Mikhail’s office was dark. Its small window let in a square patch of sunlight that was now sliding across the floorboards towards the door, as if trying to escape. He was often tempted to relocate to an office in the bright new extension he’d had built alongside the old factory, but always changed his mind at the last moment because he knew he needed to be here, overlooking the factory floor, visible to his workers each time they raised their heads from their machines. It discouraged malingering.
His office was up a flight of stairs that led off the vast expanse of the factory floor, so the incessant rattle and clatter of the bobbing needles were as much a part of his worklife as breathing. Nothing more than a wall of glass divided him from his workforce, which meant he could look down on the rows of hundreds of sewing machines and check the smooth running of his production line at a glance. He’d installed modern cutting machines in the extension but in here the machines were so old and temperamental that they needed constant attention, damn them. He had to watch them like a hawk because spare parts were like gold dust and the girls at the machines weren’t always as careful as they should be.
He stood looking out at them now, hands in his pockets, feeling restless and unable to concentrate. On his desk a stack of forms, permissions, orders and import licences awaited his signature but this morning he could summon up no interest in them. He loosened his tie and rolled up the white sleeves of his shirt. She’d unsettled him with her lies. With the challenge in her eyes, as though daring him to do something but refusing to say what it was.
He laughed out loud. At himself and at her. Whatever it was that Sofia Morozova was up to, he was glad she’d arrived in Tivil like a creature from the forest, wild and unpredictable. She made his blood flow faster. In some indefinable way she had altered the balance in his mind, so that he was left with the feeling that he was flying high in the air once more. He gave another laugh but then frowned and lit himself a cigarette, trying to breathe her in with the smoke. All kinds of memories were stirring, ones he’d thought were dead and buried but now were coming to life. They picked and prodded and chipped away at him so that he ached all over. What was it about Sofia that had set this off? Just because she was fair-haired and blue-eyed and had a fiery spirit like…?
No. He slammed the door shut on it all and firmly turned the key. What good did looking back do? None at all. He drew hard on his cigarette and exhaled over the glass, fogging it with smoke so that the women and their machines became an indistinct blur. He tried to imagine Sofia down there, working all day at one of the benches, but he couldn’t. It twisted his brain into shapes it refused to settle in. Sofia was a skylark, like himself. Too much of an individual in a country where individuality and initiative were stamped on by the relentless boot of the State. Conform or die. Simple.
A knock on the door distracted him.
‘Come in,’ he said but didn’t turn. It would be his assistant, Sukov, with yet another pile of endless paperwork for his attention.
‘Comrade Direktor, you have a visitor.’
Mikhail sighed. The last thing he wanted right now was an ignorant official from Raikom breathing down his neck, or a union inspector looking for trouble.
‘Tell the bastard I’m out.’
An awkward pause.
‘Tell the Comrade Direktor this bastard can see he’s in.’
It was Sofia. Slowly, savouring the moment, he turned to face her. She was standing just behind his assistant, eyes amused, breathing fast as though she’d been running and, even in her drab clothes, she made the office instantly brighter.
‘Comrade Morozova, my apologies,’ he said courteously. ‘Please take a seat. Sukov, bring some tea for my visitor.’
Sukov rolled his eyes suggestively, the impertinent wretch, but remembered to close the door after him. Instead of sitting, Sofia walked over to stand beside Mikhail at the glass wall and stared with interest at the machinists at work below. Her shoulder was only a finger’s width away from his arm. A faint layer of brick dust lay down the side of her skirt and on the angular bone of her elbow where she’d nudged against something. It made her look vulnerable and he had to stop himself from brushing it off.
‘A pleasure to see you again so soon – and so unexpectedly.’ He smiled and gave her a formal little nod. ‘To what do I owe this treat?’
She gave him a sideways glance, raising an eyebrow at his ironic tone, but instead of answering she tapped the glass with one finger.
‘The worker ants,’ she murmured.
‘They work hard, if that’s what you mean.’ He paused, studying the way her skin whitened under the curve of her jaw. ‘Would you really want to be one of them?’
She nodded. ‘It’s money.’ Abruptly she swung round to face him. ‘It’s very noisy in here.’
‘You mean you don’t notice?’
He shook his head. ‘I’m used to it. It’s quieter here than down there in the sewing room. I issue earplugs but half the women don’t bother to wear them.’
She looked out at the hundreds of heads bent over the machines. ‘What nimble fingers they have.’
‘They have to work fast to meet their quotas.’
