Tivil July 1933
Sofia waited in the dark, tense and breathing hard. She was standing by the cedar tree at the gateway to Tivil. He would come, she was certain he’d come. The night sky was overcast, dark and damp, with a spit of rain in the wind. When her limbs started to shiver she was glad, because it meant the scorching heat within her was leaking out. In the silence, in the cold, she heard Rafik’s words again: Reach deep into yourself, you are strong.
She didn’t feel strong, she felt battered and exhausted. She wanted to weep with need. Questions crashed round her brain: what exactly was it that Rafik could see inside her? What happened inside that chamber? Who were those silver-haired people and why had the bats come for her? And would Mikhail come? Would he? She had to believe he would, whether as a result of Rafik’s weird ceremony or simply because Fomenko had responded to her veiled threat and decided to throw his weight around in the right places. Whichever it was she didn’t care, so long as he came. She took a deep slow breath to calm her quivering mind and felt the night breeze wash through her lungs, flushing out the panic.
Mikhail, my Mikhail. Come to me.
She murmured the words aloud and heard a flutter of wings for a second, but when she looked up the sound was gone and she wondered if her tired mind had imagined it. On the edge of Tivil she could sense the air somehow growing thinner, the danger sharper. The scars on her fingers ached the way they only did when she was nervous.
Her eyes scoured the blackness for a long time and saw nothing. And then a tingling sensation started in the soles of her feet, spreading to the palms of her hands, and suddenly her heart tightened in her chest. Her legs started to move and at first she was aware of the ruts under her feet, of stones and potholes, of stumbling awkwardly in the darkness and then she was flying down the road, racing towards him, arms outstretched, raindrops brushing her cheek.
Mikhail was in her arms, warm and safe and alive. For a second she was frightened her senses were betraying her. This wasn’t real, just another version of her desire unfolding inside her head. But his clothes stank, dried blood lay stiff on his collar, his unshaven jaw felt rough against her skin. His poor lips were swollen. But not too swollen to press hard on hers or to whisper into her mouth over and over, ‘Sofia, my love, Sofia.’
He washed in the yard at the back of the house. A dim pool of light spilled from the room’s oil lamp but most of the yard lay in shadows. She watched him from inside as he stripped off every filthy scrap of clothing, threw it in a pile on the ground and set light to it. The flames were small and smouldering in the damp air but they sent golden fingers of light shimmering up his long naked thigh and gleaming over the strong curve of his buttock. Sofia felt a surge of desire but, as the shadows shifted and draped themselves over him like a cloak, she moved away from the window to give him his privacy.
When he eventually entered the room he was wearing a clean black shirt and trousers. At the sight of her tucked into his big wing chair his face broke into a smile of relief, as though he feared she might have gone. His eyes were a dull and damaged grey that bruised her heart. One eye and his lips were swollen, a tooth chipped, and he was moving awkwardly, something hurting inside, but when she started to ask he dismissed it as nothing.
She rose, kissed his mouth, gently soothing it with her tongue, and eased him into the chair. She curled up at his feet with her chin resting on his knee. Her hands began to stroke the calves of his legs, drawing the anger from his muscles, willing her strength into him. The familiar masculine scent of him at last silenced the trembling in her chest.
‘You look wonderful,’ he said and tenderly touched her cheek, as if it were the finest fragile porcelain. His finger traced the line of her lips. ‘You shine.’
She kissed the tip of his finger. ‘I missed you.’
He ruffled her blonde hair and twisted a lock of it round his forefinger as though attaching her to himself. The silence between their words dropped away. He cupped his hand round the back of her head, cradling it.
‘You were with me,’ he whispered, his gaze intent on her face. ‘All the time you were with me.’
‘He’s still asleep.’
It was the second time Mikhail had checked on Pyotr, anxiety for the boy driving him out of his chair despite his exhaustion.
‘He was worried about you,’ Sofia said as she poured out two vodkas and handed one to him when he was settled again. ‘But he’s fine. He’s strong.’
‘Thank you for caring for him.’
‘I did very little except take him to Dagorsk to plead for you. We looked after each other.’
‘Come here, Sofia.’
He held out a hand to her and, when she slipped hers into it, drew her to him on to his lap. He rested his head against hers, holding her so close she could feel the beat of his heart, and slowly the rise and fall of their inhalations and exhalations fell into step until they were breathing as one.
‘Sofia,’ he whispered into her hair, ‘tell me what the hell is going on.’
She was silent.
He lifted a hand and tipped her chin up to look at him, his eyes lingering on her face. ‘You were waiting for me. How did you know I was coming?’
‘I didn’t, not for certain.’
