Under a blood red sky, p.18

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 18


Under a Blood Red Sky

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  ‘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 h
adn’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?’

  ‘A grudge?’

  ‘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.’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘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.


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