Davinsky Camp July 1933
‘It’s a railway.’
‘They’re saying we have to build the railway.’
Anna looked round the group of women lined up with her outside the medical hut. They’d already been waiting in the yard for an hour, stripped to their ragged underwear. An emaciated bunch with ribs popping out like elbows and knees wider than their thighs. Most had sores of some kind or other. A railway? How could this army of skeletons construct a railway?
‘Why on earth would they want a railway up here anyway?’ Anna asked. ‘There’s nothing but trees.’
‘Trees and mosquitoes,’ one woman groaned and swatted an insect on her arm.
Each year, as soon as the surface snow melted in the forest, the area became a quagmire of marshy ground, covered by a constant layer of stagnant water where the huge mosquitoes loved to breed in their millions. They were the curse of the summer. Infected bites caused more deaths than anything else at this time of year.
‘Gold,’ Nina said and went back to picking a thorn out of her thumb.
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s gold up here.’
‘Christ,’ a freckled girl from Leningrad exclaimed, ‘just tell me where.’
‘I heard they’re opening another mine and transporting more male prisoners up here to work it.’
The men’s labour camp was only four versts away and was twice the size of the women’s. They were the ones who felled the pines in the first place and hauled them down to the river when the women had finished trimming them. Throughout the summer great rafts of trunks floated downstream to the timber yards and one of the most feared jobs was riding on them.
‘Rail work is savage,’ Nina groaned.
‘That’s why they’re putting us through this charade of a medical. ’
‘What do they do?’ the freckled girl asked.
‘They just stand around gawping,’ Tasha sneered, ‘while a man in a white coat tells you to strip naked so he can pinch your buttocks to test your muscle tone. Then he listens to your lungs.’
‘And the swines prod you,’ Nina added, ‘in places they don’t need to prod you.’
Anna frowned at her. ‘Don’t scare her, Nina.’
The older woman shrugged. ‘That’s nothing. Something to be scared of is what I heard the bastard shitheads did to one of the men who broke an ankle out in the forest the other day when a tree crashed on it.’
‘The guards knew he was no use to them any more so they tied him naked to a tree and took bets on how long it would take him to die from mosquito bites.’ She leaned forward and lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Apparently they settled in black swarms on his balls and-’
‘Shut up, Nina,’ Anna snapped.
‘Oh come on, I want to hear-’
‘Scum!’ A guard in the hut doorway waved a rifle in their direction. ‘Get in here. Bistro!’
At once they trooped silently into the hut, where a row of tables was set up. Behind each sat one of the favoured prisoners who worked for the administration and had achieved a status within the camp that brought them the first rung of power. They ate more and laboured less.
One had a bored expression on her face and was crossing prisoners’ numbers off a list as they stood in front of the table. Beside her sat a cheerful-looking man wearing metal-rimmed spectacles and a white coat. A stethoscope hung from his neck.
Behind them both stood a guard. Anna knew him at once and gave him a long sullen look. For a moment he rested his tongue between his teeth, then treated her to a slow interested smile.
‘Strip,’ he ordered.
Anna hated that guard more than any other. Each time their paths crossed, just the sight of his smug face and his thick greedy fingers made her feel as though she were part of some lesser species that he could stamp on whenever the mood took him. It made no difference whether she was clothed or not. His gaze on her flesh was sticky as slug slime slithering down her skin, and at times she had even scooped up handfuls of dirt from the ground and rubbed it over her arms and legs, rubbed it hard to rid herself of its residue. When she came out of the medical hut she did it again, grabbed the dirt and scrubbed. It gave her a strange level of relief, but it also made her smile because she knew, if Sofia were here, that her friend would have raised a sceptical eyebrow and given that low laugh of hers.
‘It’s what’s inside that counts,’ she’d have said, flicking the grit from Anna’s skin. ‘The outside – well, that’s just onion peel.’
It was with Sofia in the early spring before her escape that this particular guard had hammered into Anna’s mind the level of degradation they had reached. It was a time when the long winter nights were growing shorter, and the dull skies that for many bleak months had sagged low enough to touch the tips of the pine trees abruptly lifted. The sun was climbing higher each day and the air had begun to sparkle with a clarity that dazzled the eyes. Lungs stopped hurting, skin started to heal. Muscles became warmer, worked faster.
‘Smoke break! Perekur! ’
‘Axe sharpening!’ Sofia shouted across the rows of felled trunks to the nearest guard. ‘For two.’
‘Bistro! ’ he grumbled. ‘Quickly!’
Sofia beckoned to Anna and led the way to the ditch on the edge of the forest, dug out as a latrine for the hundreds of workers. Behind it lay a boulder that was still half buried in snow. Sofia slid easily down the other side of it into a steep-sided hollow, at the bottom of which flowed a steady stream of melt water. Immediately she crouched at the water’s edge, honing her axe blade with smooth strokes on one of the wet stones. She turned her head, not breaking the action, and smiled at Anna. It always astonished Anna, that smile, because it still contained so much hope. How had she kept it all in there, hidden behind her cool blue eyes? Was there a secret store of it inside her thin chest?
‘A guard is coming,’ Anna warned.
Sofia shrugged, her hands still scything the blade expertly across the stone.
‘He likes to kill, this one,’ Anna said.
