Under a blood red sky, p.21

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 21


Under a Blood Red Sky

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  ‘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?’

  ‘A job.’

  ‘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.

  ‘Why you?’

  ‘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.

  ‘I know.’

  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.’

  ‘It has.’

  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. ‘W
e 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.’

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