Under a Blood Red Sky, page 31
Some instinct for danger made her skirt round the back of the village. The stables seemed the most likely place for the gypsy to be, but instead of taking the direct track up between the cabbage fields, she kept to the forest edge and climbed the slope of the ridge, breathing in the sweet fresh scent of pine. It meant she came at the stables from the back and from above. She looked down at the long wooden buildings but could spot nothing that shouldn’t be there. The courtyard was empty except for a tangle of farm ironwork in a huddle in one corner and the trough in its centre.
The solitary village street lay below, sleepy except for a hound belling somewhere and the urchins shrieking with delight in the murky pond. In the distance figures littered the fields like scarecrows with hoes in hand, while others hunched on their knees, laboriously weeding the potato ridges. Nothing strange, nothing out of place.
So why the taste of fear in her mouth?
And then she heard it, faint but unmistakable, the rhythmic cadence of a religious chant. It drifted from the wall of the stable like incense, charging the air. It was a rich golden sound that brought back her father and her childhood in a rush, but the priest and his secret flock were deluding themselves if they thought their God could combat the might of Communism. She looked around quickly. A sentry, surely the priest must have set a sentry. She couldn’t see one at first but, by moving off to her left so that she could see the approach through the cabbage fields, she spotted him. There at the head of the track stood the young boy with the scabs and the broom, but he wasn’t sweeping this time. He was arguing, arms flailing in all directions. Uniforms swarmed over him like wasps on a honey jar, poking him in the ribs, cuffing his ears.
Sofia ran. She hurtled down the slope to the back of the stables and hammered her fists on the dusty planks. Instantly the chanting ceased. She raced to a high narrow vent in the wooden wall and leapt up to it, scrabbling through the tiny gap, nimble as a squirrel. She dropped inside, blinked in the gloom and found herself in some kind of harness room, surrounded by leather and brass. She heard movement and rushed out into the long section where the stalls were situated, but there was no sign of anyone. Just a horse’s heavy nose that turned in her direction, bristling with curiosity and soft sighs. The smell of incense was strong.
‘Priest,’ she called softly.
From her right came a sound she recognised, the faint tinkle of a brass censer. The priest was standing alone in front of what looked like a solid wall of old timbers, but his appearance bore no resemblance to the way she’d seen him last. He was clothed in full Russian Orthodox regalia, a long black cassock that enveloped him with a stillness that filled the small space. Around his neck lay an embroidered stole and, on his head, a tall black hat transformed his shaggy red hair into a golden halo. But it was his eyes that had changed most. The wildness had vanished and in its place was a cool green sea of peace. The eyes studied Sofia with calm authority.
‘God be with you, child.’ He made the sign of the cross.
‘Quick,’ she urged. ‘Bistro. The soldiers are here at the front.’
He knew she could be laying a trap for him. His green eyes probed hers and something in them must have satisfied him because he pushed against one of the planks of timber. Silently, on well oiled hinges, it swung open all the way to the roof beams, leaving a tall slender gap. Sofia put her head round it. A room lay behind it, long and thin, crammed with people, scented with candles and incense and the spice of prayer. More than twenty faces were turned to her, old men with grey beards and tired eyes, old women wearing black headscarves and crosses at their necks. A large black bible lay open on a lectern.
‘Bistro. Quickly, out,’ Sofia whispered. ‘Soldiers.’
A gasp of panic and then they poured out through the gap, squeezing their fleshless bodies through little more than a hand’s breadth.
‘They’ll kill us.’
‘God be merciful.’
‘Beloved Mother of Christ, blessed Virgin, hear our prayers.’
‘This way,’ Priest Logvinov said.
He led his flock into one of the stalls, his threadbare cassock trailing over the straw and picking up stalks. One woman sobbed quietly into her handkerchief. He bent down and flipped a wooden latch which instantly released the end plank, so that it sprang open. Outside lay the rocky slope up to the forest. Sofia had to admit he was better prepared than she expected.
