Under a blood red sky, p.32

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 32


Under a Blood Red Sky

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  ‘It’s not that they had to prove it to God. They had to prove it to each other.’

  Pyotr thought for a long moment and scratched at his head. ‘Like when we have meetings here and workers denounce each other for slacking in the fields that day. Is that what you mean?’

  ‘Exactly. It’s to prove to others what a true believer you are. To avoid damnation, in hell or in a forced labour camp. Both the same.’

  He squatted down on his haunches and trailed a finger along the edge of a floorboard. He knew she was wrong, of course. Stalin warned against saboteurs of ideas as well as of factories, but he didn’t want to tell her that, not right now anyway.

  His finger snagged.


  ‘What is it?’

  ‘I’ve found something.’

  She hurried across the hall. ‘What?’

  ‘This. Look.’

  He lifted a filthy piece of string, no more than the length of a man’s hand. It was attached to one of the planks.

  Sofia crouched at his side. ‘Pull.’

  He yanked and a metre-long section of floorboard flipped up. Pyotr let out a shout and fell back on his bottom, but scrambled to his knees to peer into the gap. He’d found the hiding place. Now he would have the means to free Papa, that’s what she’d promised him. He didn’t know quite what it was they were searching for, except that it was in a box and it was definitely going to be something good. Sofia was tugging at the next section of flooring to widen the gap but it wouldn’t move, and for the first time he noticed the scars on her fingers.

  They pressed their faces eagerly to the edge of a hole, black and deep. Too black and too deep to see what lay at the bottom.

  Sofia frowned. ‘Not what I expected.’

  ‘I’ll squeeze in,’ Pyotr said quickly. He didn’t want her to doubt his find. ‘I’ll drop down.’

  ‘No.’ Her hand gripped his shoulder.

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘We don’t know how deep it is or what’s down there.’

  ‘Fetch something to drop down into it then, that’s how they test wells.’

  Instantly she hurried off towards the pencils lying on the table at the front of the hall, but Pyotr didn’t wait. He swung his legs through the narrow gap, lifted his bottom, raised his arms above his head and slipped through as smooth as an eel. He plunged into the darkness and hit a hard floor with a crunch, knocking the breath from his body. He looked up. Several metres above his head a small rectangle of light broke up the solid blackness and gave him his bearings.


  He could hear the shock in her voice.

  ‘I’m still alive.’

  Her pale oval face popped into the gap above, blocking the light.

  ‘Are you hurt?’

  ‘No.’ He rubbed his knee and his palm came away damp, but he just wiped it on his shorts. ‘It’s very dark.’

  She laughed. ‘What did you expect, you idiot?’

  But she didn’t tell him off. He liked her for that.

  ‘Now you’re down there, feel around - but be careful. See if you can find a box or a bag of some kind. Maybe even some candles.’

  Pyotr scrabbled to his feet and stood still for a moment, staring into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Faint shapes began to emerge, grey on black. He took a deep breath. The air smelled dry and faintly sweet. He stretched out a hand in front of him and took two cautious steps. That was when the plank was slammed into place above him and total darkness swallowed him whole.


  Davinsky Camp July 1933

  Anna was too sick to work. She knew the day was close when she wouldn’t be able to get enough air into her lungs to allow her to walk, never mind work, but she hadn’t expected it so soon. She lay on her bed board and fought against the coughs that were tearing holes in her half-starved body.

  The strange thing was that she became convinced that each spasm in her chest was the growling of a sharp-toothed monster inside her, with eyes like glowing coals and slick green scales for skin. It was a fantasy, she knew that, but she couldn’t shake free of it however hard she tried.

  ‘It’s lack of oxygen,’ she gasped aloud. ‘It’s turning my brain to pulp.’

  But she could smell the monster’s foul breath coming out of her own mouth and hear its scales rustling and crackling inside her lungs as it shifted position.

  ‘Here, eat this.’

  Nina was pushing a small piece of black bread between Anna’s lips and her broad face was creased with concern. Anna let the heavy morsel of food settle on her tongue and she sucked it slowly to make it last.

  ‘And this.’

