Tivil July 1933
Sofia was trapped. Not in the dark like Pyotr, or in some stinking hell-hole like Mikhail, but trapped just the same. Chairman Fomenko ushered her into his office and the moment he shut the door she felt the tension tighten.
‘Please, sit down.’
Just the sight of this man sent loathing snaking through her veins. She stood with folded arms, and to her annoyance he gave her a slight smile, amused by her stance. He sat down at his desk, arranging his limbs with neat precision.
‘Cigarette?’ he offered.
From a drawer he pulled out a slender tin of hand-rolled makhorka cigarettes, thin and misshapen, and lit one carefully with a match. Why did he smoke the cheapest foul-smelling tobacco? Surely he didn’t need to. The thought that he probably did so to prove his identification with the ordinary workers in the fields just annoyed her further. Nor did she like the intelligent way he looked at her through the haze of smoke, or the feel of his eyes summing up her clothes, her shoes and the strong curves of the muscles in her legs.
‘Now that you’re here, I think we’ll have our meeting today instead of tomorrow morning, Comrade Morozova.’
Sofia said nothing.
‘Do you like it here in Tivil?’ he asked.
‘And you enjoy living with the gypsies?’
‘Do they strike you as strange at all?’
‘I hear tales about them, about their… antics.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
He flexed his broad shoulders under his brown checked shirt, faded by the sun, and Sofia recognised it as a gesture of frustration, a warning that she should be civil.
‘You don’t look much like a gypsy yourself,’ he pointed out.
‘I am by marriage, not by blood.’
‘My aunt who brought me up was married to Rafik’s brother. She wasn’t a gypsy but her husband was.’
‘What about your own parents?’
‘I’m sorry. What happened?’
‘They were both railway workers. There was a train crash.’ That was the story she was sticking to. It invited fewer questions.
He nodded in silence. ‘These things happen.’
‘When someone is incompetent.’
‘Incompetence is often a disguise for sabotage.’
Why did he say that? Was he testing her? To see if she would bleat agreement like one of his docile flock? Or perhaps to trap her into insisting that incompetence was the result of tiredness and hunger and fear of taking decisions that might expose you to accusations of wrecking. Was that it?
She said nothing, instead she glanced round the office. So far she’d taken no notice of it, concentrating only on Fomenko himself and trying to decipher every lift of his eyebrow, but now she took her time staring at the red banners and portraits on the white-washed timber walls. They were the usual clutch of beauties: Lenin and Kirov, and in pride of place, of course, Josef Stalin in military tunic and cap. She’d heard he was living a plain, almost austere life in his Kremlin stronghold, but what good was austerity when you had an insatiable thirst for the blood of your people?
She looked away, unfolded her arms and took a step nearer the desk. Its metal top was painted black, chipped from long use, and its surface was smothered in piles of papers, all in separate orderly stacks. At one end sat a wooden tray with something lumpy on it, but she couldn’t see exactly what because a red cloth was draped over it.
‘If you’ve asked all your questions, may I leave now? I would like to finish sweeping out the hall but I need the key.’ She held out her hand.
Fomenko had come marching into the hall when she was peering down at Pyotr in the hole. He’d demanded to know what she was doing there. She had pushed the plank back into place before he noticed it and then explained that she was sweeping out the hall, instead of Pyotr. She held up the broom to prove the point. He had remained suspicious and she knew she hadn’t fooled him, but his manner was scrupulously polite as he removed the key from her and escorted her to his office.
Aleksei Fomenko leaned back in his chair now and made no attempt to take the key from his pocket for her. His eyes narrowed speculatively and his lips parted a fraction to exhale tobacco smoke. Something about his stillness made her uneasy.
‘Sit down,’ he said and pointedly added, ‘please, comrade.’
She thought about it, then sat down.
‘I wish to see your dokumenti.’
She removed her residence permit from her skirt pocket and dropped it on the desk.
‘Your travel permit?’