‘Of course, the quotas.’
‘The curse of Russia,’ he said and touched her shoulder, just on the spot where a tear in her blouse was mended with tiny neat stitches.
She didn’t draw away. ‘It looks to me,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘as though the machines are working the women rather than the other way round.’
‘That is Stalin’s intention. No people, just machines that do what they’re told.’
‘Mikhail!’ Sofia hissed sharply and glanced towards the door. In a low whisper she warned, ‘Don’t talk so.’ Her eyes met his. ‘Please.’
The door opened and they stepped apart. Sukov entered with a tray that he set down on the desk with a show of attention that made Mikhail want to laugh. He was a pale-skinned young man with tight blond curls, who usually made a point of resenting any menial task now that Mikhail had elevated him from the tedium of quality control to Direktor’s Assistant. But he was well in with the Union Leaders and knew how to keep them off Mikhail’s back, so Mikhail tolerated his idiosyncrasies. He was astonished to see two pechenki on a china plate. Where on earth had Sukov found biscuits? A backhander from somewhere, no doubt. Mikhail would remember that.
‘Spasibo,’ Mikhail said pointedly.
Sukov rolled his eyes once more and tiptoed out of the room.
‘I apologise,’ Mikhail laughed as they settled down opposite each other at the desk, ‘for my assistant’s excessive discretion.’
‘Well, he must think it’s your lucky day. First one female visitor and now another.’
She said it with eyes sparkling, deliberately provoking him, but he wasn’t blind.
‘If you mean Lilya, she walked with me to the factory gates, that’s all.’ He picked up one of the glasses of tea in its podstakanik, a metal holder, noticed it had a picture of the Kremlin on it, swapped it for the other one with a picture of Lake Baikal and presented it to her. ‘She’s in need of a job.’
He offered her the plate with the two biscuits. She took one.
‘No,’ he said, ‘she’s not like you. Not at all like you.’
She bit into her biscuit, a crisp sharp snap.
‘Shall I tell you a joke?’ she asked.
Her words made him almost choke on his tea in surprise. ‘Go ahead.’
She leaned forward, eyes bright. ‘Two men meet in the street and one says to the other, “How are you?” “Oh, like Lenin in his mausoleum,” comes the reply. The first man cannot work it out. “What do you mean? Why like Lenin?” The second man shrugs. “Because they neither feed us nor bury us.”’
Mikhail threw his head back and roared with laughter. ‘That is very black. I like it.’
She was grinning at him. ‘I knew you would. But don’t tell it to anyone else because they may not see it quite the way we do. Promise me.’
‘Is that what we Russians are reduced to? Neither dead nor alive?’
‘I’m alive,’ she said. ‘Look.’ She put down her tea on the desk, raised her arms above her head and performed a strange kind of snake dance with them in the air. ‘See? I move, I drink.’ She sipped her tea. ‘I eat.’ She popped the rest of the biscuit into her mouth. ‘I’m alive.’ But her blue eyes slowly darkened as she looked at him across the desk and said softly, ‘I’m not dead.’
It was as if an electric shock hit him. Abruptly he stood up. ‘Sofia, let’s get out of here.’
His hands almost fitted round her waist as he swung her up on to the rusty iron perch of the freight wagon. She was so light he thought she might take flight in the clear bright air.
‘It’s a good view from here,’ she said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she gazed out across the drab muddy waters of the River Tiva.
‘And from here.’ Mikhail was still standing among the weeds and dirt of the disused railway siding, looking up at her face.
She smiled. Was she blushing? Or was it just the breeze from the river tickling her skin? It wasn’t much of a place to bring her to but there was nowhere else, nowhere private anyway. He’d walked her past a string of warehouses, down to the railway line that tracked along the river to the point where the rails forked into this forgotten siding. Screened by scrub and trees, it was used as a graveyard for abandoned freight wagons. He chose one without sides, tossed a stone at a sharp-faced rat that was sunning itself on what remained of the wooden planking and lifted her on to it.
He leapt up easily and sat beside her, legs draped over the edge. He noticed her shoes were new and finely stitched, and when she bent to brush dust off them he saw again the white scars on two of her fingers and wondered how they came to be there. He felt an absurd desire to touch their shiny, vulnerable surface. Somewhere out of sight the sound of a train wheezing its way into the station reminded him that a large consignment of army uniforms had to be freighted out today. He should be overseeing to ensure there were no slip-ups.
‘To hell with it,’ he said.
‘To hell with what?’
