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Authors: Harry Bingham

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BOOK: The Lieutenant’s Lover
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Misha nodded. ‘Right then,’ he smiled.

He embraced his mother. He felt a surge of love for her. He felt himself, every inch, his mother’s child. He bent his head down and let her cradle it against her shoulder as she had done years ago. Then they embraced again in the normal way. Her eyes and his were blurry with tears.

‘Take care, Mother.’

‘I will.’

‘I know.’

‘Come with us, Misha. You still can.’

Misha smiled and shook his head. ‘I’ll be fine.’ Behind him he felt pressure from Tonya’s hand on his back. ‘Go,’ she whispered. He could hardly hear her over the noise of the grain chute, closer now than ever. He didn’t even bother to shake his head. Picking up Yevgeny, he hugged him once, then eased him through the open panel into the claustrophobic metal compartment.

‘Farewell, little man.’

The boy nodded, but was too overcome to say or do anything more.

‘Mother.’

Emma was about to make a movement, when the train jerked forward again, and they all steadied themselves until it stopped. Then Emma simply smiled and kissed Misha on the lips. ‘You are a good boy.’ She climbed into the compartment, her basket on her lap, and began to arrange their blankets and cushions for Yevgeny’s comfort.

Tonya came close to Misha.

‘Go,’ she said. ‘I’ll follow when I can.’

It wasn’t a new suggestion. Since Rodyon’s visit to her apartment, she’d felt more strongly with each passing day that Misha needed to leave. The country wasn’t safe for Misha, and was getting less safe with every month. He ought to go. She felt it in her bones. But though she’d argued with him, pleaded with him, stormed at him, cajoled him, he’d been as stubborn as a rock. ‘Things’ll get better,’ he said. ‘Look at the French Revolution. That was bad for a few years, then it blew itself out. It’ll be the same here. It’s only a question of waiting and being careful.’

Tonya knew he was wrong. What did he know of such things? All his life, he’d been rich, privileged, cocooned, lucky. She hadn’t. She knew about hardship. She had seen her mother die, and her brother Pavel almost die, from typhus. She knew things didn’t always turn out for the best; that for the unlucky ones at the bottom of the pile, they hardly ever did.

‘Go,’ she said again. ‘Please. I’ll follow when I can. Babba won’t be around for ever. Pavel is growing up. I can’t leave them now, but…’

He shook his head. This was a dispute they’d had a dozen times over the last week. Their positions had become locked and irreconcilable. It was the closest they’d yet come to a proper argument. The two of them waited together in unhappy silence while his mother arranged herself in the little metal compartment. Then Emma smiled, took Yevgeny onto her lap, and signalled that she was ready.

‘Good luck, Mother.’

‘Good luck yourself.’

Misha reached in, clasped her hand, then stood back and slid the panel closed. The compartment already looked like nothing now: part of the wagon, nothing more. Tonya said something to Emma from outside, but no answer was audible.

The train moved forwards once more. It was about twenty-five or thirty wagons long, and the first dozen or so were already filled. The grain chute itself was lit up and there was a man in the wooden observation kiosk under the chute itself. Misha and Tonya kept back to avoid being seen, but waited long enough to see that their wagon was filled like all the rest. They saw the grain, grey and colourless in the poor light, flood the wagon, then stop. Nobody noticed anything. The train moved on.

Right or wrong, there was no going back.

6

For two days, nothing happened. No good news. No bad news.

Misha didn’t dare to hope, didn’t have cause to fear. He went to work as usual. He saw Tonya in the evenings as usual. Now, of course, they had a private apartment to themselves, a bed to make use of. Strangely, though, neither of them were able to think about making love while Emma and Yevgeny’s fate was so uncertain. Not just that, but the idea of undressing completely and being wholly naked with the other seemed sudden and rather shocking – although they had made love frequently, it had always been outdoors and always at least half-clothed. So for those first two days and nights, they spent time together, cooked and ate together, then sat by the empty stove, holding hands and thinking about the rattle of train wheels in the dark. When they slept they kept their underclothes on, covered only by a thin sheet in the sweltering night.

