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The last weeks of summer at his aunt’s dacha had gripped Konni. It soon it passed into autumn but the sun shone in October as if it had forgotten what time of year it was. There were glowing landscapes and glorious golden days that were mild and windless, and warm enough to abandon coats to the house when walking out. But then came November with the chill of the coming winter and a shiver of approaching danger.
His aunt returned from the town looking distraught and, without taking off her hat or even unbuttoning her coat, immediately went into a huddle with her daughters. She then called Konni to her side and led him into the drawing room where an oil-lamp burned above the table. “It’s all finished,” she remarked.
“Why do you say that? You seem anxious and unhappy. Is something happening?”
“I’ve been to the town and the news is bad – the worse. The White Russians have suffered a serious reverse and are abandoning the region we live in. Within a few days the Red Army will be amongst us.”
He sat solemnly and listened while his aunt told him of her distress. “We are to be governed by the Bolshevik’s, political adventurers who are prepared to experiment with the lives of 130 million people. The Communists detest we kulaks and insist everyone should live a life as low as the floor. When they arrive here their nakaz committees will confiscate everything of value we own. The State will be the new religion. Everyone will be made to conform and behave like mechanical dolls. There will be no room for diverse opinion.”
Her lyrical voice had a suggestion of tears, and a wave of melancholy swept around her as she spoke. “It’s a sad end to a way of life we hold dear, but enviable. The girls and I have discussed the matter and have no desire to flee Sarocherkassk. There is no question of us leaving. This place is our blood and our life and we are reconciled to our fate. Co-operation may at least ensure we survive. You on the other hand are a different matter. As the son of a boyar you will be in peril.”
“Will it come to that? A struggle to survive?” When his aunt didn’t reply he gave the answer himself. “Yes, I suppose I will. It puts an end to all this playacting in skirts. I may as well go and stand by my father on his estates.”
“No. I’ve put off telling you until now in an attempt to spare your feelings for as long as possible, but your father was arrested weeks ago. If he’s not already been shot he’ll have been put to work in a forced labour battalion, which only means he’s as good as dead anyway.”
“Arrested? Arrested for what?”
“For the crime of being a wealthy man. The Communists seem need no other reason than that.”
It was a shock to hear about his father and he waited for some kind of emotion to rise up, but he felt nothing. He’d felt sadness and loss when his mother had died of her disease. She had been a big warm cushion full of comfort and love and yielding softness to him, but in the case of his father there was a void in his heart. He could only remember him as a bearded angry man with fire in his eyes, a man whose greatest love was the land he owned, and who ignored his own son when he went home on holidays from school. “In that case I must stay here with you.”
She could see anguish in his eyes and, awkward with her own transparency, she turned away. But she went on talking. “You can’t do that either. You can’t live your whole life as a masquerade. With the Bolshevik soldiers will come their political commissars and the Checka, the secret police whose purpose is to root out counter-revolutionaries. They will scrutinise every soul in the valley. They’ll pay special attention to those who have recently come here, and I suspect it won’t take long for them to discover who you really are.”
“What else can I do?”
“You’ve lost your father and your inheritance, but you still have your life. It would be best if you leave all this mess behind. I told you when you first arrived here that you were lucky to be part of a well disposed extended family, and now we have a need to test the matter. I have been corresponding with your Uncle Sergei in Odessa over the past months. He is an important official in the Port Authority there, and he swears he can get you out of Russia and over into Greece where his brother settled years ago. The country towards the coast is still in the hands of the White Russians, but it will be dangerous to delay. Things are changing quickly.”
“Greece!” murmured Konni.
“Yes. Some things will be different there of course. A similar religion, but different language and different customs. It will be hard for a while, but you will be safe.”
That night Konni prepared for his journey, although there was really little to prepare other than his mind. He didn’t wish to leave. His aunt’s dacha was the best place he’d ever lived, and he’d stayed in some very grand houses. There had been times – when he’d been at the school in Kharkov – when he’d allowed no time for consideration bursa escort of houses less fine than his father’s. It was only recently that he’d come to realise that a house was only as good as the people who lived in it.
Since he was going to make a journey it occurred to him he should pack a bag. But then it struck him that his father’s estate had been confiscated, and he was now a penniless orphan. He possessed nothing. He didn’t even own the clothes he stood in, but he had become so attached to them that he would insist that he be allowed to travel in the guise of a girl.
He didn’t find the idea of going to Greece at all distasteful. After all it was the land of Aristotle, Plato, Homer and Pythagoras, and the source of countless colourful myths and legends. It had been a crucible of art and cultured civilisation a thousand years before the Vikings and Slavs combined to form the hybrid Rus to give a name to Russia and the Russians.