Her gaze left the river and studied his face. Her eyelashes were long, catching the sunlight and even paler than her hair. ‘Tell me what you mean.’
‘I mean Russia. This Motherland of ours has become a crucible and we’re all caught in it. Men and morals of every kind are being melted down and reshaped. No one can stay the way they were.’ He looked at her fragile bone structure and wondered what kind of steel held it together. ‘We all have to re-form ourselves.’
‘I’ve tried.’ He tossed a stone in a high arc towards the river in front of them, which was dragging itself northward, brown and lifeless, its surface filmy with white-flecked pollution pumped from the waste pipes of Dagorsk’s factories straight into its waters. A merchant ship, heavy with rust, steamed downstream, sending a wash of ripples behind it that spread, like fear spreads, with a whisper and a murmur, stirring up mud from below. ‘But right now, I’m not interested in changing anything. Least of all you.’
A smile flickered to her lips but she looked away as if to keep it secret.
‘Sofia, look at me.’
She turned back to him, shyly.
‘Why did you come to my office today?’ he asked.
‘Because there’s something I want to ask you.’
‘Ask away.’ He said it easily but he felt a part of himself tighten.
‘Are you proud of your father? Of what he did?’
Mikhail had a sense of scaffolding falling away, leaving him unsupported, balanced precariously on a ledge.
‘Isn’t every son proud of his father deep in his heart?’ he responded in the same light tone but it sounded unconvincing, even to himself.
‘Why do you ask such a question?’
She looked at him with that odd directness of hers, head tilted to one side, pinning him down, and then suddenly she smiled her widest smile and let him go.
‘I wondered what kind of relationship you had with your father,’ she said softly, ‘because you obviously love Pyotr very much. He’s a fine boy. I know people are reluctant to talk about the past these days because it’s so dangerous but… I just wondered, that’s all.’
Mikhail knew there was more to it but had no wish to push her in that direction. Besides, to talk of his son gave him pleasure. ‘Pyotr and I are too alike. I see so much of myself at that age in the boy. That unshakeable belief that you can mend the world. It’s enviable in some ways because it gives your life a rigid structure. Like the model bridge that I’m building, each girder firm and inflexible. Except believers’ girders come from blueprints laid down by someone else, by Lenin or Stalin or God or Mohammed. It doesn’t come from within.’
‘So you no longer think you can mend the world?’
‘No, I leave the world to take care of itself. I have no more interest in saving it.’
She let her gaze drift with the river. ‘All right, so you cannot save the world. But would you save a person? One individual?’
This was the question. He could feel it, as though a wheel had started to turn. Although she asked it casually, this was the question that had brought her to his office, he was certain. Would he save an individual?
‘Save them from what?’
‘That’s a big question.’
On her lap her fingers twisted round each other and Mikhail couldn’t take his eyes off their imperfections in her otherwise perfect flesh. He felt if he stared hard enough he would read in them what it was that was driving their owner. The fingers were long but broad at the tips, the nails short and pale as pearls except for the two on her right hand. They looked accustomed to hard labour. Farm work? Or was it something worse? Why had she never heard of the Shakhty trial? Was it because she’d been dragging trucks down deep mines or carting rocks out of the earth like a pack-animal?
Hell on earth, that’s what the labour camps were, everyone knew it and whispered it in secret corners. People committed suicide every day of the week rather than be sent to that kind of slow death. But how could this fragile creature have survived it with her spirit still so warm and so intact? Where was the bitterness and the anger that turned prisoners into hollow husks, unrecognisable to their families? Surely she couldn’t be one of them. He must be mistaken.
She was waiting for his answer, not looking at him.
‘Would I save an individual? That would depend,’ he said very deliberately, ‘on the person. But yes, if it were the right person I would try.’
She lifted her hands to her mouth but not before he’d seen her lips tremble. The sight of that weakness, that momentary dropping of her guard, touched him deeply.
‘That’s a big answer,’ she whispered.
Mikhail reached out and took one of her scarred hands in his, wrapped his own large hands around it to keep it safe.
‘Why?’ she murmured.
‘It’s just the way I see things,’ he said, stroking one of her damaged fingers with the tip of his thumb. He could feel the ridges on it. ‘Someone has to fight back.’
‘But you said you have no interest any more in changing the world.’
‘Not the world, but maybe my small corner of it. I’m no good at following another man’s orders, especially when that man is Josef Stalin.’
Sofia gasped and glanced quickly round their sleepy sunlit corner. ‘Don’t, Mikhail.’
