Authors: Harry Bingham
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General
Misha pushed through the knot of people. The man was still alive, but his arm and foot were trapped and he was bleeding fast. Unless he was extricated quickly, he could easily die from loss of blood.
‘See?’ Tupolev was shouting. ‘Inattention and slovenliness! And there’s too much vodka drunk all round, I’d say. Oh yes!’
Misha threw himself down beside the trapped docker and peered in through the steel wheels in order to try to gauge how to release the man. He stared a few moments, then rolled back into a sitting position.
‘We need to lift the carriage. That winch is still usable, it’s only the loading pin which has sheared off. You, Feodorov, go and find a pin. Volsky, get up the ladder to the drumhead and clear the old pin. Andropov, go for a doctor. Run!’
Tupolev was still shouting too, but people followed Misha’s instructions in preference. Tupolev stood clenching and unclenching his fists by the injured man. His whole air was that of a man worried about a delay in his schedule. Misha continued to direct proceedings, feeling the hammer of excitement, the vital importance of speed.
Six minutes later, the winch was ready. The carriage began to sway off the ground. The docker, a man prematurely aged by drink with just four teeth left in his filthy mouth, was unconscious now. Unconscious and dying. And still trapped. Though the carriage was no longer pressing down on him, his arm had become caught between the wheels. The only way to release it would be to climb under the carriage and ease it clear.
Misha checked the winch. Feodorov had found a new loading pin, but it was far too small for the weight of the carriage. At any time, the whole thing might come thundering down, killing anyone who might be underneath. Tupolev brought his huge bulk close to the trapped man.
‘Right now, comrade, one big heave and it’ll all be over.’
He was about to heave, when Misha snapped at him.
‘Don’t be a bloody fool, you’ll tear his arm off. Stand back.’
Swallowing once, aware of the carriage’s precarious weight looming above him, Misha rolled beneath it.
Under the wheelbase, it was much darker than Misha had expected and for a moment he could see nothing except a knife-blade of pale sunlight between the carriage rear and the ground. Then the carriage’s underbelly began to be revealed in a series of gleams and dull reflections. Misha could see the man’s arm, badly broken and cut, but not, it seemed, beyond hope. Misha began to tease the warm flesh clear of the metal. There was blood everywhere, splashing on Misha’s face and disturbing his view.
There were shouts from outside; something to do with the winch. Misha worked as fast as he could. He thought he’d done it, then found the man’s arm still immobile. He was panting with the effort and the danger, when he realised that it was only the man’s coat which still held him.
‘A knife,’ he shouted, ‘get me a knife.’
An eternity later, or so it seemed, a knife was slid in to him. He cut the fabric of the man’s coat and the man flopped down like a dead fish.
‘You can pull him out now. You can—’
Then it all happened too fast to recall.
The injured man was hauled out so quickly he seemed to shoot out of sight. There were screams from up above. The carriage lurched down. Misha rolled sideways to escape. There was another sharp movement, dark on dark. Then something seized hold of Misha and he felt a violent, irresistible tug, dragging him sideways. He struck his head on something dark and cold.
Then that was all: darkness and silence.
It was in darkness and silence that Tonya hurried from the hospital.
Her father, that drunken fool, had been badly hurt – numerous bones broken, a lot of blood lost – but he would be fine. He was much luckier than he deserved. The ambulance men said someone had risked his life to rescue him and Tonya felt she needed to go and thank his saviour.
She got to the Rail Repairs Yard – a giant shed which squatted like a massive dark beast over the rail lines that led into it. There were a few lights on inside, but the shed was so huge that the few points of light only emphasised its size and shadows. She splashed up the muddy track that led to it and found a door cut into the wooden sides. Beyond the door, there was an office with a lamp lit, but nobody to direct her. From beyond a thin partition wall, she could hear the noise of a busy industrial site: engine noise, men shouting, the ringing of metal on metal. She explored further. She tried one door, found it locked, tried another. The door opened, she came into a passageway, pressed on a bit further, then found another door which opened right out into the railway yard itself.
