Under a Blood Red Sky, page 36
She rose, kissed his mouth, gently soothing it with her tongue, and eased him into the chair. She curled up at his feet with her chin resting on his knee. Her hands began to stroke the calves of his legs, drawing the anger from his muscles, willing her strength into him. The familiar masculine scent of him at last silenced the trembling in her chest.
‘You look wonderful,’ he said and tenderly touched her cheek, as if it were the finest fragile porcelain. His finger traced the line of her lips. ‘You shine.’
She kissed the tip of his finger. ‘I missed you.’
He ruffled her blonde hair and twisted a lock of it round his forefinger as though attaching her to himself. The silence between their words dropped away. He cupped his hand round the back of her head, cradling it.
‘You were with me,’ he whispered, his gaze intent on her face. ‘All the time you were with me.’
‘He’s still asleep.’
It was the second time Mikhail had checked on Pyotr, anxiety for the boy driving him out of his chair despite his exhaustion.
‘He was worried about you,’ Sofia said as she poured out two vodkas and handed one to him when he was settled again. ‘But he’s fine. He’s strong.’
‘Thank you for caring for him.’
‘I did very little except take him to Dagorsk to plead for you. We looked after each other.’
‘Come here, Sofia.’
He held out a hand to her and, when she slipped hers into it, drew her to him on to his lap. He rested his head against hers, holding her so close she could feel the beat of his heart, and slowly the rise and fall of their inhalations and exhalations fell into step until they were breathing as one.
‘Sofia,’ he whispered into her hair, ‘tell me what the hell is going on.’
She was silent.
He lifted a hand and tipped her chin up to look at him, his eyes lingering on her face. ‘You were waiting for me. How did you know I was coming?’
‘I didn’t, not for certain.’
‘Sofia, I was in prison being bounced from interrogation to beating and back to interrogation, over and over, no food, no water, no sleep. I count myself lucky that I hadn’t yet had the Cupboard inflicted on me but—’
‘What’s the Cupboard?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
She kissed the bruised eye. ‘Tell me.’
‘It’s something the other prisoners in my cell whispered about. It’s a space one metre by half a metre and the height of a man. The Cupboard, they call it. The bastards throw you in there with four or five or even six other poor devils crammed together, all unable to move, barely able to breathe. You could be in there hours or even days with no one able to turn or sit. Most suffocate to death in it.’
Sofia buried her face in his neck.
‘I’d have ended up in there if I hadn’t been freed, no doubt of that,’ he said. His voice was savage, but delicately he kissed a tear from her face. ‘Yet suddenly in the middle of the interrogation an OGPU officer marched into the room, waved around a signed release order and I was out on the street in the rain in the middle of the night before I could say Chto za chyort! ’ He knocked back the shot of vodka and shuddered.
He kissed her hair and gently rubbed his cheek over its silky strands. ‘And then I found you waiting for me.’
‘You’re safe,’ she whispered. ‘That’s all that matters.’
‘Sofia, I need to know.’
Tenderly she took his face in her hands. ‘Mikhail, my dearest Mikhail, I honestly don’t know what happened. Your release could have been caused by Rafik - the gypsy has amazing powers to move thoughts - or by . . . someone else. Let’s leave it until tomorrow, my love. You’ve been through enough.’ She brushed her fingers down the line of his smooth straight nose, still wonderfully unbroken, and along the curve of his broad brow.
Mikhail frowned, his dark gaze searching her face. Their eyes held fast on each other until suddenly something deep within him seemed to open, some emotion shaking his strong frame so violently that his limbs trembled under her. He groaned, and Sofia hungrily pressed her lips to his throat. When Mikhail rose from the chair with her in his arms and bore her from the room, she shut her ears to the accusing voice in her head, the one that said she was stealing.
