretary’s cheeks glowed pink with pleasure. ‘Spasibo, comrade. I won’t let you down, I promise.’
It made Sofia want to cry.
The streets of Leningrad had changed. As Sofia walked their pavements she began to wish she hadn’t come back. The tall pastel-painted houses with ornate window frames and wrought iron balconies, houses she had once thought so smart and elegant, had been transformed into sooty drab buildings crammed full of sooty drab people who scurried to the bread queues and the candle queues and the kerosene queues, where they waited for hours like sheep in a slaughter house. Their clothes were shabby and their chins tucked tight to their chests. Against the cool breeze that skimmed off the canals? Or against the expression in other people’s eyes? Suspicion was so strong in the air, she could smell it.
As she hurried down Nevsky the trams rattled past her, packed with grey empty faces. The new factories pumped a thick filth into the air that settled like widows’ weeds over the buildings. When Sofia leaned eagerly over the bridge, as she had as a child to catch sight of the Fontanka, the stench that drifted up from it caught at her throat and made her eyes water. What were they dumping in there?
She was here to search out the apartment where Anna had lived briefly with Maria and Irina, but had no exact address to go on. She walked fast along the bank of the Neva, over the little humpback Gorbatiy Mostik and then turned left across Liteiny Bridge. Once in the Liteiny district she set about combing the spider’s web of streets with their dismal tenements, but it took her an hour to find it. The tap factory. It was still there.
What else had Anna told her?
An iron staircase. A kolodets and a lion’s head carved above an arch. But the dark rows of crumbling tenements all seemed to have iron staircases to the upper storeys and courtyards where ragged children crawled among the woodpiles. It was only when she spotted the lion’s head above one of the arches that Anna’s voice pulsed in her ears. ‘You must remember this, Sofia. It will help you.’ She walked the street twice just to make sure no other lions were lurking nearby, and then approached the entrance. It was like all the others: no paint, with cracked and swollen woodwork. She lifted the big knocker and rapped it.
A woman’s wrinkled face peered round the door.
‘I’m looking for Maria Myskova. I believe she may live here.’
‘Who wants to know?’
The woman was wrapped in a thick woollen headscarf, despite the heat of the day, and wore a dark brown blanket draped around her shoulders. In the gloomy hallway her head appeared disembodied. Her eyebrows were drawn together above what was clearly a glass eye, but her other brown eye was bright and intensely curious.
‘Who are you, girl?’ she demanded, holding out a hand for identification papers.
Sofia stood her ground without giving her name. ‘Maria used to live here with Comrade Sergei Myskov and his wife and child. On the first floor. Do you know where they are now?’
‘You mean they still live here? When will they be home?’
‘Who wants to know?’ The woman’s eye gleamed.
‘Are you the dezhurnaya?’
‘Da. Yes, I am.’ She unwrapped the blanket enough to reveal an official red armband.
Everyone knew that caretakers were paid informers of the State Police, keeping a watchful eye on the comings and goings of their building’s inhabitants for OGPU. The last thing Sofia wanted was to rouse those wasps from their nest.
‘I’ll come back later if you’ll tell me when they-’
The crash of a piece of crockery followed by a man’s voice raised in a curse erupted from somewhere at the back of the hallway. The woman swivelled round with a squeal and scurried back into the shadows towards a door that was half open. Sofia didn’t hesitate. She stepped inside and leapt up the stairs two at a time, trying not to inhale the smell of boiled cabbage and unwashed bodies that seemed to breathe out of the fabric of the building. It brought the stink of the barrack hut at Davinsky Camp crashing into her head.
When she reached the first-floor landing she turned to her left, where a boarded window let in a few dim streaks of light. To her surprise, packed tight against the wall of the dingy corridor, were three beds, low and narrow. One was tidily made with a folded quilt, the second was a jumble of stained sheets and the third was occupied by a bald man stinking of vomit whose skin was yellow as butter. This was Sofia’s first experience of the communalka, the shared apartments where several families were crammed into the space that had once belonged to only one.
She squeezed past the first two and spoke in a whisper to the man in the third.
‘Do you need anything…?’
It was a stupid question. Of course the poor wretch needed something – something like a decent bed in a decent hospital with decent food and medicines and clean air to breathe, but he didn’t reply. His eyes were closed. Maybe he was dead. She felt she should tell somebody. But who? On tiptoes, so as not to wake him, she crept to the door at the end of the landing and knocked quickly. The door opened at once. A dark-haired woman stood in front of her, shorter than herself but broad across the bust. Sofia smiled at her.
‘Dobriy vecher,’ she said. ‘Good evening. I am Anna Fedorina.’
‘She’s dead. Maria died two years ago. Another stroke.’
The words were stark, but Irina Myskova spoke them gently.
‘I’m sorry, Anna, I know how much she cared for you. It’s so sad that she didn’t live to see you released.’
‘Tell Sasha that.’
The woman’s face stiffened at the mention of her son. His part in Anna’s arrest seemed to sit uneasily in Irina’s heart and she ran a hand across her large bosom, stilling whatever turmoil simmered there. Her clothes were neat but old, the material of her skirt darned in several places. The apartment was the same, clean and tidy with striped homemade poloviki rugs on the floor. Everything looked old and well used. Only the white plaster bust of Lenin gleamed new, and the bright red posters declaring Forward towards the Victory of Communism and We swear, Comrade Lenin, to honour your command. Sofia ignored them and looked across at the chair by the window. It was Maria’s chair, standing empty now, clearly not used by the family any more.
‘Sasha was only doing his duty,’ Irina insisted loyally.
Sofia hadn’t come here to argue. ‘Those times were hard and…’
‘But you’re looking well, Anna,’ Irina interrupted. She eyed Sofia’s new dress and her shining blonde hair thoughtfully. ‘You were pretty as a child, but now you’ve grown quite beautiful.’
‘Spasibo. Comrade Myskova, is there something of Maria’s I could have? To remind me of her?’
Irina’s face relaxed. ‘Of course. Most of her possessions have gone… Sold,’ she added self-consciously. ‘But Sergei insisted on keeping a few things back.’ She walked over to a cupboard and drew from it a book. ‘It’s Maria’s bible.’ She offered it to Sofia. ‘Maria would have wanted you to have it, Anna.’
Sofia was touched by the gift. The feel of the book under her fingers, its pages so soft and well thumbed, raised a sudden sense of her own childhood and her own father’s devotion to bible study. She handled it with care.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured again and moved towards the door.
‘Wait, Anna.’ Irina came over and stood close.
‘What is it?’ Sofia felt an odd rush of sympathy for this woman, caught between her love for her son and her love for her husband’s dead sister. Gently she said, ‘What’s done is done, Irina. We can change the future but we can’t change the past.’
‘Nyet. And I wouldn’t wish to. But… if I can help you… I know from Maria that you were always fond of the Dyuzheyevs’ boy.’
‘Did Maria tell you he came here once? He’s going under a different name now.’
‘Yes. Mikhail Pashin. She said he came twice.’
‘I wasn’t here, but I believe it was only once. Maria got confused sometimes. The other time it was a different man altogether who came to see her.’
‘Do you know who?’
‘Anna, I think you should know that the man had come trying to find you.’
‘Da. It seems he was the young Bolshevik soldier, the one who shot your father and Vasily’s mother. He was searching for