He looked at her gravely. ‘I’m not easy to control, Sofia. Ask Tupolev at the aircraft factory, ask Deputy Chairman Stirkhov here in Dagorsk, they’ll all tell you how difficult I am.’
He lifted her hand and brushed his lips along the back of it, feeling the pulse of her blood. She watched him intently as he spoke.
‘When you let yourself become an impersonal cog in the vast machine that is the State, it’s all too easy to forget that you are a person and you do things you later regret. But I’m Mikhail Pashin. Nothing can alter that.’
‘Mikhail Pashin,’ she echoed. ‘Does the name Dyuzheyev mean anything to you?’
The word came out too fast. Her shoulder, slender in the colourless little blouse, leaned against his and he could feel the heat of her seeping into his flesh.
‘I’ve seen people, Mikhail, who have been robbed of who they were. By Stalin and his believers.’ Her voice was no more than a murmur. ‘Don’t underestimate what they can do to you.’
He touched one of the scars on her fingers. ‘Is this what they did to you?’
Their eyes held and it was as though she threw wide the doors inside herself and let him in. She opened her mouth to speak again but a noise caught his ear, the scrape of something hard on metal.
‘Shh,’ Mikhail murmured and placed a finger over her lips.
Her eyes widened, growing wary, but she made no sound as he slipped off the flatbed and lifted her down. They stood still, both listening. After a moment he pointed silently to a covered freight wagon a few metres behind them. Its rusty rear wheels were dislodged off the rails, enmeshed in weeds and blackened chunks of planking that had rotted off the wagon and fallen to earth.
Sofia nodded. She took a breath and stretched up on tiptoe so that her mouth was close to his ear. ‘It’s not safe to-’
Noise exploded around them as the chilling crunch of a squad of army boots quick marched into the quiet of their haven. A magpie lifted into the air with a raucous cry of alarm that sent a pair of pigeons clattering up out of their dust-bath into the trees. Twelve soldiers poured into the siding, driving out the privacy of moments ago, and swarmed over the four box wagons that sat lethargically in the sunshine. After a brief glance the officer ignored Mikhail and Sofia, but from one wagon there rose a shout of terror.
A man came hurtling out of it. Mikhail felt Sofia’s body tense. The man had a dense grey beard and was dressed in black, but something flashed on his chest as he tore past the flatbed, something golden that caught the sun and betrayed him. It was a crucifix. In his hand was a studded bible, clutched fiercely as he ran.
‘Mikhail!’ Sofia cried, heading into the path of the pursuing uniforms.
Instantly Mikhail seized her, dragged her back into his arms and kissed her hard. She struggled and lashed out but he didn’t release her, his arms holding her rigidly against him. He felt the thin material of her blouse tear a fraction at the back as he fought to keep her still, bending her head back, his lips crushing hers.
The soldiers shouted to one another as they raced past the embracing couple but they did not break their stride. A moment later came the crack of a rifle shot and a scream of pain. Sofia froze in Mikhail’s arms. Still his mouth was on hers, his teeth touching hers, silencing her, but her blue eyes were huge with anger. He could feel the sparks from them on the skin of his face.
He wanted to shake her, to rattle those eyes until they could see straight. Instead he eased the pressure of his grip on the flesh of her shoulder so she wouldn’t bruise. He was aware of her hip bone cutting into his stomach, her breasts tight against his chest. Another rifle shot. A shout of triumph. Then the splash of water as a body hit the river’s slick surface and was swallowed into the filth beneath.
Sofia shut her eyes and her body went limp. Mikhail held her on her feet, his arms still around her but gently now. His lips released hers and she buried her face in his shoulder.
‘You did nothing,’ she moaned.
‘I kept you from getting us both killed,’ he said sharply into her hair. ‘An informer had already signed that man’s death warrant. ’
The soldiers marched back out the way they’d come, indifferent to the lovers, and immediately the pigeons settled down in the dust again, strutting with curiosity round the fluttering wafer-thin pages of the bible where it lay in the dirt.
‘You didn’t even attempt to save that man from death,’ Sofia accused him.
‘I told you. Only for the right person.’
He could hear her breathing, fast and furious. They stood like that for a long while in silence, letting the tremors pass, feeling the heat of their bodies together drive out the chill of death that had invaded the air they breathed and the ground they stood on. Her hair felt soft as down on his cheek and smelled of sunlight, while somewhere unseen another train growled its way towards Dagorsk station.