The world had stopped spinning on its axis, Mikhail was sure of it. How else could he have been jerked from one indelible moment of hell to such abundance of perfection? Her naked skin was a pearl. Not like a pearl. It was a pearl. A creamy translucent paleness that somehow glowed from within. It made even the tips of his fingers ache with desire for her.
They lay on his bed, limbs entwined in semi-darkness, with only the faint gleam from the living room’s kerosene lamp creeping into the room, where it lay like a dog on the rag-rug. Mikhail didn’t want Sofia to see his own body. It was a mess, covered in bruises and cuts and black swellings. It disgusted him, so what would it do for her? He had always taken a certain pride in his body, in its strength and its invincibility. He’d always been able to depend on it, but now his rage at those who had caused such damage to it and humiliation to him in the name of justice writhed snake-like in his guts.
She seemed to sense it. Her hand slid tentatively to his stomach where it started to circle, gently at first, then firmer, harder, fingers splayed out. He could feel the heat build up under them, see a delicate vein pulsing at her temple as she leaned close. She was driving the hate out of his body.
His lips seized hers and his hand cradled her naked breast, small and firm and perfect in his palm. She moaned, a soft, sobbing sound. His fingers teased, stroked and explored each delicate rise and fall of her undernourished body, the angular edge of her hip bone and the fall of her silken stomach down to the dense mound of blonde curls. He inhaled the exquisite scent of her, breathing it deep into himself.
His lips caressed her eyes, her ears, the tempting hollow of her throat while his fingers searched out the moist secret places that brought forth whimpers of desire from her open mouth. His lips kissed that mouth. He adored the way she growled low in her throat when he rippled his fingers down the soft inside of her thigh and the way her whole body shuddered when he took her erect nipple in his mouth. She tasted of the forest, a clean wild creature. Not dirty like himself. However hard he’d scrubbed himself with the brush in the yard tonight, he still felt the dirt of the cells and the beatings lodged under the layers of his skin.
It was as if she could see the thoughts form in his head.
‘My beloved,’ she crooned, pressing him back on to the pillow.
She trailed her tongue up his cheek, then down the other. Its pliant warmth seemed to envelop him, soft and enticing, as it flicked across his forehead and along the line of his nose, a touch on his lips and a nudge on his teeth and down to his chin. He knew what she was doing and his heart melted. She was cleansing him.
Her breath was coming fast as she lowered her head to his chest. He gasped when her tongue flicked out once more as slowly, sensuously, in unbearable circles, she started to lick the beatings and the humiliations out of his body. He buried his hands in her hair, squeezing it tight in his fists. He let out a howl that tore everything out of him but his feelings for this woman.
‘I love you, Sofia.’
Their words were hoarse with need. Her skin exuded a musk that swept through his blood, as her skin became his skin. Her blood became his blood. When he lay above the length of her shining pearl body he held himself back, lovingly brushed a tangle of hair from her face and looked close into her huge wild eyes.
‘Sofia, sweetest heart,’ he murmured, ‘Sofia, is this . . .?’
Her lips opened in spasm and her face turned away from his. ‘Is this my first time?’ she moaned.
‘If it is, I—’
‘No, Mikhail. Don’t worry, this isn’t my first time.’
The bitterness in her voice was harsh. Gently he turned her face back to him and kissed her lips, soothing, mur
‘We’ll make this the first time, my love,’ he breathed into her mouth. ‘For both of us.’
‘This is as it should be.’
Sofia whispered the words to the darkness. No brutal fumbling behind a shed in the rain, no careless ripping open of her flesh as though she were dead meat. This is as it should be. A glorious outburst of joy that transformed her body into something wonderful and vibrant, something she barely recognised. She brushed her lips on Mikhail’s wrist, tasting his skin once more.
‘This is as it should be,’ she whispered.
She sighed, unable to make herself leave him. The kerosene lamp in the living room had burned out so that the night’s darkness was complete, denser now as dawn approached. She knew she had to move. But instead she nestled closer in the crook of Mikhail’s arm, rubbing her skin against his, feeling the warmth of him as he slept wrapped around her. She loved the weight of his body against hers. She listened to the rhythm of his breathing and wished sweet dreams into whatever life he was leading behind his flickering eyelids.
