Under a blood red sky, p.38

Under a Blood Red Sky, page 38

 

Under a Blood Red Sky
 



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  ‘I know you bring a saddlebag of food home from your factory canteen each day for the Tushkov family.’

  Mikhail said firmly, ‘That would be illegal. The canteen food is meant for the Levitsky workers only.’

  ‘Please be careful, my love,’ Sofia whispered.

  A shout in the street shattered the moment. They heard the sound of boots pounding outside, the growl of a truck engine revving impatiently. Children were bounding up from the school, voices in the street raised in dispute. Rafik and Mikhail hurried to the door.

  Only Sofia remained where she was. She was staring at the white pebble. She touched it and it was ice cold.

  ‘Sofia,’ Rafik demanded harshly behind her. ‘What have you done?’

  Aleksei Fomenko, the Chairman of the Red Arrow kolkhoz, stood in the grip of two burly soldiers outside his house. Around them swarmed the kolkhozniki. News travelled fast in the fields.

  Sofia forced herself to watch. The way the uniformed soldiers manhandled him as though he were dirt. The erect manner with which he carried himself in his check shirt and work trousers as though proud of them, the straight back, the accusing grey eyes that swept the crowd. The black Russian soil ingrained in the leather of his boots. At his feet lay three sacks, each one packed with secret plunder.

  ‘Hoarder!’

  ‘Thief!’

  ‘Filthy scum!’

  ‘You disgusting hypocrite, after all the food you took from us—’

  ‘Liar! All the time you were stealing for yourself.’

  ‘Bastard!’

  A stone flew from a woman’s hand and then another, which hit its target. Sofia could see the blood trickle along Fomenko’s scalp. She made herself watch, but where was the sense of satisfaction she had expected? Why wasn’t she enjoying the gloating and the triumph? This was what she’d wanted, wasn’t it? This was what she’d sworn to do, so why did revenge taste so sour?

  ‘We were all shocked,’ Mikhail said and shook his head, his wet hair scattering water. ‘I’d never have believed it of Fomenko.’

  Sofia was very quiet.

  Mikhail lifted another ladle of water out of the enamel jug and tipped it over the hot stones. Steam rose in a great hiss and he almost lost sight of her.

  They were in his banya, the bath hut at the back of his yard. It was a small dark building constructed of wood with a slatted bench to sit on, a stove, and one tiny window high up to let in a sliver of light. In the hot moist air they had scraped each other’s skin in turn with the veniki, the birch twigs, and in the gloom she had massaged oils into the cuts and bruises that criss-crossed his body, kissing each one with such tenderness that he could barely keep from scooping her into his arms.

  But she wouldn’t let him. All afternoon she’d been subdued. She’d walked away from Rafik after Fomenko’s arrest, but instead of being annoyed the gypsy had seized Mikhail’s arm.

  ‘Go to her, Mikhail. Don’t leave her side.’

  Mikhail had felt a thin trickle of fear.

  ‘What is it? Is she in danger?’

  ‘I see dark shadows gathering around her and . . .’ He stopped.

  ‘And what?’

  Rafik rubbed his eyes hard. ‘Just stay at her side.’

  When Mikhail suggested the banya to Sofia, it had elicited her glorious smile and her blue eyes had lit up with delight.

  ‘As long as I get to clean you and you get to clean me,’ she’d teased.

  ‘Agreed.’

  For a while it had worked. He’d lit the stove and ladled the water over the heated stones until the steam opened every pore in their bodies. He adored the sight and the feel of her body, so vulnerable and yet so strong to touch, and he longed to feed her thick greasy morsels of fat and cheese, to watch soft flesh grow over the hard angles of her bones, to see her small undernourished breasts blossom like sweet-smelling flowers. As they stood entwined together, his hands caressed her slender buttocks and he trailed kisses along the delicate line of her shoulder.

  ‘Sofia, Sofia,’ he whispered over and over.

  She had changed everything for him, transformed his world to somewhere clean and worthwhile. This woman was so different from any other he’d known. But when he placed her on the steam-hazed bench she put a finger to his lips and shook her head.

  ‘Sofia, what is it, my love?’

  She took a deep breath, quivered under his touch, but said firmly, ‘I want us to talk.’

  ‘To talk? Is that all? You frightened me for a moment with your coolness.’ He laughed and sat on the bench beside her. He let just his arm touch hers, no more. ‘So what is it you want to talk about?’