Gently, as if he might break her, Mikhail lifted her head off his shoulder and drew back so he could look at her face, but he didn’t release his hold on her. Her limbs felt fragile, thin as kindling sticks, yet her eyes burned. He took her face in his hands, slowly studied the fine lines of her full lips, the tilt of her eyebrows and the delicate flare of her nostrils, and felt something come alive deep within himself that he’d thought was dead for ever. He recognised it instantly. It was trust. Long ago he’d learned to exist without it, each day, each month, each year, dimly aware of the dull ache of loss, but suddenly here in this unlikely place it had leapt back to life. Bright and gleaming, polished to perfection, like a newly minted rouble. He wanted to shout with joy to the skies. Because without trust it was impossible to love.
Softly, frightened that this magical creature in his arms might vanish before his eyes, he kissed her mouth. It tasted of sugar from the biscuit earlier and of something else that he couldn’t place. Her lips parted and a faint moan escaped as her body melted against his. His hands caressed the long line of her spine, fingers exploring each bone of it, gentling the muscles of her back, sliding hungrily down to her narrow waist. Her arms twined round his neck with an urgency that set his blood racing, her mouth opened to his probing tongue and the sweet taste of her flooded his senses. He neither saw nor felt anything but Sofia in his arms.
A young soldier was facing them across the dusty platform of the flatbed wagon. Patches of sweat darkened the khaki material under his arms, a rifle bristled in his hand.
‘Stand apart,’ he repeated and took aim at Mikhail’s head.
‘Do nothing foolish,’ Mikhail murmured to Sofia as he stepped back from her, one step, no more. ‘We’re doing no harm here,’ he said reasonably to the soldier.
‘You were loitering near an Enemy of the People, that superstitious propagandist of bourgeois ideas we hunted out of the wagon.’ The soldier’s face was thin, his brown eyes single-minded, one of Stalin’s believers. ‘I requested permission to come back to make sure you are not subversive members of his religious cell.’ He swung the rifle barrel from one to the other and back again.
‘Comrade,’ Mikhail said, easing himself forward so that he stood partly in front of Sofia, ‘we know nothing about the man in hiding here. We’d never seen him before and had no idea he was in the wagon.’
‘Show me your papers, the pair of you.’
Mikhail felt rather than saw Sofia flinch. It was fleeting but unmistakable. Her eyes sought his and told him all he needed to know. He smiled at the young soldier. ‘Certainly, comrade,’ he said easily and started to walk round the flatbed, his shadow staying behind with Sofia as though reluctant to leave. ‘I am direktor of the Levitsky factory and here are my dokumenti.’
He was within touching distance of the soldier now, could see the beads of sweat on the young man’s upper lip. The rifle was still pointing at him.
‘Here,’ he said and from his trouser pocket he withdrew a packet of cigarettes along with a lighter and his identity papers, at the same time nodding casually towards Sofia as if she were nothing. ‘The girl’s husband works for me, so I’d appreciate it very much if you’d just leave her out of this.’ He gave a shrug. ‘You’re a man of the world, comrade, you understand how these things work. She amuses me today but her husband is a valued engineer and I couldn’t afford to lose him just because he got wind of my… well, let’s call it a dalliance with his wife.’ He laughed and offered a cigarette.
The soldier took one and accepted a light. ‘I see,’ he said, removing another cigarette, which he slipped behind his ear. He twisted his mouth into a leer at Sofia and shook his head dismissively. ‘Not to my taste,’ he said with a sneer, exhaling smoke. ‘Not enough flesh on her and breasts like peas. I like something I can grab by the handful.’
You can grab my fist by the handful in your bloody mouth, you bastard.
But Mikhail kept his fist at his side and handed over his papers instead. He drew on his cigarette and glanced across at Sofia who looked poised to run. He gave a small shake of his head. He saw the soldier’s eyes glint greedily as he opened the documents and found a hundred rouble note inside.
‘I think we understand each other,’ Mikhail said.
‘Of course we do, Comrade Direktor. Girl, piss off and sell your skinny cunt elsewhere today.’
Sofia hesitated, eyes focused on the soldier’s weapon as though she had other ideas.
‘Go,’ Mikhail said.
She gave him a long look, then turned and raced away with loose-limbed strides. Mikhail remained with the soldier leaning against the wagon, keeping him talking and smoking until he was sure Sofia was safe, then he walked briskly back to the factory. In his office the glass she’d used was still on his desk and he lifted it up, touching his lips to the spot where hers had drunk from it.