In some ways Sarocherkassk seemed much the same as usual the following day. The shops in the town square were open and the church doors invited worship, but the school was closed and Madam Kormilov had disappeared. Overnight red posters had appeared and were now on every street corner on every wall. Directives telling everyone how to behave when their Communist saviours arrived. The new regime seemed imminent and some people had put on red arm-bands to display their compliance even before it became installed. He saw Dmitri, active beside his father the postmaster, daubing a slogan on a wall with whitewash.
WELCOME TO THE HEROIC SOLDIERS OF THE GREAT SOCIALIST REVOLUTION.
When he saw Konni walking towards the station he came over, filling his head with doubt about whether he wanted to leave at all.
“So, m’lady, you’re running away. That can only mean you’re a supporter of the White Russian scum,” Dimitri said stonily. “I suspected you as a bourgeois capitalist when you mentioned you’d once had a nursery nurse. Just as well we didn’t become too involved with each other. You’d never make a good comrade. Good riddance I say.” Without waiting for a reply he made an abrupt about face and walked away.
Konni stood, head bowed, feeling dejected and misunderstood until his aunt put an arm around him. “Ah, the friendships of youth are so fragile. But being young means there is always time for striking up new friendships.”
The railway was his introduction to the misery of refugees fleeing the Bolshevik advance. The tiny, insignificant station at Sarocherkassk swarmed with people from the surrounding countryside, most of who had been rich with large houses, but were now desperate just to gain a place in a fourth-class railway carriage. He noticed that the women, many of them reared in luxury, faced their hopeless future with fortitude. It was the men who were much more given to self-pity. His aunt handed him two tickets.
“We are lucky. This train will probably be the last one to leave before the Communists arrive.” Svetlana and Katerina each gave him the silver teaspoon that had been bought to mark their birth, and his aunt gave him a fob-watch that had belonged to her husband. All were family treasures, but to hold onto them would risk them being stolen or confiscated in the following days. His aunt also pressed into his hand several white one- rouble notes to assist with incidentals along the way.
The farewells were sad, but once they were done Konni had to contend with the company of Lyuba, an imposition he resented. But his aunt had explained that the communists would be vindictive towards anyone who employed a house servant, and since his uncle was in urgent need of a cook the old woman would be better off in Odessa. And also, his aunt had said, since he had decided to maintain his deception and travel in the guise of a young girl it made sense to have a mature female companion. Respectable girls didn’t travel long distances alone.
They were fortunate enough to be allotted places in a terplusshka, a boxcar fitted with double wooden bunks and a small stove called a burzhuika which had been designed to burn anything, coal, timber, books, rags. People would have to scavenge for fuel whenever the train stopped, but if kept stoked up it could keep them reasonably warm and heat water for tea.
Outside it was a drizzly November day. The weather was terrible, and everyone knew the rain could be followed by the first winter snow and the kind of temperatures that made everything freeze solid. For half a day they rumbled along at eight to ten miles an hour, the monotony often punctured by stops at small wayside halts where more people would clamour to climb aboard. Soon the boxcar they were in, built to accommodate sixteen people, was holding twice that number.
Inevitably there were other unscheduled stops and delays; to take on water or fix a faulty coupling, or to cool a hot axle-box, but on the second day of their journey the whole train was mysteriously shunted into bursa escort bayan a siding to leave the main line clear. After a while a railway official came along and explained there was only a single rail track for the next hundred miles, and a military train going in the opposite direction had been given priority for its use. Their own train would have to wait until it had passed through.
For a while a group of people in the boxcar stood at the door looking out. In the distance could be heard the rumble of heavy artillery, and it was clear that the Whites were suffering much more than just a local setback. They were being pressed into retreat, and everyone on the train began to fear the Communists would overtake them before they moved again. The flat landscape allowed them all to see for miles and an orange-red glow lit the skyline some distance to the west. A house was burning on the horizon. They had been passing through a comparatively peaceful region, but the country had already gone very Red and Bolshevik sympathisers were known to be raiding vulnerable places.
The woman next to Konni had a face the colour of candle-grease. She was wearing a heavy fox-fur coat, and a fox-fur hat, but in spite of the clothes she was trembling so much that the fur tail on her hat bobbed about as if it belonged to a live animal. In contrast a fat little anxious man wearing riding breeches was sweating. It transpired he was a merchant from the neighbouring province of Belarus, the place known as White Russia that had given a name to all the forces opposed to the communists. Due to the conflict he had lost his home and his livelihood.