‘Your Secretary in the outer office inspected all my documentation when he issued this permit of residency.’ She waved at the door. ‘Ask him.’
‘I’m asking you.’
She forced her mouth into the shape of a smile. ‘What more do you need to know?’
The stiff lines of his face softened into an answering smile, then he ran a patient hand over his short hair and took a form from one of the piles. It irritated her that his hands were so broad and capable, as if they were accustomed to achieving what they set themselves to do. The fingers stubbed out his cigarette in a small metal dish that served as an ashtray. He picked up a fountain pen. It was the first thing she’d seen in connection with the Chairman that had even a hint of status about it. It was a beautiful black-cased pen with a fine gold nib. A silence hung in the room for a second and into it the wind outside blew small shards of sound, the jingle of a horse harness, the rumble of a cartwheel, the throaty shriek of a goose.
‘Your father’s name and place of origin?’
‘Fyodor Morozov from Leningrad.’
‘Your aunt’s name and place of origin?’
‘Katerina Zhdanova from the Lesosibirsk region.’
‘How long did it take you to travel to Tivil?’
‘How did you travel?’
‘Walking mostly, sometimes a lift in a cart.’
‘No money for a train ticket?’
He put down his pen. ‘A long journey like that could be dangerous, especially for a young woman alone.’
She thought of the farmer with foul breath and greasy hands who had found her asleep in his barn. By the time she left him unconscious in the straw, his mouth had lost its gold tooth and she had the price of a week’s food.
‘I worked some of the time,’ she said, ‘dug ditches or chopped wood, sorted rotten potatoes and turnips into sacks. People were kind. They gave me food.’
‘Get out of here, you scrawny bitch. We don’t want strangers.’ Stones had rained into the mud at her feet as a warning. Stiff-legged dogs had snarled a threat.
‘Good, I’m glad,’ Fomenko said, but the edges of his grey eyes had darkened and she wondered what was passing behind them. ‘Russian people,’ he continued, ‘have kind hearts.’
‘You have a higher opinion of them than I do.’
He placed his elbows on the desk, watching her closely. ‘They are kind to each other now because, since the Revolution, there is greater justice. They have no reason not to be.’
She thought of Mikhail in his cell and shivered visibly. The movement alerted Fomenko and his face formed into lines she couldn’t read, his eyebrows drawn together in concentration but his mouth unexpectedly gentle. He leaned to one side and, with a swift gesture, flicked the red cloth off the tray at the end of the desk. She was reminded of the efficiency of this man.
‘Are you feeling weak? Is that it? Have you not eaten today?’
Laid out on the pinewood tray was a square of black bread, a slab of creamy cheese, a glass tumbler and a bone-handled knife. Beside them stood a stubby blue pitcher.
‘Here, have some food.’
He tore off a chunk of the bread, smeared the moist cheese on it and offered it to her, but she would rather choke than touch his food.
‘I won’t rob you of your meal,’ she said firmly.
He hesitated, his jaw flexing so that she could see the muscle twitch beneath the skin. With no comment he replaced the bread on the tray.
‘Kvass? ’ he offered.
Kvass was a traditional brew, fermented from bread, yeast and sugar. Sofia had no taste for it but she nodded politely. He poured the brown liquid into the glass and handed it to her across the desk.
‘Spasibo,’ she said. She sat holding it in her hand but didn’t raise it to her lips.
As though he suddenly felt the need to put some distance between them, he rose from his chair and walked over to the window. He stood there with his broad back to her, saying nothing, just gazing at the fields outside, at the kolkhoz he was so committed to driving towards greater productivity. She could see the strength of his determination in the line of his shoulders and the stiffness of his neck. She placed the glass silently on the desk and at the same time whisked his box of matches into her pocket.
‘Is that all?’ she asked.
He coughed, an odd kind of sound that was more of a growl than a cough, and when he turned his face was in shadow, his expression hidden from her.