The sudden change of scale was momentarily daunting. The shed was wide enough that eight railway tracks could enter it side by side. It was long enough that ten railway carriages could be accommodated end to end. And it was high enough that the roof seemed to disappear off into darkness. Though electric bulbs hung down from the roof girders, they did little to illuminate the enormous space.
A man, short but powerfully built, saw her and approached.
‘What, comrade? Looking for your husband, I expect. You’ll have to wait. Party work. I’m sorry, but it’s really no good.’
The man had a bright red face, unhealthily stressed. His plump black moustache quivered.
‘No. My name is Lensky. My father was injured here this afternoon. I wanted to thank whoever it was who—’
‘Ah, yes! Alcohol, of course. Your father was drunk. Disgracefully drunk. Unsafe, is it? You can’t come here and accuse me – oh no! Quite the reverse. The Party Gives high priority – very rightly – safety, of course – not that we can let up, mind you—’
The man boomed on as though anybody cared. Other men had obviously seen Tonya’s entrance and drew close, from curiosity. News of who she was instantly spread and she began to get snippets of fact.
‘—tumbled from the carriage in a stupor—’
‘—the whole thing came smashing down—’
‘—broken loading pin, you see, it’s the only winch we still have working—’
‘—the whole carriage – bam! – eight tons unloaded—’
‘—at least a bottle, I’d say, I don’t think he knew a thing about it—’
‘—old Tupolev just wanted to rip him out. He’d have left his arm right there under the carriage—’
‘—’course, the hard part was lifting the carriage again—’
‘—I wasn’t going in under there. Any fool could see the winch would never hold—’
—bloody fool Tupolev—’
‘—so we sent in our very own bourgeois. Ha, ha, ha! The winch is obviously a true Bolshevik—’
‘—the loading pin was too small—’
‘—almost had his head off—’
‘—came crashing down—’
‘—eight tons unloaded—’
‘—reeking, absolutely reeking—’
Tonya felt the men swarm around her. Judging by the smell, her father hadn’t been the only one to take a drink that day. The Railway Repairs Yard was an all-male preserve and Tonya felt something charged and predatory in the atmosphere.
‘Who is he? Is he here now?’
‘No, no, the hospital took him ages ago. You’re a nurse, aren’t you?’ – Tonya’s uniform was visible under her coat – ‘Didn’t they tell you?’
‘Not my father. The man who pulled him out. He was hurt? Injured?’
‘Ha, ha! Thank the bourgeois, is it? He’s over there.
You won’t get much sense from him, though. Not with a crack on the head like he got.’
The men were unhelpful, pressing close. With their oily, leering faces and black beards and moustaches, the men didn’t just seem like another half of the same species, but like a different species altogether: dirtier, noisier, brutish, dangerous. Unconsciously, Tonya held her coat closed at the front and broke away from the men, heading for the welding bay. Behind her, the fool Tupolev began ordering his men back to work, so she was spared the delight of a fifteen-man escort.
Down in the welding bay, a single man worked with a blowtorch. Showers of flame and sparks were struck into being. The metal glowed red-hot, even white-hot. Nothing of the man himself was visible. He wore a protective suit and had a dark visor to protect his face. Except that he was tall, Tonya could guess almost nothing of his looks. He didn’t see her approach. He didn’t stop work. He was mending a thick metal tube which must have been heavy, but the man handled it with a rare combination of strength and deftness, turning it with his left hand as he welded with his right. Finally the job was done. He cut his torch and the flame died. He pulled his visor up and off. He stepped back and saw Tonya.
She was the first to react.
‘Gracious! Good Lord! Lensky!’
Tonya saw a bright red weal across Misha’s forehead and the start of what looked like an almighty swelling. She was disconcerted by seeing Misha, of all people. She didn’t know what she felt.
‘It’s you… I had no idea… I came because of my father.’
‘My father, Kiryl, the drunken oaf whose life you saved this afternoon.’
‘That was your father, was it? Good Lord.’