  Tasha did the same with another nibble of bread, and her fingers caressed Anna’s damp brow. ‘Stupid bitch, you are,’ she said gruffly.

  Anna sucked the bread and smiled. She couldn’t speak, but it wasn’t just the coughing that stopped the words. It was the fact that these two women, who each day were fed nowhere near enough to fuel the hard manual labour they were forced to perform, were sacrificing some of their paiok, their ration, to her. You didn’t ask that of anyone, not even friends. It was like asking for their life.

  With a great effort she swallowed hard and said, ‘I’ll be better tomorrow. I’ll work again then.’

  ‘Sure you will.’

  ‘After a day of lazing around doing nothing, you’ll be strong as an ox.’

  ‘You’re just jealous,’ Anna murmured.

  They laughed. ‘You bet we are.’

  Anna put out a hand and lightly touched Nina’s muscular arm. ‘Spasibo,’ she whispered.

  Nina shrugged. ‘Don’t be stupid. It’s only because I want you back in the line to tell us stories once more. We’re dying of boredom on the march without you, aren’t we, Tasha?’

  ‘Hell, yes. Nina tried to amuse me today with a tale about her experience of birthing a breach calf. I tell you, it fucking made me vomit.’ Her prim little mouth pulled tight. ‘Get some sleep now, you idle layabout, and you’ll feel better tomorrow.’


  Anna closed her eyes, grateful for the blackness. Her eyes were becoming increasingly sensitive to light, causing little pinpricks of pain in her eyeballs. She recalled Sofia having the same problem that time she was ill with her hand and was eating nothing.

  ‘I can’t see,’ Sofia had said one evening in the hut. Anna had heard the suppressed panic in her voice, despite her determination to hide it.

  Anna had waved a hand in front of her friend’s eyes. ‘It’s pellagra. ’

  ‘I know.’

  Pellagra, like scurvy, was caused by vitamin deficiency and was the curse of the prisoners. One of its effects was an inability to see in the dark. Anna took Sofia’s undamaged hand and quietly steered her through the rows of bunks to her bed board. She was shocked by the fire raging in her friend’s veins. That was the moment she decided to go to find Crazy Sara.


  ‘Get away, you whore.’

  Anna tried again. ‘Sara, I’ve brought you some bread.’

  The wild green eyes rolled in their sockets. ‘Putrid bread from a whore.’

  But the wizened claw shot out, snatched the grey knob of clay bread from Anna’s hand and rammed it into her toothless mouth before the gift was retracted. Anna waited patiently for the woman to cease snuffling a stream of obscenities and stop scratching herself.

  ‘Sara, I’m told you have knowledge. Of what lies out there in the forest that can heal ailments.’

  The woman cackled and pointed a crooked finger at Anna. ‘More than you’ll ever know.’

  They were standing beside the vast rubbish dump at the far end of the camp. It was raining, a gloomy chill downpour that had gone on all day, making the rocks slippery to handle on the road. In the distance the sun hovered on the horizon where it would sit until morning, reluctant at this time of year to leave. The stench of the dump was foul, as of dead bodies buried in th
e filth, but Anna gave no sign of repulsion.

  Sara was one of the brodyagas, the garbage eaters, the band of pathetic wretches who lived off what they could scavenge from the dump. They scurried over it like crabs, seeking out things to thrust past their white gums, and they welcomed the advances of any guard desperate enough to handle their diseased bodies. Most were insane, their minds rotting as fast as their limbs, but this one, this Sara, was Anna’s only hope. She clung to it.

  ‘They say you are a witch.’ Anna spoke slowly and clearly to ensure the woman heard above the rain, but she didn’t risk coming too close. ‘That you can—’

  Sara shrieked and it took Anna a moment to recognise the noise as laughter. The woman’s lungs were wheezing with delight. She had lost all her hair long ago, including her beetle-black eyebrows, and her pink scabby scalp glistened in the rain.

  ‘What will you pay?’ Her hands were grasping like claws.

  ‘What do you ask?’

  ‘Butter, bread and beetroot. And . . .’ she swung her head from side to side, searching in her bewilderment for some other demand, ‘and your coat. Yes,’ she screeched the word, ‘da, your coat. I want it now . . . now . . . now . . . I want . . .’