‘May I have the key to the hall, so I can finish the sweeping?’ she asked.
His whole body grew unnaturally still. ‘Why the hall? What is this preoccupation of yours with our hall?’
She stood. ‘I am offering to help because Pyotr is upset by the arrest of his father, that’s all. No preoccupation with anything.’
‘Let me give you some advice, comrade. Stay clear of the boy. He will have to denounce Mikhail Pashin at our next kolkhoz meeting.’
‘No, Chairman, that is asking too-’
‘Asking only what is right. Our Young Pioneers know their duty. In the meantime stay away from him or you could be in trouble yourself.’
‘It’s not an infectious disease he has. His father is being interrogated. ’
‘Comrade Morozova,’ the Chairman’s voice was insistent, ‘we in the Red Arrow kolkhoz will not tolerate a saboteur in whom the motives of greed and self-seeking are rampant. The Revolution has shown us a better way.’
‘He’s just a boy of eleven years old, that’s all. What kind of threat to the State, or to me for that matter, can he possibly be when-’
‘I wasn’t referring to Pyotr Pashin when I mentioned saboteurs.’
A silence descended that seemed to last for ever. Sweat prickled on Sofia’s back and she inhaled deeply.
‘Comrade Chairman, you are a powerful man here in Tivil.’ She saw his surprise at the abrupt change of subject. ‘And maybe in Dagorsk too.’
He was studying her carefully.
‘Mikhail Pashin has been arrested-’
‘I am aware of that,’ he interrupted.
‘Arrested wrongfully,’ she continued. ‘He had nothing to do with the sacks of grain that went missing.’
‘That is for the interrogators to establish.’
‘But if a person in authority, a powerful man like yourself, reported to these interrogators that their prisoner was a loyal Communist who at the time of the theft was drinking inside his home with an OGPU officer and was clearly innocent of any… sabotage, then they would release him. They would believe your word.’
His face changed. It lost the tautness that usually held it together and curved into a wide genuine smile. ‘Comrade,’ he said with a soft laugh, ‘I am concerned. I think hunger has addled your brain.’
‘No, Chairman, I think not. No more than listening to a radio in the forest has addled yours.’
It was as though she’d slapped him. He rocked slightly on his heels. A dull flush rose to his cheeks while one fist clenched and unclenched at his side. For a brief second she thought he was about to seize hold of her, but he didn’t. Instead, with stiff courtesy, he walked over to the door and opened it.
‘Don’t let me keep you from sweeping the hall,’ he said in a soft voice and held out the key.
Sofia’s fingers closed over it, and as they did so she could feel the heat in his flesh. She walked out without a word.
‘Pyotr!’ Sofia called urgently.
She crouched down by the broom, which lay where she’d dropped it earlier in the assembly hall, and put her mouth close to the floorboards.
‘Pyotr! ’ she called again.
She heard a scrabbling noise beneath her feet.
‘Are you all right?’
But the boy’s voice was so thin it made her heart lurch. She yanked at the string and the short piece of flooring shot up so she could peer in. At first she could make out nothing in the gloom.
‘It’s all right, Pyotr, I’ll get you out.’ She lay down flat on her stomach, slid her head and shoulders through the hole and felt round blindly with her hands. ‘Whoever makes use of this place can’t bring a rope in with them every time. It would be too conspicuous. There must be-’
‘I can see it, I can see it. There beside you, there, on the right… no… further over.’ His young voice was rising. ‘That’s it, just there by-’
Her fingertips had touched the bristled twists of a rope hanging down under the floorboards. She tugged at it and instantly it uncoiled, snaking one end into the black cavern beneath.
‘A ladder,’ Pyotr cried out, ‘it’s a rope ladder.’
Sofia shinned down the swaying rungs and jumped the last section on to an earthen floor. She was struck by the change in temperature. It was a cold underground room.
His pale face was close and she wrapped her arms around him, hugged him tight to her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she breathed into his hair. ‘Fomenko came.’
