Under a blood red sky, p.20

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 20


Under a Blood Red Sky

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  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.

  ‘Stand apart!’

  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.’

  ‘No, I—’

  ‘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.’

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