Pyotr liked the meetings. He loved to sit right at the front of the assembly hall, under the nose of the speaker. Every week he arrived early with his Young Pioneer shirt freshly ironed by himself, knees and hands scrubbed clean, hair slicked down into temporary submission. His eyes, like his cheeks, were shining.
‘Dobriy vecher. Good evening, Pyotr.’
A large figure with a smooth shaven head and a spade-shaped black beard took the place next to him. The boy felt the bench sag beneath the man’s weight and heard its groan of protest.
‘Dobriy vecher, Comrade Pokrovsky.’
The blacksmith, too, invariably selected the front bench at these weekly meetings but for quite different reasons from Pyotr’s. Pokrovsky liked to question the speaker.
‘Your father not here again, Pyotr?’
‘Nyet. He’s working late. At the factory.’
‘Hah! Tell me an evening that he’s not working late when there’s a meeting going on here.’
Pyotr felt his cheeks flush red. ‘No, honestly, he’s busy. Producing army uniforms, an important order. Directly from Moscow. He’s been told to keep the factory working twenty-four hours a day if necessary because what he does is so important. Clothing our brave soldiers.’
‘Proudly spoken, boy.’
Pokrovsky grinned at him. The black bush covering his mouth parted to reveal large white teeth, and it seemed to Pyotr that the blacksmith looked impressed. That made him feel less sick about his father’s absence.
‘It’s important work,’ the boy said again and then feared he was insisting too much, so shut up.
But his mood was spoiled. He slumped back on the bench and wished his friend Yuri would arrive. He stared moodily around at the plain walls that had once been covered in colourful murals of Christ and the disciples; at the remains of the ornate icons on the pillars, though most of the carving and decoration had been hacked off, leaving behind jagged edges. All the religious images had been white-washed into a clean and bland uniformity. This pleased Pyotr. As did the metal table set up on a low platform in front of him where the gilt altar had once stood, and the two sturdy chairs that waited for the speakers under the poster of the Great Leader himself. Beside it hung another, a bright red poster declaring, Smert Vragam Sovietskogo Naroda. Death to the Enemies of Soviet People.
This was as it should be. Plain. Real. For the people. Just like Father Stalin had promised. Pyotr and Yuri had read all the pamphlets, learned the Party slogans by heart and Yuri kept telling him that this new world was for them. Pyotr so wanted to believe him, he really did, but sometimes a little worm of doubt wriggled through the slogans, making holes in his certainty. Today, though, the warmth of comradeship swept through his young blood – he could feel it in the hall among the constant murmur of voices.
He looked behind him to where the benches were filling up. Most of the villagers were still in their work clothes of coarse blue cotton, though some of the younger women had discarded their dusty headscarves and changed into colourful blouses that stood out in the drab crowd. The gypsy girl was one. Her scarlet blouse with little puff sleeves looked dramatic against her long black curls, but she kept her eyes lowered and her hands quietly resting in her lap, as if she were still in a church. Pyotr always had the feeling she didn’t quite belong in the village, though he wasn’t sure why.
‘Privet, Pyotr. Hello.’
It was Yuri. He arrived in a scramble of long limbs and squeezed himself in next to Pyotr at the end of the bench, immaculate in his white Young Pioneer shirt and red neckerchief. Only then did Pyotr notice that his own ironing efforts weren’t nearly as effective as Yuri’s mother’s.
‘Have you heard?’ Yuri bent his ginger head to Pyotr’s. He was always one to know the latest news.
‘That Stirkhov is coming to address us tonight.’
Pyotr’s chest tightened just for a second. ‘Why? What have we done?’
‘Don’t be stupid. It’s an honour for us to have the Deputy Chairman of the whole district here.’
‘No, Yuri, Stirkhov only ever comes to Tivil to complain.’
The bulky figure of Pokrovsky leaned close, so close Pyotr could see where the black bristly hairs of his neatly trimmed beard were beginning to turn white in places.
‘This time,’ the blacksmith said, fixing them with his dark eyes, ‘the bastard is probably checking up on people who don’t attend these meetings.’
Even Yuri could not suppress a shiver. His father attended diligently but his mother always claimed she was too ill. Pyotr thought of his own father and felt that horrible tightness in his chest again.
‘You wait and see, Pokrovsky,’ he blurted out. ‘Papa is soon to be awarded the decoration Hero of Labour First Class for his work for the Soviet State.’
Pokrovsky slapped a hand down on Pyotr’s fragile shoulder and roared with laughter, so loud that others in their row turned and stared.
‘May God forgive you, boy, for telling such lies in His church.’