She could feel the boy’s bony body rigid at first but slowly it grew soft in her embrace, and that’s when it started to tremble. Only faint, but enough to tell her what he’d been through, shut away in the dark on his own. His shirt was damp with sweat despite the cool air. She held him until the trembling ceased, then stepped back and tapped his chin teasingly.
‘Look what the Chairman kindly gave me for you.’
From her pocket she drew out the box of matches she’d stolen from Fomenko’s desk and in the dim light she placed them in Pyotr’s hand. His fingers were quick to strike a match and holding it in front of him he crossed to a narrow shelf, picked up the stub of a candle that lay there next to a bible and lit it. The flame flickered and hissed but by its light she saw Pyotr’s face clearly for the first time. One of his lips was bleeding where he’d been biting at it.
‘Come on, let’s get you out of here,’ she said cheerfully, holding out one end of the rope ladder to him. ‘You first.’
‘No.’ He shook his tousled brown hair. ‘Look at this.’
Holding the candle high, he led the way to the rear of the room. She swerved to avoid a wooden chair piled round with half a dozen bulging sacks in the middle of the floor, all propped carefully on top of each other. Her heart tightened when she realised Pyotr must have heaped them like that, struggling in the darkness to reach the ceiling, but there hadn’t been enough of them. Did he shout? Did he scream and cry for help? Or wait quietly, believing in her?
‘Look,’ he said again.
Had he found the jewels? Her pulse leapt at the thought. The walls were lined with wooden planking coated in pitch that, in places, had been repaired. On one side was an ancient door with heavy iron hinges.
‘It’s locked,’ Pyotr said when he saw her glance at it.
He stretched out the candle and its wavering light revealed that the rear wall was covered with a heavy brocade curtain instead of planking. It was hard to tell its colour in the gloom but Sofia had the impression of a deep purple glimmering among the darting shadows.
‘Wait,’ Pyotr whispered. Then, with all the panache of a magician, he swept the curtain aside.
The wall was full of eyes. Sofia felt her stomach sink as she realised it wasn’t the box of jewellery she was seeking.
‘So, Pyotr,’ she murmured, ‘it looks like God hasn’t been driven out of Tivil after all.’
The alcove behind the curtain was a metre deep by about three metres wide and every scrap of birch-lined wall was covered in religious icons and statues and crucifixes. Sad-eyed saints carried the burdens of the world’s sins on their gilded shoulders; hundreds of Virgin Marys gazed with adoration at the soft-faced Child Jesus. Lovingly arranged in groups on the floor were statues of them painted in vivid reds and blues and golds.
Pyotr was staring open-mouthed.
‘So,’ Sofia said, ‘this is where the village hid their beliefs.’ She spoke quietly, as in a place of worship. After a moment she reached up and pulled the curtain back across the alcove. Pyotr flinched, the look in his eyes far away.
‘So shocked?’ Sofia asked.
He rubbed his free hand across his face in a rough gesture and nodded. ‘They’re so…’ His voice trailed away.
‘So powerful?’ she finished for him.
‘Da. I didn’t realise.’
‘You’ve never been inside a proper Orthodox church with frescoes and carvings and gold crosses and air so laden with prayers and incense that you can barely breathe it in.’
He shook his head. ‘But it’s just superstition.’ It was meant as a statement but somehow it came out more as a question. ‘Once they realise that, won’t they let it go?’
‘No, Pyotr, they won’t.’ She stopped herself. Now was not the time for saying more. ‘Come on, let’s see what’s in those sacks you piled in a heap.’
‘Just grain and potatoes and swedes.’ He kicked one of the sacks with his foot, spraying dust through the air. ‘Hoarders’ food.’ He said it with disgust.
‘Let me put the candle back on the shelf.’ She pushed him towards the rope ladder. ‘Time to leave.’