  ‘I want to talk about . . . the Dyuzheyevs.’

  He stopped breathing.

  ‘You know the name?’ she asked.

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘When I asked before, you claimed you didn’t.’

  ‘I lied.’

  ‘Why would you lie about it?’

  ‘Because . . . oh Sofia, I don’t want to think back to those times. They’re . . . over, locked in the past. Nothing can change what happened back then.’

  In the silence that followed in the damp hut, Mikhail had a sudden sense of things slipping away. Just the same as that day so long ago in the snow, when his life slipped out of his icy fingers. Not this time, not again, he refused to let it happen again. He stood up quickly and faced her, and was shocked to see that despite the heat and their passion, her skin was bone white.

  ‘Why are you doing this, Sofia? What are you trying to get out of me? Yes, I knew the Dyuzheyevs. Yes, I saw them die. A day etched into my brain in every detail, however hard I try to forget it. So I’ve answered you. Now leave it, my love, leave it alone. Whatever your connection is with that dreadful day, don’t drag it in here.’

  He dropped to his knees on the wooden floor in front of her. The mound of blonde curls at the base of her stomach was barely a breath away, but he gazed only at her deep blue eyes that looked so wretched.

  ‘Sofia,’ he whispered, ‘my Sofia. Don’t do this.’

  ‘I must.’

  He sat back on his heels and stared up at her.

  ‘I love you, Sofia.’

  ‘I love you, Mikhail.’ Her eyes shimmered in the narrow shaft of light.

  He gently brushed a thread of moisture from her lip. ‘Very well, my sweetest, what is it you want?’

  She didn’t speak. Her throat attempted to swallow but failed, and he waited. Their breathing sounded loud in the silence. Only when she dragged her eyes away from his face towards the small square of daylight outside did the words come.

  ‘Anna Fedorina is still alive.’

  They were dressed and in the house. Mikhail had lit a cigarette but had forgotten it. It burned fitfully in his fingers.

  He was angry. Not with Sofia, but with himself. Something that happened sixteen years ago should not still have this power over him. They’d said little more after Sofia’s announcement.

  ‘Where is she?’ he’d asked.

  ‘In a labour camp in Siberia.’

  He’d sunk his head in his hands and uttered a long moan, but when eventually he looked up, she was gone. He pulled on his clothes and hurried to the house, fearful that she would have left, but no, she was sitting in his chair, face composed, eyes calm. Only her skin was the colour of rain, a strange translucent grey that held no life in it.

  He stood in the middle of the room and stared down at the half-built model of the bridge on the table. ‘It’s the Brooklyn Bridge,’ he said flatly. ‘In America. It spans the East River between New York and Brooklyn.’

  ‘I thought it was the Forth Bridge.’

  ‘No.’ He frowned. Why was he talking about bridges? ‘The Forth Bridge is cantilevered, this one is a suspension bridge.’ He ran a finger along the top of one of the towers, picking out the intricate woodwork. ‘An amazing feat of construction in the 1870s. Fourteen thousand miles of wire holds it together and each cable has a breaking strain of twelve thou
sand tons. Its main span is five hundred metres and . . .’ Slowly he shook his head from side to side. ‘What was I thinking? That one day I could become an engineer again instead of a miserable factory manager? I was a fool.’

  With a sudden jab of anger he hammered his fist down on top of the bridge, bringing it crashing down in a thousand pieces as each miniature girder sprang apart.

  ‘Mikhail!’

  ‘I’ve been living in a dream-world,’ he said sourly and swept the mess on to the floor. ‘I thought that I could rebuild the past, I could create a new family with Pyotr and you and that one day my dedication to the State’s demands would win me the reward of a job that I could love again.’ He placed his foot on one of the replica masonry anchorages lying on the floor and crushed it. ‘No more dreams.’

  ‘Why should knowing that Anna is alive destroy your dreams? Is your life so unbearable without her?’ Her eyes were fierce. ‘She still loves you.’

  ‘Loves me! She should loathe me.’

  ‘Why? Because you never came for her? Don’t worry, she knows you tried. Maria told her when she went to the apartment in Leningrad.’

  ‘She saw Maria?’