‘Go, my children.’
Each villager stopped to kiss the ring on the priest’s hand, ‘Thank you, Father,’ but every second of delay caused Sofia agony.
‘Faster,’ she urged. ‘Bistreye! ’
A clatter of boots sounded in the courtyard at the front and the boy lookout squealed as though struck. Sofia fought the overwhelming desire to flee up that inviting slope to the cool refuge of the trees.
‘Priest,’ she said, ‘I’ll try to delay them. Get out of those clothes and if you ever want to say another prayer again, hide that bible.’ She snatched the ceremonial hat from his head and thrust it into his hands. ‘Be quick.’
‘God will protect us, my child,’ Priest Logvinov murmured.
‘My tongue will do a better job of it,’ Sofia snapped back. She turned and raced through the stables to face the uniforms in the yard.
Why am I doing this? Why risk so much?
The question sprang into her mind unbidden the moment she saw the soldiers strutting across the courtyard. Just the sight of the boots and the peaked caps turned her stomach.
‘Tovarishchi! ’ she called out. ‘Comrades!’
They were young, or they would not have halted so readily for a female voice.
‘Tovarishchi,’ she said again, this time with a welcoming smile. Each second’s delay meant another fleeing figure reaching the safety of the trees. ‘I’m glad you’ve arrived. We’ve been waiting for you, but you’ve come to the wrong barn. It’s the one on the other side of the river.’
The ragged group of soldiers swung their gaze in her direction. Except for one, tall and lanky with an Asiatic face and straight black hair. He was heading directly for the tumbledown door that led into the section of stable where the secret room was hidden. An informer had earned his thirty pieces of silver.
‘Comrade Chairman Fomenko will want to speak to you all first,’ she added quickly, ‘before you start work.’
The lanky soldier halted and watched her through narrowed eyes.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked a lean-faced young man who seemed in command. He frowned. ‘We are not here to do work for your Chairman.’
‘Oh,’ Sofia tossed her hair at him. ‘I thought you were the ones coming to help put up a new barn for us.’
‘We are OGPU soldiers,’ he said proudly, pushing out his narrow chest, ‘not peasant labourers.’ But his eyes lingered on her. All their eyes lingered on her.
‘My mistake.’ She smiled and swayed her hips. ‘So why are you here?’
‘To search these premises.’ He shifted his rifle in his hand to emphasise the point.
‘For what?’ Seconds were ticking past.
‘For illegal gatherings of religious enemies of the State.’
Sweat lay on his downy upper lip. The air was hot and close under the heavy grey sky and, as the officer glanced around uneasily, Sofia had the feeling that this was the young officer’s first command. He was as anxious as she was.
‘In here.’ The Asiatic soldier gestured impatiently with his rifle at the dim interior of the stable. ‘Bring the girl.’ He stared at Sofia with suspicion.
The officer nodded, relieved to have the decision made for him. Sofia braced herself.
‘Water?’ It was Rafik. In his bright yellow shirt and with a white bandanna round his head. ‘Water is what you young men need after your march up here, I’m certain.’
He was standing casually in the doorway in front of the suspicious soldier, blocking the entry. In one hand he held a large enamel jug, chipped at the rim, and in
The words drew blood. In the small windowless room, lit only by a single naked bulb, the interrogator was facing Mikhail across the table again. The man’s lips were pale and his skin sallow, as though he’d spent his whole life burrowing like a mole through the dirt of prison. Mikhail stood, hands behind his back as instructed, and fought to keep his mind concentrating.
‘Mikhail Pashin, you employed a woman at the Levitsky factory who once worked as a servant girl for the Tsarina. Her father fought for the Whites.’
‘That was a long time ago. She is a good Communist now.’
‘You have arranged for her to sabotage Red Army uniforms as they are sewn.’
‘That is untrue. I make sure every uniform is checked.’