‘Sofia, I was in prison being bounced from interrogation to beating and back to interrogation, over and over, no food, no water, no sleep. I count myself lucky that I hadn’t yet had the Cupboard inflicted on me but-’
‘What’s the Cupboard?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
She kissed the bruised eye. ‘Tell me.’
‘It’s something the other prisoners in my cell whispered about. It’s a space one metre by half a metre and the height of a man. The Cupboard, they call it. The bastards throw you in there with four or five or even six other poor devils crammed together, all unable to move, barely able to breathe. You could be in there hours or even days with no one able to turn or sit. Most suffocate to death in it.’
Sofia buried her face in his neck.
‘I’d have ended up in there if I hadn’t been freed, no doubt of that,’ he said. His voice was savage, but delicately he kissed a tear from her face. ‘Yet suddenly in the middle of the interrogation an OGPU officer marched into the room, waved around a signed release order and I was out on the street in the rain in the middle of the night before I could say Chto za chyort! ’ He knocked back the shot of vodka and shuddered.
He kissed her hair and gently rubbed his cheek over its silky strands. ‘And then I found you waiting for me.’
‘You’re safe,’ she whispered. ‘That’s all that matters.’
‘Sofia, I need to know.’
Tenderly she took his face in her hands. ‘Mikhail, my dearest Mikhail, I honestly don’t know what happened. Your release could have been caused by Rafik – the gypsy has amazing powers to move thoughts – or by… someone else. Let’s leave it until tomorrow, my love. You’ve been through enough.’ She brushed her fingers down the line of his smooth straight nose, still wonderfully unbroken, and along the curve of his broad brow.
Mikhail frowned, his dark gaze searching her face. Their eyes held fast on each other until suddenly something deep within him seemed to open, some emotion shaking his strong frame so violently that his limbs trembled under her. He groaned, and Sofia hungrily pressed her lips to his throat. When Mikhail rose from the chair with her in his arms and bore her from the room, she shut her ears to the accusing voice in her head, the one that said she was stealing.
The world had stopped spinning on its axis, Mikhail was sure of it. How else could he have been jerked from one indelible moment of hell to such abundance of perfection? Her naked skin was a pearl. Not like a pearl. It was a pearl. A creamy translucent paleness that somehow glowed from within. It made even the tips of his fingers ache with desire for her.
They lay on his bed, limbs entwined in semi-darkness, with only the faint gleam from the living room’s kerosene lamp creeping into the room, where it lay like a dog on the rag-rug. Mikhail didn’t want Sofia to see his own body. It was a mess, covered in bruises and cuts and black swellings. It disgusted him, so what would it do for her? He had always taken a certain pride in his body, in its strength and its invincibility. He’d always been able to depend on it, but now his rage at those who had caused such damage to it and humiliation to him in the name of justice writhed snake-like in his guts.
She seemed to sense it. Her hand slid tentatively to his stomach where it started to circle, gently at first, then firmer, harder, fingers splayed out. He could feel the heat build up under them, see a delicate vein pulsing at her temple as she leaned close. She was driving the hate out of his body.
His lips seized hers and his hand cradled her naked breast, small and firm and perfect in his palm. She moaned, a soft, sobbing sound. His fingers teased, stroked and explored each delicate rise and fall of her undernourished body, the angular edge of her hip bone and the fall of her silken stomach down to the dense mound of blonde curls. He inhaled the exquisite scent of her, breathing it deep into himself.
His lips caressed her eyes, her ears, the tempting hollow of her throat while his fingers searched out the moist secret places that brought forth whimpers of desire from her open mouth. His lips kissed that mouth. He adored the way she growled low in her throat when he rippled his fingers down the soft inside of her thigh and the way her whole body shuddered when he took her erect nipple in his mouth. She tasted of the forest, a clean wild creature. Not dirty like himself. However hard he’d scrubbed himself with the brush in the yard tonight, he still felt the dirt of the cells and the beatings lodged under the layers of his skin.
It was as if she could see the thoughts form in his head.
‘My beloved,’ she crooned, pressing him back on to the pillow.
She trailed her tongue up his cheek, then down the other. Its pliant warmth seemed to envelop him, soft and enticing, as it flicked across his forehead and along the line of his nose, a touch on his lips and a nudge on his teeth and down to his chin. He knew what she was doing and his heart melted. She was cleansing him.
Her breath was coming fast as she lowered her head to his chest. He gasped when her tongue flicked out once more as slowly, sensuously, in unbearable circles, she started to lick the beatings and the humiliations out of his body. He buried his hands in her hair, squeezing it tight in his fists. He let out a howl that tore everything out of him but his feelings for this woman.