  ‘Yes. That was where she was captured. But Maria showed her the name and address you’d written down, so that’s why I came here to Tivil, to find you.’ She paused, her voice briefly unsteady. She studied her hands and tapped the two scarred fingers against her knee as if reminding herself of something. ‘Anna loves you . . . Vasily. She always will, till her dying breath.’

  Mikhail strode across the room, seized her wrists and yanked her to her feet. As he stood there holding her he knew he’d lost her. Something deep inside him started to haemorrhage.

  ‘I’m not Vasily,’ he said coldly.

  He felt her go rigid, but he couldn’t stop now.

  ‘Vasily Dyuzheyev knifed my father to death that winter’s day in 1917 on the Dyuzheyev estate. My father was the soldier in charge of the patrol, but my contribution to the massacre was twice Vasily’s. I shot his mother and I shot Anna Fedorina’s father in cold blood.’ He shook Sofia, shook her hard. ‘Now tell me,’ he demanded, ‘that she loves me. Now tell me . . . that you love me.’

  It took them time, knot by knot, to untangle the truth. Again and again they came back to Maria to discover that she lay at the heart of the confusion. Mikhail was pacing back and forth across the room, hands dragging through his hair, trying to rip his skull apart. He could scarcely bear to look at Sofia. She was hunched in his chair, knees up under her chin, arms wrapped round her shins, eyes dark and impenetrable.

  ‘You say Maria told Anna that Vasily visited her twice. That he wrote down the name Mikhail Pashin with an address in Tivil and the Levitsky factory. But that wasn’t Vasily. That person was me. And according to your talk with Maria’s sister-in-law, the second man was Fomenko. You see, I only went to see her once.’ Mikhail recalled the day. The tiny apartment, stiflingly hot, and the white-haired woman so eager to please and so painfully damaged by the stroke. ‘I had no idea she believed I was Vasily Dyuzheyev. I’d been searching for her for years.’

  ‘Why?’

  Mikhail stopped pacing. ‘Isn’t it obvious? Because I killed the child’s father. I wanted to find Anna Fedorina and do what I could to make amends for what I’d done to her family. I discovered that her mother had died years earlier and that the woman with her was her governess. But . . .’ he spread out his arms in a gesture of despair, ‘both vanished off the face of the earth. It was a time of chaos and disappearances were common. The civil war started and normal life became . . . impossible.’

  ‘Mikhail,’ Sofia asked quietly, ‘how old were you when you shot Svetlana Dyuzheyeva and Doktor Fedorin?’

  ‘Fourteen.’

  ‘Only three years older than Pyotr.’

  Mikhail shuddered. ‘I was so like him at that age. So totally convinced that Bolshevism was the universal truth that would cleanse the world. All else was lies.’

  ‘Tell me what happened.’

  ‘I stood shoulder to shoulder with my father that day and mowed down the idle bourgeoisie like rats in a barrel.’ He turned his back on Sofia. ‘Why torment ourselves? You cannot despise me more than I despise myself for what I did. And the ultimate irony is . . .’ he gave a bitter laugh, ‘that all this time the boy who cut my own father’s throat that day has been living right here beside me in Tivil. Aleksei Fomenko turns out to be Vasily Dyuzheyev under another name.’

  He slumped down in a chair at the table. ‘Neither he nor I recognised each other after all these years, but I hated him anyway for being the kind of person I used to be. And he hated me for having lost my faith. I was a threat. It didn’t matter how many quotas I exceeded at the factory, my mind wasn’t a Bolshevik mind and Fomenko wanted me to relearn the faith. He is a blind idealist.’

  ‘Don’t,’ Sofia said.

  Mikhail looked at her and something wrenched in his chest. She was perched forward on the edge of his big armchair, her hair bright in a splash of sunlight, her eyes huge and sunken in her skull as though they could only look inward.

  ‘Sofia,’ he said gently, ‘until you came into my life I was incapable of loving anyone. I didn’t trust anyone. I despised myself and believed that others would despise me too, so I was wary in relationships. I went through the motions but nothing more. Instead I gave my love to an aircraft or a well-turned piece of machinery or . . .’ he gestured at the mess of wooden struts on the floor.

  ‘And to Pyotr.’

