She wasn’t coming.
Pyotr leaned his forehead against the bleached wood of the meeting hall door, as if its warmth could still the chills inside him. He was alone and his heart ached for his father. He kept his back turned to the road because he refused to watch yet another villager pass by and turn their face away from him, as though he were invisible. Sofia wasn’t coming. He was an outcast even to her, a leper. Untouchable for the second time in his life – but what had he done? He kicked angrily at the door, rattling it on its ancient hinges.
She was here. He turned, relief filling his throat with that strange sort of honey taste that always came when he was near her.
‘Did you get it?’ she asked.
He nodded and held out his hand. Across his palm lay the heavy iron key to the meeting hall. It had grown warm from contact with his flesh.
‘Molodyets. Good boy.’ She snatched it from him. ‘Did they believe you? That you wanted to contribute to the kolkhoz by cleaning up the hall for them?’
He nodded again, but with the handle of the hazel-twig broom in his hand he pointed at one of the sheets of paper pinned on the door, the lists of that week’s individual achievements for each worker. His own name was on it. Time spent at the forge. Already someone had drawn a heavy black line through Pyotr’s name to show he no longer existed. He heard Sofia draw in breath sharply.
‘Shall I tear it down?’ she asked, as casually as if she were asking him if she should sew on a button.
‘No,’ he said, shocked.
Her hand lightly touched the hair on the back of his head. ‘Why not, Pyotr?’
‘It’s not… not…’ he struggled for the right word, ‘not wise.’
‘Why? Because Chairman Aleksei Fomenko put it up?’
‘There are soldiers,’ he told her in a whisper, ‘here in Tivil. I saw them.’
‘So did I.’
‘It’ll just make… more trouble,’ he muttered.
She took her hand away from his hair. No one had touched him like that since the night his mother went off with her soldier. Not even Papa.
‘Pyotr,’ she said, and her voice was so quiet he had to listen hard. ‘If everyone is frightened of making trouble, how will we ever make the world better? Even Lenin was a great one for making trouble.’
Pyotr hunched his shoulders.
‘The people of Russia will rot in their misery,’ she breathed, ‘like your father will in his cell. Like I did. Like Priest Logvinov will if he’s not more careful than he was today. Like all the other stinking prisoners will if we don’t make trouble, you and I.’
‘You were a prisoner?’ he whispered.
‘Yes. I escaped.’
It was like a gift. She was trusting him. He wasn’t invisible.
‘Open the door,’ he said. ‘I’ll help you.’
They searched the hall together, taking half each. Pyotr was quick as a ferret, darting from one likely spot to another, exploring it, moving on, eager to be the one to find the hiding place. She was slower, more methodical, but he could feel her frustration. His fingers wormed their way into cracks and scrabbled under benches seeking hidden compartments, but nothing yielded to his touch. Only the grey metal table with the two pencils and the two chairs he left alone because it was Chairman Fomenko’s territory. Pyotr felt like an intruder there. His cheeks were flushed but he didn’t want to stop, not now.
‘Do you know,’ Sofia’s voice came to him from across the body of the building, ‘that in the Russian Orthodox church, worshippers always stood? No benches to sit on and services could go on for hours.’
Pyotr wasn’t interested. Most of the church buildings had been blown up anyway. He pulled at a strip of plasterwork in the shape of an angel’s wing and it came away in his hand, but nothing lay behind it.
‘It was to prove their devotion, you see,’ she explained.
Why was she telling him this? She had her cheek against the opposite wall, eyeing the line of it, her fingers feeling for false fronts to the bricks.
‘Do you know why they had to do that?’ she asked.
‘It’s not that they had to prove it to God. They had to prove it to each other.’
Pyotr thought for a long moment and scratched at his head. ‘Like when we have meetings here and workers denounce each other for slacking in the fields that day. Is that what you mean?’
‘Exactly. It’s to prove to others what a true believer you are. To avoid damnation, in hell or in a forced labour camp. Both the same.’
He squatted down on his haunches and trailed a finger along the edge of a floorboard. He knew she was wrong, of course. Stalin warned against saboteurs of ideas as well as of factories, but he didn’t want to tell her that, not right now anyway.
His finger snagged.
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve found something.’
She hurried across the hall. ‘What?’
He lifted a filthy piece of string, no more than the length of a man’s hand. It was attached to one of the planks.
Sofia crouched at his side. ‘Pull.’
He yanked and a metre-long section of floorboard flipped up. Pyotr let out a shout and fell back on his bottom, but scrambled to his knees to peer into the gap. He’d found the hiding place. Now he would have the means to free Papa, that’s what she’d promised him. He didn’t know quite what it was they were searching for, except that it was in a box and it was definitely going to be something good. Sofia was tugging at the next section of flooring to widen the gap but it wouldn’t move, and for the first time he noticed the scars on her fingers.
They pressed their faces eagerly to the edge of a hole, black and deep. Too black and too deep to see what lay at the bottom.
Sofia frowned. ‘Not what I expected.’
‘I’ll squeeze in,’ Pyotr said quickly. He didn’t want her to doubt his find. ‘I’ll drop down.’
‘No.’ Her hand gripped his shoulder.
‘We don’t know how deep it is or what’s down there.’
‘Fetch something to drop down into it then, that’s how they test wells.’
Instantly she hurried off towards the pencils lying on the table at the front of the hall, but Pyotr didn’t wait. He swung his legs through the narrow gap, lifted his bottom, raised his arms above his head and slipped through as smooth as an eel. He plunged into the darkness and hit a hard floor with a crunch, knocking the breath from his body. He looked up. Several metres above his head a small rectangle of light broke up the solid blackness and gave him his bearings.
He could hear the shock in her voice.
‘I’m still alive.’
Her pale oval face popped into the gap above, blocking the light.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘No.’ He rubbed his knee and his palm came away damp, but he just wiped it on his shorts. ‘It’s very dark.’
She laughed. ‘What did you expect, you idiot?’
But she didn’t tell him off. He liked her for that.
‘Now you’re down there, feel around – but be careful. See if you can find a box or a bag of some kind. Maybe even some candles.’
Pyotr scrabbled to his feet and stood still for a moment, staring into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Faint shapes began to emerge, grey on black. He took a deep breath. The air smelled dry and faintly sweet. He stretched out a hand in front of him and took two cautious steps. That was when the plank was slammed into place above him and total darkness swallowed him whole.