‘I love you, Sofia.’
Their words were hoarse with need. Her skin exuded a musk that swept through his blood, as her skin became his skin. Her blood became his blood. When he lay above the length of her shining pearl body he held himself back, lovingly brushed a tangle of hair from her face and looked close into her huge wild eyes.
‘Sofia, sweetest heart,’ he murmured, ‘Sofia, is this…?’
Her lips opened in spasm and her face turned away from his. ‘Is this my first time?’ she moaned.
‘If it is, I-’
‘No, Mikhail. Don’t worry, this isn’t my first time.’
The bitterness in her voice was harsh. Gently he turned her face back to him and kissed her lips, soothing, murmuring, whispering to her until they relaxed under his, entwined his tongue with hers and felt her naked hips rise against him.
‘We’ll make this the first time, my love,’ he breathed into her mouth. ‘For both of us.’
‘This is as it should be.’
Sofia whispered the words to the darkness. No brutal fumbling behind a shed in the rain, no careless ripping open of her flesh as though she were dead meat. This is as it should be. A glorious outburst of joy that transformed her body into something wonderful and vibrant, something she barely recognised. She brushed her lips on Mikhail’s wrist, tasting his skin once more.
‘This is as it should be,’ she whispered.
She sighed, unable to make herself leave him. The kerosene lamp in the living room had burned out so that the night’s darkness was complete, denser now as dawn approached. She knew she had to move. But instead she nestled closer in the crook of Mikhail’s arm, rubbing her skin against his, feeling the warmth of him as he slept wrapped around her. She loved the weight of his body against hers. She listened to the rhythm of his breathing and wished sweet dreams into whatever life he was leading behind his flickering eyelids.
Her mind shut down to all else. Everything that was not love ceased to exist and, even though she knew for certain there would be a heavy price to pay, right now the price seemed nothing. Nothing. She slid a hand possessively down the length of his thigh and heard his breathing pick up as if she had slid into his dream. Her fingers sought out the bruised swelling on the side of his leg that throbbed hot as a reminder of where he had been and what had been done to him. It was all she needed. Anger drove her from his bed where love could not.
She dressed quickly and quietly, then drank the shot of vodka she had abandoned on the table last night. But before she left the house to step out into the early morning darkness, she returned soundlessly to Mikhail’s bedside and bent over his sleeping form. So lightly it was barely a kiss, she brushed her lips against his forehead. Even in the dark she knew his mouth had curled into a smile as he slept.
She longed to keep him like this, hers for ever, hers alone, to love and to cherish. To live a whole life together till they were old and grey and could look back on these days with laughter and say that magical phrase Do you remember when…? Why not? She could. He loved her, he’d said so. Her heart tightened painfully in her chest. She could. It would be so easy to say nothing and start a new life here and now with Mikhail.
Oh Anna, I can’t.
Slowly she straightened up, her bones heavy and cumbersome, lifeless things that were no use to her without his touch on them, without his kisses on them, without his arms crushing them. She stepped back from the bed and tears filled her eyes. She turned away and from her pocket drew the key Pyotr had made for her.
Today everything would change.
Pyotr heard movement in the house. It woke him but he buried his face in his pillow, refusing to wake up. What was happening to him and to his world? It felt as if the foundations were cracking under his feet and it terrified him. He tried to drive himself back into the comfort of his dream but it was no good, the dream was out of reach. Like Papa.
The noise of a saucepan banging on the stove in the kitchen reached his ears and his heart gave a little skip behind his ribs. Sofia was still here. That cheered him and he jumped out of bed. She’d know what he should do, she’d help him… but Sofia was a fugitive. She’d actually confessed to him that she’d escaped from prison, so by helping her he was making himself an Enemy of the People.
That thought made him feel dizzy.
Is that how Comrade Stalin felt last year when his wife, Nadyezhda Allilueva, shot herself inside the Kremlin? Sick and uncertain? How much did love weigh in the balance against the words of the Great Leader? He kicked a shoe across his tiny room in an outburst of anger. Most of all it frightened him to think what might be happening to Papa. In a rush to escape his thoughts he hurried out of his room.
The figure at the table rose slowly from the chair, the movement awkward and ungainly, not like his father at all. Not quick and confident like Papa. Yet they were Papa’s strong shoulders and it was Papa’s voice calling his name.
Pyotr threw himself into his father’s open arms and together they tumbled back into the chair where the boy clung tight and hid his face in his father’s shirt. He was crying like a girl and didn’t want Papa to see.
‘Pyotr, my son.’
Something in his voice made Pyotr look up. Papa’s cheeks were wet with tears.