As a nurse, Tonya was well accustomed to seeing head trauma, shock, and concussion. She could see at once that Misha had a well developed case of all three. He shouldn’t be working at all, still less handling dangerous equipment. He rubbed his head again, as though trying to clear his mind.
‘You hurt your head. None of the imbeciles over there could tell me what happened.’
Misha shrugged. ‘Your father got himself caught underneath a railway carriage. We had to winch it up and I slid in to get him out. The winch isn’t up to much though, and the whole thing came crashing down again. I only got out because Tupolev got hold of my leg and whipped me out. Somewhere along the way, I banged my head. It’s fine though. Sore, but fine.’
Tonya felt a surge of emotion, a mixture of tenderness, anger, impatience, compassion. She felt angry with her father for being a drunk. She felt suddenly, briefly, angry with all of Soviet Russia for being a place where winches broke, where drunk men tumbled from railway coaches, where injured men were sent back to work, unthanked.
‘You’re not fine,’ she snapped. ‘Come on. I’ll take you home.’
‘No, really, it’s—’
‘Don’t argue. I’m a nurse.’
Brusquely, almost rudely, she pushed Misha away from his work and out towards the exit. He let himself be pushed. When Tupolev called out to him to stop and explain his early departure, Misha just said, ‘Oh don’t be such a damned idiot!’ and carried on walking. Outside, under the violet night and the first scatter of stars, Tonya felt Misha stiffening and pulling away.
‘What’s the matter? You need to get home and rest. I’ll tell Tupolev, if you like. An official instruction from the hospital.’
‘Oh, I don’t care two kopecks for Tupolev … but I’ll go home by myself, thanks. I don’t need you to walk me.’
‘You’ve got a nasty case of concussion. You shouldn’t be alone.’,
Misha, tall, pale, suddenly angry, turned on her.
‘Alone? No, I expect not. But then again, I’m not sure if I want to be walked home by you. Our last expedition didn’t turn out so well, did it?’
‘Our last expedition? The logs? I think I was rude when you left. I’m sorry. I didn’t know… I didn’t mean…’
Misha brought his face close to Tonya’s. She felt his force, his anger.
‘Comrade Lensky, you can be as rude to me as you like. But I had thought we had gone to buy logs together. I didn’t know you were on a little mission from the secret police.’
‘The police? I don’t know… I didn’t… I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Tonya felt her voice vibrating with emotion. She didn’t really understand why. Only it was desperately important to her that this unusual man did not think badly of her.
‘The police. You don’t understand, eh?’
‘No, really not. Really!’
In a few brief and savage words, Misha explained. His arrival home. His instant arrest. His interrogator’s perfect knowledge of their little shopping trip.
Tonya’s face was wet with tears. ‘No. I know nothing of that. I told no one. I wouldn’t. It was you who bought me those logs. That figurine! I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I wanted it almost more than the firewood. They must have followed you. Maybe my cousin. Maybe Rodyon. Not me. I wouldn’t.’
‘Really? Really not?’ For several seconds, Misha searched Tonya’s face for the truth of what she said. Illuminated and simplified by the moonlight, Tonya’s face was a pale oval, surrounded by a halo of dark hair. Her lips and eyes were imploring. They had a softness about them which they seldom or never seemed to have by daylight. A strand of hair had fallen across her face and had stayed there, wet from her tears. At long last, Misha nodded. He put his hand to her face and moved the strand of hair away from it. ‘All right then. I believe you. I take back what I said. Sorry.’
Tonya breathed the word as if it held no meaning. Misha’s apology didn’t seem to change things. Her face was still turned up to his. She was still crying, not even she knew why. Then quietly, gently, she raised herself on tiptoe and put her face to his. She kissed him, the first real kiss of either her life or his. The kiss was mouth to mouth, but still quite chaste. It was as though she wanted to break a barrier, but still allow herself room to retreat if she had got the situation wrong. But she hadn’t. When she pulled away, slightly frightened at what she had just done, he pulled her back and kissed her again. After a few minutes, they stopped kissing, but stayed arm in arm, suddenly and astonishingly close.