  Anna recoiled. It was summer now, but come the winter . . . ‘I need a cure for an infected hand. If it heals, you shall have my coat. But not before.’

  The woman’s hand slithered forward between the raindrops like a snake’s head and fastened on the wet collar of Anna’s coat, fingering the padded material. Her sunken mouth started to drool.

  ‘Bring me butter,’ she crooned. ‘Then I will see.’

  Anna nodded and, holding her breath against the stink of decay, hurried away from the dump and the scuttling crabs. The other woman’s cackle was not drowned out by the rain.

  It didn’t take her long to get it. She brought butter and bread for Sara and in exchange received herbs in a poultice for the splitting flesh of Sofia’s hand. Some of the women in the hut stopped speaking to Anna when they saw her draw a brown greaseproof packet of meat and fat and even a sweet biscuit from her pocket each day.

  Everyone knew, but Anna didn’t give a damn about them as she watched Sofia heal. She could feel their scathing disgust like sandpaper on her skin. People whispered behind their hands and even out in the Work Zone, fingers pointed when guards sidled up to smile at her. Whatever filth the women thought of her, it wasn’t even close to what she thought of herself. But that didn’t stop her and each evening she walked out from behind the tool hut with food in her pocket and fire in her belly.

  One night, as she was gently feeding tiny strips of yellow pork fat into Sofia’s cracked lips, she saw the feverish eyes fix on her face as though trying to work out what was reality and what was a trick of her confused mind.

  ‘Anna.’ A raw whisper.

  ‘I’m here.’

  ‘Tell me . . . something . . . happy.’

  Anna was engulfed by a huge wave of tenderness. She was standing right next to Sofia’s top bunk and she leaned her head against the sick girl’s arm. How could something look so dead and yet burn so hot?

  ‘Tell me, Anna.’ So soft it was no more than a shimmer of air. ‘Tell me more about Vasily.’

  Anna pushed a dried currant into Sofia’s mouth. She never touched a scrap of the food herself. Just the thought of where it came from made her retch. ‘Chew,’ she ordered. She started to talk.

  ‘Pirate Island, we called it. It sat, small and stubby, in the middle of the lake on the Dyuzheyevs’ grand estate. No one ever went there except the swans. There were two of them, Napoleon and Josephine we named them because they were so horrible, always hissing and flapping their great white wings like angry angels that had fallen to earth. One lazy summer day Vasily decided we would attack the island, so we set off in the rowboat pretending to be Tsar Nicholas’s best troops, driving the hated Finnish pirates off Russian soil. Vasily had made us wooden swords.

  ‘“Come on, Captain Konstantin, row harder,” Vasily bellowed as if we were in the middle of a vast sea with a howling gale.

  ‘The sun glittered on the water and the air was humming with the beats of insects’ wings. A brilliant blue butterfly landed on Vasily’s cap and I clapped with such delight that I nearly lost my oar. To be honest, I was quite nervous of invading that tiny island.

  ‘“Vasily,” I warned, “I don’t think that the swans - I mean the pirates - will be very friendly.”

  ‘“Of course the bastards won’t, Captain, they’re filthy pirates, aren’t they? They guard their treasure well, but together we’ll defeat them and lop off their heads.”

  ‘“But you’re the General. I’m only a Captain, so you’ll lead the charge, won’t you?”

  ‘I didn’t want to land. I thought it would be just perfect to float in the boat with Vasily for ever, but before long we bumped up against the island. Vasily put his finger to his lips. In silence we crept up the rocky bank into the undergrowth, where Vasily suddenly gave a shout of pain, clutched his chest, sank to his knees in the mud and collapsed on his side.

  ‘“Vasily!” I screamed.

  ‘“I’m shot, Captain Konstantin,” he gasped.


  ‘“The pirates have done for me.” He writhed on the ground as though in agony. “It all rests on you now, my brave Captain. You must attack their camp alone.”

  ‘“Vasily,” I said crossly and plucked like a little bird at his soft brown hair. “Don’t be silly.”

  ‘“Captain, are you a yellow-bellied coward?”