Only yesterday this same guard had clubbed to death a woman from the Tver region for no more than stumbling and sending the top branch from the pile in her arms crashing down on his foot. Sofia looked up towards the forest and made a little grimace as she saw that the guard had arrived on the boulder above them.
‘What the fuck do you scum think you’re doing?’ His rifle was pointed at Anna’s head. ‘I didn’t give you bitches permission to stop to sharpen axes.’
‘It’s our smoke break,’ Anna pointed out. ‘We’re not wasting work time, and anyway we did ask permission.’
‘We want to work more efficiently for our Great Leader and Wise Teacher,’ Sofia said coldly. ‘We don’t intend to hold back our brigade from meeting their norm.’
The guard’s eyes narrowed and he pushed back his shapka hat with the tip of his rifle. Neither prisoner moved a muscle and finally he nodded.
‘Go ahead. Bistro!’
Anna knelt down beside Sofia and started to hone her blade, but she was nowhere near as expert as Sofia. The axe was a sad and pathetic object with its chipped blade and its head bound in place by string and a scrap of wire, but the haft was strong and well shaped to the curve of a hand. Sofia took it from Anna with the flicker of a smile and again resumed the steady rhythmic sharpening of the steel on the flat wet rock, first one side, then the other. She made it look easy.
‘Your fingers have the skills of a swordsmith,’ Anna murmured. They were long and muscular except for the two that were scarred.
‘After my father was whipped to death,’ Sofia whispered under her breath, ‘I worked on my uncle’s farm for years. But anyway, I was the last in a line of seven daughters, so my father taught me the skills of the son he never had.’
‘No talking!’ the guard yelled and suddenly leapt down on to the stretch of shingle below, so that he was only half a dozen strides from them.
Anna saw him glance furtively back over his shoulder to ensure no one had followed and immediately she knew he intended trouble. She stood quickly and faced him. He hadn’t shaved this morning and his heavy jaw was dark and threatening, his eyes hungry. His nose was crooked as though it had been broken at some time, and Anna experienced a strong urge to break it again – with her axe. Lazily he swung the point of the rifle till it was aimed at Sofia’s unprotected back. Sofia must have sensed the threat but she didn’t move. Just her hands, snick-snick-snick as they sharpened. The guard licked his soft lips.
‘I don’t like you,’ he snarled at Sofia.
‘I don’t like you either,’ she answered softly, without turning round. She might have been talking to the axe blade.
‘Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t put a bullet between your ribs.’
Anna stepped quickly between them, blocking his view of the figure still at the water’s edge.
‘Ah, pretty one, so you want to play, do you? I tell you what,’ his mouth spread into a wide wolfish grin that revealed teeth as crooked as his nose. ‘I won’t put a bullet through your disrespectful friend if you give me a kiss from those luscious red lips of yours.’
Anna felt a hot rush of fury, less for the guard’s abuse of her than for the fact that he made her want to kill him in cold blood. That raging desire frightened her. She started to move towards him.
‘Nyet! No, nyet!’ It was Sofia. She was rising from the ground, uncurling like a snake, the axe already swinging in her hand.
But Anna threw herself forward before Sofia could reach him, clasped her arms round the guard’s hard-muscled neck and pressed her lips on his mouth. It tasted foul, of tobacco smoke and onions and acid lust. She wanted to spit, to bite, to rip his face off with her teeth. But his lips were opening under hers, yawning into a pair of cavernous jaws that started to devour her. She fought to pull away but his arms were strong around her, jerking her body into hard contact with his. Their coats were bulky between them but his hand pushed in, squeezing, pinching, prodding at her breast. His tongue rammed into her mouth, huge and choking. She couldn’t breathe.
‘Enough!’ Sofia’s voice, ice cold.
Abruptly he was gone from Anna. His smell still clung to her body but he had backed off and was staring at Sofia. She was standing with his rifle in her hands. She had snatched it from him while his mind and his hands were in his trousers.
‘Shoot him,’ Anna hissed.
‘Hush,’ Sofia murmured soothingly. Her face was bone white. ‘Here,’ she said to the guard and threw him the rifle.
Anna was sure he would shoot them both but some deep part of him had lost its nerve. He stared grimly into Sofia’s cold eyes, spat an oath at them both, then leapt on to the boulder and disappeared back to the Work Zone.
Anna bent over and vomited the taste of him from her mouth.
A soft hand touched the back of her head. ‘Anna.’
Anna straightened, wiped her mouth on her sleeve. ‘How many more years of this can we take? We should have let the bastard shoot us.’
‘No, Anna,’ Sofia said fiercely. ‘Don’t ever think that.’
‘Why didn’t you kill him while you had the chance?’
‘Because they’d all have been down on us like a pack of hounds, tearing us to shreds and relishing every second of it. Men such as these enjoy their work. When I was very young and my father was out performing his priestly duties in Petrograd with me on his back, men just like this one – except they wore the Tsar’s colours instead of Stalin’s – came to our house and killed my mother and six sisters.’ Her eyes had darkened and the shadows beneath them had sunk into deep purple hollows.
‘Sofia,’ Anna said quietly, ‘not all men are like that.’
Sofia laughed, a harsh scathing sound as chill as the melt water. ‘So how in God’s name do you know which ones you can trust?’