Her mind shut down to all else. Everything that was not love ceased to exist and, even though she knew for certain there would be a heavy price to pay, right now the price seemed nothing. Nothing. She slid a hand possessively down the length of his thigh and heard his breathing pick up as if she had slid into his dream. Her fingers sought out the bruised swelling on the side of his leg that throbbed hot as a reminder of where he had been and what had been done to him. It was all she needed. Anger drove her from his bed where love could not.
She dressed quickly and quietly, then drank the shot of vodka she had abandoned on the table last night. But before she left the house to step out into the early morning darkness, she returned soundlessly to Mikhail’s bedside and bent over his sleeping form. So lightly it was barely a kiss, she brushed her lips against his forehead. Even in the dark she knew his mouth had curled into a smile as he slept.
She longed to keep him like this, hers for ever, hers alone, to love and to cherish. To live a whole life together till they were old and grey and could look back on these days with laughter and say that magical phrase Do you remember when . . .? Why not? She could. He loved her, he’d said so. Her heart tightened painfully in her chest. She could. It would be so easy to say nothing and start a new life here and now with Mikhail.
Oh Anna, I can’t.
Slowly she straightened up, her bones heavy and cumbersome, lifeless things that were no use to her without his touch on them, without his kisses on them, without his arms crushing them. She stepped back from the bed and tears filled her eyes. She turned away and from her pocket drew the key Pyotr had made for her.
Today everything would change.
Pyotr heard movement in the house. It woke him but he buried his face in his pillow, refusing to wake up. What was happening to him and to his world? It felt as if the foundations were cracking under his feet and it terrified him. He tried to drive himself back into the comfort of his dream but it was no good, the dream was out of reach. Like Papa.
The noise of a saucepan banging on the stove in the kitchen reached his ears and his heart gave a little skip behind his ribs. Sofia was still here. That cheered him and he jumped out of bed. She’d know what he should do, she’d help him . . . but Sofia was a fugitive. She’d actually confessed to him that she’d escaped from prison, so by helping her he was making himself an Enemy of the People.
That thought made him feel dizzy.
Is that how Comrade Stalin felt last year when his wife, Nadyezhda Allilueva, shot herself inside the Kremlin? Sick and uncertain? How much did love weigh in the balance against the words of the Great Leader? He kicked a shoe across his tiny room in an outburst of anger. Most of all it frightened him to think what might be happening to Papa. In a rush to escape his thoughts he hurried out of his room.
The figure at the table rose slowly from the chair, the movement awkward and ungainly, not like his father at all. Not quick and confident like Papa. Yet they were Papa’s strong shoulders and it was Papa’s voice calling his name.
Pyotr threw himself into his father’s open arms and together they tumbled back into the chair where the boy clung tight and hid his face in his father’s shirt. He was crying like a girl and didn’t want Papa to see.
‘Pyotr, my son.’
Something in his voice made Pyotr look up. Papa’s cheeks were wet with tears.
‘An unanticipated pleasure, my dear. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.’
Deputy Stirkhov exhaled a grey snake of smoke that coiled round the room as he waved Sofia into a chair in his gleaming chrome office. A vodka bottle sat on his desk without its lid. It was half empty but the glass beside it was full.
Sofia slid on to the leather seat in front of the desk. ‘You underestimate me,’ she smiled.
‘You have information for me?’
‘Of course. It’s what you paid me for. Didn’t I promise it?’
A satisfied smile split his smooth moon face in half. ‘Not everyone does what they promise in this world.’
‘I do. If you think otherwise, you don’t know me.’
‘I intend to get to know you much better,’ he said smoothly and reached into his desk drawer. He drew out another shot glass, filled it and pushed it across to her. The glass had Lapland reindeer etched on its surface.