Then, by the third day, things seemed brighter. The arrangement was that, if the escape was successful, Emma would contact a Helsinki lawyer named Dr Pakkinen, who in turn would write to a Petrograd lawyer named Kamenev, an old friend of the family. The code for ‘all went well’ would be a request to pass on greetings to Misha. It might take weeks for the letter to get through. On the other hand, if the escape had been detected, then Misha’s own arrest would follow with swift and bloody certainty. No news was good news of the best possible sort.

So Misha started to hope. But it was Tonya, as ever more careful than him, who urged him to proceed with care. They were upstairs in the apartment, sitting in front of the wide open windows, basking in the warm air and golden light.

‘You have to make a declaration to someone,’ she said. ‘If you don’t do it now, and they find out that you’ve said nothing, you’ll be held responsible.’

Misha frowned. ‘You’re right, only not yet. I don’t want to risk being too soon.’

‘And I don’t want to risk you being too late,’ said Tonya, sharply. ‘It’s not only you to think of now.’

‘No. Perhaps you’re right. What do you think? Maybe the house committee?’

‘Of course the house committee. I’m not saying you need to go to the Cheka.’ The Cheka were the new, much-feared, secret police.

They stood up. He was perhaps eight or nine inches taller than she was and the difference in that little room seemed suddenly huge. Tonya, as always, wore her hair tied and pinned at the back. He had never seen it otherwise. Putting his hands gently to the back of her head, he began pulling at the pins. She did nothing to help him except turn her head as he wanted, and she stood silently breathing, feeling the warmth of his hands on her neck. Then he was done. Her hair fell free in a dark curtain, framing her face and softening it. Misha ran his hands through her hair, then dropped them. The two of them stood in silence. It felt like the most intimate thing they’d ever done.

‘Well?’ said Tonya.

‘Well?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I think you look beautiful.’

‘Really?’

Misha was about to answer light-heartedly, before seeing that Tonya had been genuinely anxious.

‘Really. You should wear it like that all the time.’

‘I always wanted curly hair. I used to see all these pictures of the ladies at court—’

‘I like your hair just as it is. Besides, most of those court ladies wore wigs.’

‘Really?’

‘Most of them were bald underneath. Or hairy like a bear.’

‘Idiot!’

She pushed him and he pushed her back. But they both knew that they needed to go downstairs to see the old woman of the house committee before she retired for the night. Tonya was about to start putting her hair up again, when Misha stopped her.

‘Don’t do that. Go as you are.’

‘I can’t go like this. I look like—’

She stopped and blushed. They fought for a moment, then compromised. Tonya tied her hair at the back, but only loosely, so it still fell like a soft halo around her face. They went downstairs and knocked on the basement door, where the comrade chairwoman of the house committee had her room. The old lady was ready for bed, dressed in some voluminous white nightgown which could have served for somebody five times larger. She cackled when she saw the two of them together and Tonya felt sure that she was staring at her hair and drawing conclusions. Misha explained why they had come. He said that his mother and Yevgeny had gone out to visit friends the previous evening and not come back. He said he was very worried.

‘Worried? You should be, comrade. In this city, disappearance is a bad thing. It’s not the right thing from a political perspective. If a comrade worker vanished that would be one thing, but for a member of the propertied classes – well! That’s a serious business.’

The old woman seemed caught between two emotions. The first and strongest one was fear and anger that Misha had brought her this problem. But the other emotion was delight at the scope for gossip and interference. When her chatter turned to the latter subject, her voice became suddenly italicised, full of leering innuendo.