‘Why do you check them? That proves she is not trustworthy.’
It was his dead friend’s sister. She had come to him begging for work, her big-knuckled fingers entwining in his shirt-front. She was tainted, a pariah, no one would employ her because she had once worked in a palace.
‘No, that’s not the case. Every garment is routinely checked before it leaves the factory because any of the girls can make a mistake with her stitches.’
‘Saboteurs hide behind such platitudes.’
‘She is not a saboteur.’
‘But you are.’
Mikhail caught his breath. The room seemed to be closing in on him and his testicles throbbed in a steady sickening pulse from the beating in the cell. He spoke his next words clearly, ‘No, I am no saboteur.’
‘Don’t lie to me, you piece of dog shit. Can you deny that you spoiled three sewing machines last week, delaying production, on orders from your masters in Berlin?’
‘Yes, I do deny it.’
‘But the machines broke.’
‘You broke them. You are a filthy spoiler.’
‘No. They broke because they’re old.’
‘Just like you broke a turbine when you worked at the Tupolev aircraft factory.’
That caught him off guard. It was always the same, the questions twisted and turned, the accusations sliding under his carefully constructed defences.
‘No, the turbine broke because a part needed replacing, but—’
‘Were you well paid for that?’
‘I’ve already told you my salary at Tupolev’s.’
‘Well paid by your foreign paymasters for that treachery?’
‘That is insane. There were no foreign paymasters. I produced—’
‘Is that why you let the German firms palm off defective machinery on you?’ The mole eyes narrowed to slits.
‘The machines are—’
‘To sabotage quotas.’
‘We exceeded quotas last—’
‘No! ’ He shouted it. To make it enter this man’s thick skull.
‘You try to deprive the Army of uniforms.’
‘I told you, I exceeded the set quotas.’
‘Look at the production figures of the Levitsky factory.’
‘You falsify the figures, you muddle up the numbers, you are a saboteur, a spoiler, a traitor.’ The man’s voice rose abruptly to a shrill command. ‘Confess.’
The room swayed. Or was it him? A fog seemed to thicken the air and a buzzing sound scraped his nerve ends as the electric light bulb spluttered and flickered briefly. His mind was trying to shut down. He closed his eyes. Somewhere inside the fog he heard a soft voice that whispered in his ear. You should take more care. It was Sofia, warm against his back on the horse, the feel of her breasts so close and her fingers tickling his ribs.
‘You bastards,’ he growled.
But again her solemn voice in his ear, You are too free with your insults.
Her words were real. This room could be nothing but a nightmare, a dismal wretched one. He opened his eyes, but the nightmare was still there in front of him, the interrogator leaning forward, his thumbs pressed together, his gaze full of distaste.
‘I am a loyal Communist.’
‘Spit that word out of your mouth, you filthy bourgeois capitalist. You are not fit even to speak of Communism. You don’t know the meaning of the word, you lie and you cheat and you take a traitor’s gold.’
‘You expanded the Levitsky factory, tying up a portion of the State’s investment finances that could have been used elsewhere. You were trying to undermine the Russian economy.’
This twist of logic finally dislodged Mikhail’s precarious temper. ‘You stupid bastard,’ he snapped, raising his hands as though to seize the man’s throat, ‘I expanded the factory in order to boost production and help the Russian economy. If you throw everyone who comes up with new and productive ideas into prison, this country will fall to its knees and weep.’
A silence settled and the room seemed to vibrate with it. Mikhail could hear his own laboured breathing. The interrogator opened the file in front of him, but his pale lips were working in anger and his eyes barely scanned the page.
‘You took in a kulak’s son,’ he stated. ‘The child of a Class Enemy. You don’t deny it because you can’t. The kulak was a Class Enemy who sabotaged the village mill. You all work together, you wreckers, in a conspiracy. Admit it. Confess. Sign this statement.’
‘No. I refute the charge.’