He twisted his head to look her full in the face. ‘Sofia, I thought you’d cheated me. When you said there was something here to help my father, I thought you must mean that you’d shut me down here because all I had to do was pray to the Virgin Mary and Papa would be freed.’
‘Oh, Pyotr.’ Sofia leaned forward and kissed his cheek. ‘I’ll never cheat you. What I’m searching for is worth thousands of roubles. In this country roubles will buy you anything if you have enough of them, even freedom. We’ll get him out, one way or another.’ She stroked his damp hair. ‘I promise.’
A light rain was spitting in the wind. Sofia locked the church door and glanced cautiously up and down the street for any sign of Chairman Fomenko but there was none. Two young girls came skipping up the muddy street and waved to Pyotr but he ignored them.
‘Pyotr, one more thing I need from you.’
‘To help Papa?’
‘Yes. And to help me.’
He looked at her expectantly. The wariness seemed to have disappeared from his eyes. ‘Yes?’
‘I want you to take the key to the smithy where I saw you working and…’
‘Make a copy.’
He was quick. ‘Is that possible?’ Or was she asking too much of Mikhail’s son?
He puffed out his skinny chest. ‘Of course. And Pokrovsky the blacksmith will give me help if I need any.’
‘Will he keep it secret?’
‘For Papa he will.’
She grinned at him. ‘Thank you, Pyotr. When it’s done, take the original back to the kolkhoz office. Understand me?’
‘Yes.’ He tossed his head and strutted off in the direction of the smithy.
‘Mikhail,’ she breathed, ‘you can be proud of your stiff-necked son.’
Then she faced up towards the far end of the village. It was time to speak to Rafik.
‘I’ve been waiting for you.’
Rafik was seated at the rough table when Sofia entered, still wearing his yellow sunshine shirt. His black eyes were half hooded, his olive skin seemed darker and his black hair was hidden from sight under the pelt of the white fox. His shoulders were hunched over like an old man’s. This was not a Rafik she recognised. Her mouth grew dry. The room was dim despite the daylight outside, the air scented and heavy, and the moment Sofia breathed it in she could sense a strangeness in it.
What had he done? Warily she sat down opposite him.
‘So the soldiers at the stable let you go,’ she said.
‘Did you think they wouldn’t?’
She shook her head. ‘I was searching for you up there. I didn’t expect to see the troops. I was worried for you.’
‘It was priests they were seeking today, not gypsies. Next time I may not be so fortunate.’
‘Did the worshippers escape?’
‘Every last soul of them.’
‘He is safe… but not safe.’
‘It’s a miracle that he hasn’t been arrested and put to death before now.’
‘I look after him.’
She understood now exactly what he meant by that: he used this strange hypnotic power of his. ‘So why wouldn’t you look after Mikhail when he needed it? I begged you.’
‘Oh Sofia, don’t look so angry. You have to understand that there were too many troops swarming round him and it was impossible. The time was all wrong, but now… the time has changed. Tonight is the moment when your eyes will open.’
She didn’t know what he meant. There was a strange formality in the way he spoke, his tongue clicking against his teeth. His gaze was distant and she was not sure he was even seeing her at all.
‘Rafik,’ she whispered. ‘Who are you?’
He didn’t answer. The whistle of his breath grew louder in the room and a movement of his hands made her look down at the table where they’d been clenched together. Now they lay apart, placed on the worn wooden surface with fingers splayed like stars, and between them lay the white pebble. It seemed to draw all light from the room deep into itself. Sofia felt her skin grew cold.
The stone was the one she’d found earlier in the chest. Then it had seemed harmless but now, for some unknown reason, it made her nervous. And yet her eyes refused to turn away from it. Her breath quickened.
‘Sofia.’ Rafik’s voice was deep. He reached out and rested a heavy hand on her head.
Instantly her eyelids drifted shut. For the first time in the darkness of her own skull she became aware of a powerful humming sound, a vibration that rattled her teeth. To her dislocated mind it seemed to be coming from the stone.