‘Oh yes, and you will need to inform the Bureau of Labour. If the disappeared ones don’t turn up soon, then you’d do well to send their papers along to the foodstuff distribution committee. You wouldn’t want to be found profiting from excess distributions – not someone in your position. Not even if you can think of
other young people
who might enjoy the food. Oh yes, I’m sure you have ideas on
how to use the living space
. Perhaps you already have done. Eh? That would be something, wouldn’t it, comrade? Your mother missing, maybe killed for all you know, and
only one thought on your mind.’

They burst away from the old woman as soon as they could. Going upstairs, they hugged each other tightly. The future seemed suddenly very close, unknown and dangerous. Almost without speaking, by common assent, they stripped silently off and made love, naked and in bed together for the very first time.

7

The decrees were published. Internal exile for the ‘propertied classes’, an old Tsarist tool turned to new uses by the Bolsheviks.

Misha was relocated, but not far. The Petrograd railway authorities didn’t want to lose Misha’s services, so he was shifted just a hundred miles to Petrozavodsk, on the line north towards Murmansk. Misha was employed as a railway engineer there as part of a small team of four, one of whom was also an ex-bourgeois like himself. The job was pleasant, his fellow workers positively cordial. Meantime, the old lawyer Kamenev had passed on greetings from Doctor Pakkinen in Helsinki.

Misha felt a fierce kind of joy at the news. His mother was safe. His brother was safe. He had done his duty to his father and his family.

Best of all, it wasn’t hard for Tonya to come out to see him, often once a week. She’d come sometimes on her own, sometimes with Pavel, and the three of them would go out, looking for mushrooms in the woods, or swimming or boating on Lake Onezhskoye. They got on well. Misha took a liking to Pavel and taught the boy metalwork and how to bait a fishing line. Pavel still hero-worshipped Rodyon, but seemed to have a place in his affections for Misha too.

Then, one late November afternoon, Tonya was in the yard below her apartment. The family’s fuel allocation had just arrived and she wanted to get the logs upstairs before they were stolen. She had just taken one load up and had her arms full with another, when she observed, in the growing gloom, somebody bending over the pile and helping themselves to as much as they could carry.

Tonya threw a log at the stooping figure.

‘Hey! Get out of there!’

The figure straightened.

‘Well, comrade, that’s not very friendly.’

It was Misha.

Tonya dropped her logs, and ran over to him, apologising and, in the same breath, telling him that he shouldn’t have come here to Petrograd, it was too dangerous for him to break the terms of his exile.

‘Lensky, Lensky!’ he said, kissing her. ‘I’m here legally, or sort of. I’m here to pick up a new slide valve for one of our engines. The one they send us keeps getting stolen. I’m due back at midnight.’

Tonya’s emotions turned at once from worry to hospitality.

‘Good! Then come up! I didn’t know you were coming, or I’d have found some meat for you somehow. I’ve got a beef stock, though. I could make soup, and—’

Misha brushed away her words as if he were clearing snow from a woodpile.

‘I can’t stay. I told you. I’ve got to go and get this valve. But listen. There’s a hospital at Petrozavodsk. It’s small and not very good, but it needs staff. I’ve made friends with a doctor there – a real doctor, a proper old bourgeois like myself – and he can get you a position there as a nurse. Just three days a week, mind you. For the winter only. Pavel is old enough to take care of himself for that time.’

‘There’s Babba, too. I couldn’t…’

‘So get Pavel to pull his weight. He’s easily old enough and he only does so little because you let him. Or Rodyon. He’s always offered to do more.’

Other objections rose to Tonya’s lips, but they got no further. Tonya knew that she was seeing problems only because she was scared, because she didn’t believe in luck when it came, because she distrusted the world most of all when it seemed to promise something. But being with Misha changed things somewhat. His outlook was so different from her own, so boundlessly optimistic, that she couldn’t help but doubt her own first instincts.

He saw the struggle in her face and held her gently to him.

‘It’ll be all right. Just say yes. I’ll sort everything else out.’

She looked up at him – his earnest face, long and pale in the twilight. She nodded dumbly.

BOOK: The Lieutenant’s Lover
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