  ‘Yes, and to Pyotr.’ The hard muscles round his mouth softened. ‘When I came to this village six years ago, riding up the muddy street into my exile from Tupolev, and spotted this scrap of a child being tossed into a truck about to be carted off to some godforsaken orphanage, I saw Anna Fedorina in him, as she was on the doorstep all those years before - the same passion, the same fury at the world. So I carried the fierce little runt into my house and I petted and protected him the way I couldn’t protect her. I grew to love him as my own flesh and blood.’

  ‘But you still kept trying to find her.’

  ‘Yes.’ He cleared a space on the table in front of him, making room for his thoughts. ‘One day I did a favour for an officer in OGPU and in return he tracked down Maria for me. But I swear I only went there once, Sofia.’

  Sofia nodded. ‘Maria muddled the two of you up in her head. She even told Irina the wrong names.’ Her words were heavy and lifeless. ‘Both tall with brown hair and grey eyes. She got it . . .’ she clenched her teeth, ‘. . . all wrong.’ Her gaze fixed on his face. ‘Like I did,’ she whispered.

  ‘No matter what happens now, I want you to know I love you and will always love you.’

  She leapt to her feet, shaking her head violently. ‘No, Mikhail. I came here because I swore an oath to Anna. To find Vasily and to destroy the killer of her father if I could. Instead I’ve destroyed Vasily.’

  50

  Sofia begged. It pained Mikhail to see it, this wild independent spirit abasing itself.

  ‘Please, Rafik, please. I implore you.’

  She was on her knees on the wooden floor before the gypsy, clutching his wiry brown hands in her pale ones, her lips pressed to his knuckles, her eyes unwavering on his face.

  ‘Please, Rafik, I beg you to do for Aleksei Fomenko what you did for Mikhail.’

  The gypsy again shook his head. ‘No.’

  The bedroom was small and gloomy. Mikhail found it acutely uncomfortable with six people crowded in. Candles thickened the air they breathed. Standing stiffly beside the bed were Pokrovsky, Elizaveta Lishnikova and the gypsy daughter, Zenia. Not one of them smiled a welcome.

  What the hell was going on here?

  The row of candles on the shelf sent out a twisting, shifting light that coated faces with touches of gold, while above them a giant eye on the ceiling stared down at a crimson cloth spread out on the bed. A white stone lay in the centre of it like a milky eye. Mikhail had the disturbing sense of having ste
pped into another universe, one that sent shivers down his spine. He wanted to laugh at it, to scoff at these grim faces, but something stopped him. That something was Sofia.

  His heart went out to her as she knelt on the floor in supplication.

  ‘Help her, Rafik.’ He let his anger show. ‘You alter reality. Well, you alter hers.’

  ‘No, Mikhail,’ Rafik said, his black eyes intent on Sofia’s face, ‘I don’t alter reality. All I do is alter people’s perception of it.’

  ‘Please,’ Sofia whispered into the silence.

  ‘No.’ It came from Pokrovsky. His huge hands were still blackened from the forge but his presence in the room altered its balance in some important way. The bullet-shaped crown of his shaven head almost touched the eye on the ceiling. Whatever the force was that beamed down from that strange symbol, it made Pokrovsky a different man from the friend Mikhail had many times laughed with over a glass or two of vodka.

  ‘No,’ Pokrovsky repeated.

  ‘No,’ Elizaveta said in her clear precise voice.

  ‘No,’ Zenia echoed.

  The silence shivered. Shadows tilted up and down the lengths of green curtain around the rough-timbered walls and the stone gleamed white on the bed. Sofia dragged a breath through her teeth.

  ‘Why, Rafik?’ she demanded. ‘It was my mistake, not Fomenko’s. I was the one who stole the sacks of food from the secret store in the church and hid them under his bed when he was out in the fields. You know no one locks their doors during the day here in Tivil. I broke that trust and I denounced him to Stirkhov. It wasn’t his dishonesty, Rafik, it was mine, I swear it.’ She pressed her forehead to his hands.

  Rafik stepped back, removing his fingers from her grasp. His slight figure stood stiff and stern.

  ‘Sofia, I will tell you this. Chairman Aleksei Fomenko has taken from Tivil everything that belonged to the village by right and he has left us gaunt and naked. He has stripped the food from the mouths of our children to feed the voracious maw that resides in the Kremlin in Moscow. Above all else on this earth it is my task to protect this village of ours and that’s why I never leave it. If that means protecting it from Aleksei Fomenko at the cost of his life, so be it.’

 
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