Under a blood red sky, p.15

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 15

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  ‘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?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘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.

  ‘Sofia!’

  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 key.’

  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.

  ‘Wait here.’

  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?’

  ‘No.’

  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.’

  ‘Not you.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘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 save
d 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.’

  22

  ‘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?’

  ‘Eight-thirty.’

  ‘Chyort! ’

  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.’

  ‘No, Papa.’

  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?’

  ‘Four.’

  ‘The truth?’

  ‘Four.’

  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.

 

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