  ‘“I knew I could trust you, soldier. Here, take my sword as well. Don’t forget to make the charge with a bloodcurdling scream, to frighten the cursed pirates off the island.”

  ‘I gazed at him in horror. His eyes were firmly shut, his strong young limbs crumpled and lifeless. Why couldn’t I lie down beside him and be shot by pirates too? In a panic I glanced quickly round, imagining black-tipped beaks with razor teeth lurking behind every bush, yellow eyes gleaming with menace. I picked up Vasily’s long sword but my hand was shaking.

  ‘“Vasily,” I whispered, “a swan is bigger than me.”

  ‘He didn’t move.

  ‘I took a tentative step towards the heart of the island. “I’m going after the pirates now.”

  ‘No answer.

  ‘I listened hard for any sound of the swans but I could only hear my own heart beating in my ears. I was so terrified I forgot to breathe. I could see the leaves shivering in the wind and I knew even they were frightened for me. I was going to die.

  ‘I ran. With a bloodcurdling screech and both swords whirling in crazy circles, I charged into the undergrowth, branches taking swipes at my head. Straight away Josephine heard me and came flying out with head high and wings wide, uttering a deafening war cry. I launched my attack, swords scything through the air. For one second the bird was so surprised she backed off, and I was fooled. This is easy. I’m a great warrior and I can—

  ‘She ran at me, eyes spitting fire. I went down, head over heels in a flurry of arms and legs as she bowled me over and swung her long sinuous neck back ready to strike, huge yellow beak gaping wide. She was about to swallow me whole. I screamed and stuck out my sword. But before she or I could move, I was scooped off the ground and tucked under a strong arm. With a battle cry fit to crack open the world, my rescuer raced in a slither of stones and nettles back to the shoreline. Josephine chased us like a fiend from hell but we tumbled into the boat and pushed out into the lake. My General had saved me, but I was so angry I refused to sit on the bench with him. I wouldn’t even speak.

  ‘“Oh, come on, Princess, don’t sulk. That was a great adventure.” He splashed me with an oar.

  ‘“Why, Vasily? Why did you do it?”

  ‘“Come here, Annochka.” He pulled me on to the bench beside him and kissed the top of my trembling head. “Don’t be cross. I did it to show you that you can do anything, anything in the world if you se
t your mind to it. You have the heart of a lion.”

  ‘I snuggled close against him, his white linen shirt turning green from the undergrowth wherever I touched him.

  ‘“But I was frightened,” I moaned.

  ‘“We’re all frightened sometimes, my angel. The trick is to roll up your fear into a ball, put it in your pocket and just carry on. Like you did today.”

  ‘“Next time,” I said loftily, “you can be the pirate and I will run you through with my sword.”

  ‘He grinned, then abruptly his dove-grey eyes grew dark as slate. He hugged me close. “Annochka, terrible times are coming soon to Russia. Only blood will quench the anger of our people and it will be hard on the likes of your family and mine. You will need every scrap of your courage. All this was to show you that you can do far more than you think you can. I want you to be ready.”

  ‘“I’m ready,” I whispered.’

  And Sofia’s lips had curved into a happy smile.

  Anna, how can I not love your Vasily?


  Tivil July 1933

  Sofia was trapped. Not in the dark like Pyotr, or in some stinking hell-hole like Mikhail, but trapped just the same. Chairman Fomenko ushered her into his office and the moment he shut the door she felt the tension tighten.

  ‘Please, sit down.’

  ‘I’ll stand.’

  Just the sight of this man sent loathing snaking through her veins. She stood with folded arms, and to her annoyance he gave her a slight smile, amused by her stance. He sat down at his desk, arranging his limbs with neat precision.

  ‘Cigarette?’ he offered.


  From a drawer he pulled out a slender tin of hand-rolled makhorka cigarettes, thin and misshapen, and lit one carefully with a match. Why did he smoke the cheapest foul-smelling tobacco? Surely he didn’t need to. The thought that he probably did so to prove his identification with the ordinary workers in the fields just annoyed her further. Nor did she like the intelligent way he looked at her through the haze of smoke, or the feel of his eyes summing up her clothes, her shoes and the strong curves of the muscles in her legs.

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