Authors: Harry Bingham
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General
‘Yes? Is that a yes? Good for you, comrade Lensky. Good for you.’ He kissed her. ‘Listen. I mean it. I do need to go. The hospital will be in touch. It’s a Dr Zurabov. He’s nice.’
And with that he was gone. The yard was empty again and only the pile of logs at Tonya’s feet gave any sign that the conversation had happened. She picked up the fallen logs and began to carry them upstairs.
Just ten days passed, then Tonya was ordered in to see her hospital supervisor.
‘Bad news for you, Antonina Kirylovna,’ he said, tossing a paper at her. ‘Some awful hospital out in the sticks needs a nurse. They’ve requested you. Don’t know why. I’d say no if I could, but the request has come through Party channels. I can’t say no. It’s only three days a week, if that’s any—’
Tonya didn’t hear any more, but felt a surge of joy at the news. It was almost as though Misha’s magic had somehow found a way to penetrate the remorselessly grinding machinery of the state. Tonya made her arrangements and two days later she was in Petrozavodsk. The snow had already come up there, and lay like a clean white mantle over town and countryside alike. When she finished work at the hospital that evening, Misha was there to meet her. But he didn’t take her back to his room, a space so tiny there was barely enough space for one. Instead he took her out of town, three miles down a track to a little wooden hut on the edge of the forest.
‘It’s an old hunting lodge. Run down, but fine. No one uses it.’
‘Don’t we need to …? Shouldn’t we get authorisation?’
Misha stood up to his knees in the snow, bright-eyed and exultant. ‘Yes, comrade. You are right. You raise an important point.’ He opened his arms wide and said in a loud voice, ‘I claim this house on behalf of the ultra-bourgeois family Malevich.’ There was a low cliff not too far distant, and his voice bounced off the grey rocks in a series of echoes. He turned back to her with a widening grin. ‘To hell with comrade Lenin,’ he shouted. ‘To hell with the revolution. Long live the bourgeoisie!’
Tonya was shocked to begin with. Shocked, because she’d never heard anyone say anything so daring for months now – let alone shout it at the top of their voice. And shocked too, because she was torn. She knew that the revolution was riven with too many little men: driven by fear, anxiety, power, greed. But there were also the Rodyon Kornikovs: good, hard-working idealistic men, who had pledged their lives to the service of their fellow men. She wasn’t as quick as Misha to condemn the changes.
‘You say it,’ he said. ‘Down with Lenin.’
She smiled and shook her head.
‘Ah, pardon me, comrade worker, you should be saying “Up with Lenin! Power to the people!” Go on. Say it.’
She laughed, and again shook her head. But this time her denial went only skin-deep. It was a game.
‘Comrade Lensky, the revolution will fail if you don’t shout.’
They looked at each other, grinning, then they both began to shout.
‘Up with the revolution!’
‘Down with the Bolsheviks!’
‘Power to the people!’
‘Bring back the Tsar!’
‘Up with Lenin!’
‘Down with Lenin!’
They shouted as loud as they were able, till the rocks boomed back with the sound of their voices: ‘Lenin… Lenin… Lenin…’ Then, because Misha had the louder voice, Tonya jumped at him and pushed him backwards into the snow. He grabbed her leg and pulled her after him, and they rolled over and over together, as though the snow were the softest of white feather beds. They could hardly breathe for laughter.
They grew a little more serious. They stood up and brushed themselves down. The hunting lodge stood ready for them.
Misha bowed. ‘
Mademoiselle Lensky, je te presente le chateau Malevich
Until he’d been seven, Misha, like many Russians of his class, had spoken French with his mother, and he spoke it now with a kind of careless elegance, which Tonya secretly found daunting. But she curtsied low and gave Misha her hand so that he could escort her, like a
, across the heaped up snow to the lodge itself.