‘You are a Class Enemy. You steal from the State.’
‘You stole sacks of grain.’
‘I have a witness.’
‘They’re lying. It’s not true. Who is this false accuser?’
She wasn’t coming.
Pyotr leaned his forehead against the bleached wood of the meeting hall door, as if its warmth could still the chills inside him. He was alone and his heart ached for his father. He kept his back turned to the road because he refused to watch yet another villager pass by and turn their face away from him, as though he were invisible. Sofia wasn’t coming. He was an outcast even to her, a leper. Untouchable for the second time in his life - but what had he done? He kicked angrily at the door, rattling it on its ancient hinges.
She was here. He turned, relief filling his throat with that strange sort of honey taste that always came when he was near her.
‘Did you get it?’ she asked.
He nodded and held out his hand. Across his palm lay the heavy iron key to the meeting hall. It had grown warm from contact with his flesh.
‘Molodyets. Good boy.’ She snatched it from him. ‘Did they believe you? That you wanted to contribute to the kolkhoz by cleaning up the hall for them?’
He nodded again, but with the handle of the hazel-twig broom in his hand he pointed at one of the sheets of paper pinned on the door, the lists of that week’s individual achievements for each worker. His own name was on it. Time spent at the forge. Already someone had drawn a heavy black line through Pyotr’s name to show he no longer existed. He heard Sofia draw in breath sharply.
‘Shall I tear it down?’ she asked, as casually as if she were asking him if she should sew on a button.
‘No,’ he said, shocked.
Her hand lightly touched the hair on the back of his head. ‘Why not, Pyotr?’
‘It’s not . . . not . . .’ he struggled for the right word, ‘not wise.’
‘Why? Because Chairman Aleksei Fomenko put it up?’
‘There are soldiers,’ he told her in a whisper, ‘here in Tivil. I saw them.’
‘So did I.’
‘It’ll just make . . . more trouble,’ he muttered.
She took her hand away from h
‘Pyotr,’ she said, and her voice was so quiet he had to listen hard. ‘If everyone is frightened of making trouble, how will we ever make the world better? Even Lenin was a great one for making trouble.’
Pyotr hunched his shoulders.
‘The people of Russia will rot in their misery,’ she breathed, ‘like your father will in his cell. Like I did. Like Priest Logvinov will if he’s not more careful than he was today. Like all the other stinking prisoners will if we don’t make trouble, you and I.’
‘You were a prisoner?’ he whispered.
‘Yes. I escaped.’
It was like a gift. She was trusting him. He wasn’t invisible.
‘Open the door,’ he said. ‘I’ll help you.’
They searched the hall together, taking half each. Pyotr was quick as a ferret, darting from one likely spot to another, exploring it, moving on, eager to be the one to find the hiding place. She was slower, more methodical, but he could feel her frustration. His fingers wormed their way into cracks and scrabbled under benches seeking hidden compartments, but nothing yielded to his touch. Only the grey metal table with the two pencils and the two chairs he left alone because it was Chairman Fomenko’s territory. Pyotr felt like an intruder there. His cheeks were flushed but he didn’t want to stop, not now.
‘Do you know,’ Sofia’s voice came to him from across the body of the building, ‘that in the Russian Orthodox church, worshippers always stood? No benches to sit on and services could go on for hours.’
Pyotr wasn’t interested. Most of the church buildings had been blown up anyway. He pulled at a strip of plasterwork in the shape of an angel’s wing and it came away in his hand, but nothing lay behind it.
‘It was to prove their devotion, you see,’ she explained.
Why was she telling him this? She had her cheek against the opposite wall, eyeing the line of it, her fingers feeling for false fronts to the bricks.
‘Do you know why they had to do that?’ she asked.
Other author's books:
- The Russian ConcubineThe SurvivorsThe Red ScarfThe Guardian of LiesUnder a Blood Red SkyThe LiberationThe Far Side of the SunThe Concubine's Secret
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