‘Thank you,’ she said, but didn’t pick it up.
She felt his gaze on her blouse. It was one of Zenia’s, of homespun cloth, a dusky rose-pink with embroidered woodland flowers on the collar and cuffs.
‘I am informed that a member of your village is in prison right now.’ He seemed to be talking to her breasts.
‘If you mean Comrade Pashin, he has been released.’
His eyes shot up to hers. ‘Indeed? When?’
‘That’s a shame, I was sure they’d hold on to our wayward factory director. Dagorsk is better off without the likes of him.’
‘Because he’s a troublemaker. Oh yes, I grant that he knows his stuff as an engineer and has shaken up those lazy imbeciles who work in his factory, but he’s one of those arrogant bastards who think they know better than the Party line.’ He leaned forward on his elbows and pointed a manicured finger at her. ‘That one is not a man of the people like he pretends. He’s hiding something, I’m certain. I tell you I can feel it in my piss every time I see him. Just wait,’ he threw the vodka down his throat and stubbed out his cigarette, still jabbing at it long after the butt was out, ‘he’ll trip himself up one day and I’ll be there to catch him.’
Sofia scooped up her drink from the desk. For a split second Stirkhov’s eyes widened as though he believed she was going to throw it in his face, but instead she raised her glass to the portrait of Stalin and drank it straight down. She made a soft noise in the back of her throat that was almost a hiss, then she smiled at Stirkhov.
‘How perceptive you are, Comrade Deputy.’
‘And how very beautiful you are, Comrade Morozova.’
She let her eyelashes flutter and put a hand to her throat, as though to still the sudden race of her heart. ‘I’m glad we understand each other,’ she smiled. ‘Now we can do business.’
‘So what’s this information you’ve brought me from Tivil? A kolkhoznik been late to work, has he? Or did one of your hamfisted peasants get into a drunken brawl and is now being denounced for singing obscene words to the tune of the Internationale?’
‘No, nothing like that.’
‘Someone in Tivil is hoarding, and I mean large quantities of potatoes, swede and grain.’
It was like throwing a grenade. In her mind she heard the explosion rip through the quiet smoke-filled office. Comrade Stirkhov’s mouth hung open.
Sofia raced back to Tivil. The morning sky was a vivid splash of blue and a handful of crows hung on the breeze, barely dipping their wings. The street was noisy when she reached the village - two women and a gaggle of girls were trying to wash a goat under the water pump and the animal was putting up a struggle. Its bristly white coat was caked in mud from the pond and the children were shrieking with laughter each time it butted their skinny chests. Sofia paused, observing the scene, memorising it, savouring the ordinariness of it. From now on, nothing would be ordinary.
She headed over to the school, where summer camp was still in full progress. The yard was bustling with crisp white Young Pioneer shirts and shining bright eyes, little bodies all racing around and performing perfect cartwheels. Yes, she thought, Zenia was right. These children are the future of Tivil. It astonished Sofia to realise how much she cared. This village had in some strange way nestled tight against her heart.
‘Have you come to read to us?’
It was Anastasia, swinging on the fence with her feet bare, a tendril of hair threaded between her lips.
‘No, not today, Anastasia. Another time, I promise. I need to speak to your head teacher - will you do me a favour and tell her I’m here?’
At that moment she spotted Pyotr’s unruly mop of brown hair. He was over in the shade of a clump of alder trees, obviously demonstrating to a circle of younger boys how to build a cantilever bridge with logs and planks. It looked an elaborate construction to Sofia’s untutored eye and when a child leapt on to the central span and bounced up and down on it, she held her breath. But it didn’t collapse and she felt an absurd rush of pride in him. Anastasia’s eager eyes followed Sofia’s to Pyotr and her small chest heaved in a silent sigh. Then she skipped off to the stretch of parched grass where Elizaveta Lishnikova was timing races with a large stopwatch.