The interior was bleak, dark and cold. It had an intimidating, depressing feel and Tonya’s heart sank. But there was a stove and the wooden walls were mostly draught-proof and there were no vermin of any kind. Misha dug a lamp out from somewhere, lit it and got to work straight away on lighting a fire. The red spit and crackle of the kindling immediately lifted Tonya’s spirits again. She took the lamp and bustled around the hut, exploring her new domain. There was a bed with an old feather mattress, some store cupboards full of bits of old harness or hunting gear whose use she didn’t know. There was a sackful of potatoes that Misha had brought out; also a stack of logs, oil for the lamp, some cooking pots, and, in one cupboard, a small store of tea and sugar which made Tonya gasp for joy. She came back to Misha, whose fire was now beginning to blaze.
‘What do you think?’ he asked.
‘I love it.’
Misha stood up, smiling. ‘Bugger Lenin. And bugger the whole blasted lot of them.’
‘Apart from Rodya.’
‘Yes, good old Rodyon, apart from him.’
Tonya stepped into Misha’s arms and by a shared understanding they began a slow dance around their new room; a waltz again, but not a fast one; slow and deliberately graceful. For almost the first time, Tonya didn’t just dance the steps correctly, she gave herself to them and her upturned face seemed shot through with something grave, almost spiritual. Misha didn’t try to break into her mood. He just danced in silence, making sure not to disturb her rhythm.
And then, after a while, she changed posture and grinned. Misha suddenly speeded up, and they shot around the room, whirling and stamping, until they spun apart laughing. That night, though they heard wolves howling outside, they slept in bed with each other, feeling absolutely safe, absolutely secure for the first time for years.
That winter, Tonya was able to spend half her time or more with Misha. When the weather was bad and the storms came in, they didn’t even go to work, knowing that the power would be down and there would be nothing for them to do. Misha had borrowed a shotgun from somewhere, and shot and snared rabbits, pigeon, and other game. They ate well. In the long hours of darkness, they talked, or made love, or danced, or made plans. Misha began to teach Tonya French, then – deciding French was of no practical value – he switched and began teaching her German, which Tonya was quick to pick up. When it was cold, they loaded their stove with fuel until its sides glowed red. They talked about everything on earth, and sometimes just spent long hours in happy silence with each other.
It was, by far, the best period of their entire lives.
But as the thaw came, and snow began dripping and slopping from every roof, branch, rock and slope, their long winter idyll came to an end. Tonya was summoned back to her city hospital full time. Misha received instructions requiring him to relocate to a railway repair depot in Perm, six hundred miles and more east of Petrograd.
Tonya cried at the impeding separation, full of foreboding.
As ever, Misha saw only the positive side of things.
‘Perm is ideal. Out there in the provinces, the revolution won’t have changed anything too much. I’ll be able to get on with things. As soon as you can, you can join me. In a few years’ time, you’ll see, everything will be different.’
He was more right than he knew.
On the fifteenth of April, 1919, he left Petrozavodsk. His route took him first to Petrograd, then east to Perm. He sent a message to Tonya, asking her to meet him at Ladozhsky Station so they could say their goodbyes. There wasn’t time for him to wait for a reply so he just went through the tedious business of getting his ticket sorted out, hoping against hope that she’d find a way to see him off. The line moved forward and Misha got to the ticket counter.
‘Authorisation?’ said the clerk. ‘Ah, yes, priority. All right for some, isn’t it? And I suppose you’ve got a travel warrant too? Of course, you’ll need to get that stamped. Unstamped means nothing at all. That queue over there, by the glass windows. No, they’ve abolished the special trains. Over there, that window.’
The clerk shoved Misha’s papers back at him. His wodge of documents had mounted up over the past eight months, until it was now a compact little brick of grey papers, soft and fibrous, like blotting paper. Misha moved over to the window that the clerk had indicated. A crowd of starlings had flown under the arched roof into the station and now couldn’t find their way out.
He started again in another queue. The country was well into a civil war by now and there were soldiers everywhere. When he reached the head of the line, his papers were inspected again. There was a minor problem: one of Misha’s papers had been stamped but not initialled. Regulations stated that it had to be initialled as well as stamped.
Misha took back the document, and tucked some paper money inside it –
– currency issued by the Provisional government in the months before the revolution. The money was mostly worthless, but not entirely. The clerk took it with a shrug and initialled the offending document himself. Another four minutes and the all-important travel warrant was stamped.
Misha’s train had pulled in by now, and there was a surge of passengers towards it. Misha knew he ought to join them if he wanted any chance of a seat, but he still hoped to see Tonya. He went to the main entrance and waited there, hoping to catch sight of her. He saw two nurses, but both of them short and fat. He felt a jab of disappointment. A column of conscripts were being herded into the station at rifle-point. Inside the station, a whistle shrilled.
Misha could delay no longer. He turned back into the station, feeling suddenly lonely and afraid. He made his way towards the train, but his path was blocked by the column of conscripts. A man had just keeled over and there was a knot of other men around him shouting and arguing.
Misha began to negotiate his way through the mêlée, when there was a shout behind him. It was Tonya. She came bursting through the crowds, her face straining with the effort.
They kissed with passion.
‘I will. I’ll be fine. As soon as I’ve got myself sorted out, I’ll let you know. The sooner you can come, the better. You and Pavel and Babba Varvara and Kiryl, of course.’
‘Yes, yes. Is that your train? You mustn’t miss it. If you want a seat…’
‘Oh, the seats are long gone. Don’t worry. I don’t mind standing.’
They were interrupted by one of the soldiers who had been herding the conscripts.
‘Hey! Comrade nurse, we have a man here who’s just conked out. One minute standing, next minute, whack! Over he goes. Anything to get out of fighting, eh?’
Tonya took an impatient look at the fallen man. The man was obviously unfit to fight. He had the pale face and ravaged expression that often preceded typhus, and there was an ooze of blood from where his head had struck the station concourse.
‘He can’t go,’ she snapped. ‘Look at him. He needs to get to a hospital. Take him to the Third Reformed and ask for Dr Griese.’
She stood up, seeking Misha’s hand with hers. But they were prevented from moving. The officer in charge of the soldiers, an easterner with Khirgiz eyes and a reindeer skin cap instead of his regulation headgear, detained them with a sharp movement of his pistol.
‘Well, comrade lovers, it seems you’re right. This man isn’t fit to serve. But the trouble for you is that we have a quota to deliver. We can’t be short.’
‘That’s your business,’ said Tonya, beginning to pull away.
The officer ignored Tonya, but a ring of his men stopped Misha from going anywhere. Tonya, already half out of the circle, came back into it, scared and white. Misha handed over his documents, knowing they were in order. The officer began to flip through them, commenting on them in his thick Siberian accent.
‘Travel authorisation – yes. Warrant – yes, stamped. Immunisation certificate – you have been thorough, comrade. Authorisation from local party commissariat – no, I don’t seem to find that.’
‘Yes, I have that. Here.’
Misha reached out, but the officer anticipated his movement. With a short, sharp jerk of his arm, he hurled the whole meticulously collected stack of documents high up into the station roof. The movement alarmed the starlings who were roosting there, and all of a sudden the air seemed to be alive: the tumbling grey papers and the swooping birds. The papers fell down into the crowd, only a few yards away, but as inaccessible as the coast of Japan.
The officer with the Khirgiz eyes smiled at his new recruit.
‘Welcome to the war, comrade fighter.’
The soldiers closed around Misha and began to sweep him away.
Tonya watched numbly, but with ever-rising shock. This, she realised was the moment she’d always dreaded. The moment in which the world proved itself to be as hostile as she had always believed it. She had been right to fear, right to be untrusting, right to have told Misha to leave when he could. These thoughts took shape in a sudden awful burst of realisation. For a second or two, she stood woodenly, seeing Misha’s form dwindle as it passed down the platform in the knot of khaki-clad soldiers. Then, all of a sudden, she found herself running, sprinting, as fast as she could, her shoes clattering down the platform in a burst of noise that made even the soldiers stop and turn.