“The Whites are having a difficult time at the moment,” he remarked, using a handkerchief to wipe his mouth. His bearded face had a raw, red flush and his eyes were bloodshot and bulging. “Worse than that. Their resistance is melting like snow in spring sunshine and they’re allowing the Reds to swarm south. My life will be in danger if the Bolsheviks catch me. I must get away. I’m a vendor of fine wine and champagne, you see. Unfortunately I’ve done a lot of business with White Russian officers. The communists hate anything that whiffs of luxury, and the people who deal in it. Envious bastards!”
“I know only too well how cruel they can be,” Konni murmured.
The man smiled, letting his eyes linger on Konni’s face, then trail down his body like he wanted to sniff his legs. “These are unpredictable times we are living through,” he said, as he slid an arm loosely around his waist and clamped a hand on his hip. “But there can be comfort in shared adversity.” He moved closer and leaned down to whisper secretively in his ear. “Adversity is one thing, but there is no need for an angel like you to experience discomfort. If you feel cold in the night you can come under a blanket with me.” The woman with the fox-fur turned and gave a piercing look.
“Thank you,” Konni replied. “But I’m well supplied with warm clothing.”
On the second day the sky lay over them like a scratchy grey woollen blanket, and it snowed. The snow lacked commitment and didn’t lie deep, but powdery deposits floated from the roof swirled into the boxcar when anyone slid open the door to get a gasp of fresh air. It made the landscape outside looked bleak and desolate; miles and miles of bare country, small stunted trees with almost no undergrowth at all.
There was no news of when they might continue their journey and the train stood idle that night and all the following day. People passed the time talking and telling each other sad stories, or they played cards or sat in private contemplation. Konni slept much of the time since that was a good way to forget about food, of which their supply was limited. He knew there would be a temptation to nibble at it out of boredom if he lay awake, and there was no way of knowing how long the train would remain stationary. When he awoke in the late afternoon he felt real hunger. With an ache in his stomach he glanced at the watch in his pocket. At his aunt’s home everyone would be sitting down to supper at this time.
“We’ll eat something now,” he told Lyuba.
They had been provided with a wheel of bread, a large raisin cake and some dry tea and sugar to last the couple of days it would take them to reach their destination., but when he looked in the bundle in which it had been wrapped he discovered the raisin cake and the bread both gone. Not even a crumb remaining. He glared at Lyuba with deep suspicion. “Where are they?”
A guilty look stole over the woman’s face, but it didn’t burden her for more than a few seconds. “Madam didn’t give us enough food to last the journey.”
“You’ve eaten it, you greedy pig. You’ve swallowed everything all in one fat session while I was sleeping.”
The woman pouted sulkily, “Hardly filled a hole. Anyway, there’s a khutor – a village just across the field outside, and your aunt gave you some money for buying extra stuff. Give the money to me and escort bursa I’ll go and get some more bread.”
“No, you’ll just feed your own face and spend what’s left on booze.”
With a sour expression Lyuba sank back in her seat. “Cheeky bitch, talking to an old woman like that. I should give you a slap. No one would blame me.”
“If you hit me I’ll tell everyone on the train you’re a Red spy. They’ll drag you outside and beat you to death.”
He put on a long, fleece-lined jacket and a shapka, the kind of fur hat so beloved by Russians. Climbing down to the trackside he stamped his feet and pulled on gloves, trying to warm himself. The sky was blue after the snow, but the afternoon was cold. Enterprising people had scrambled from the train to light little fires alongside the track, and with small pots they carried with them they were cooking scratch meals.
Squinting against the brightness of the snow he set off. “I’m coming with you,” said Lyuba falling into a waddling gait beside him as he started out for the village. On their way they passed a group of dishevelled looking soldiers who were slumped down at the side of a dilapidated hut.
“Hey babushka,” called out one of them. “Are you coming here hoping to rent out your daughter?”
Lyuba scoffed contemptuously at them. “If I was I’d know better than come near you ragamuffins. Not one of you will have two kopecks to rub together.”
“Pretty girl,” another said, looking at Konni. “I don’t have any money, but I have vodka, Bele-Golovka, the best kind, and I’m willing to give you a nip just for a feel of her tits.”
“No one likes the taste of vodka. They only drink it to get drunk,” Lyuba said scornfully.
“I’ll give you a half-bottle of good slivovitz for a quick-time with her in the hut,” offered a third one.
Konni suddenly had an awful feeling that the degenerate woman was beginning to feel tempted into some kind of disgusting agreement by the offer of plum brandy, so he spoke up himself. “We just want bread.”
“Tough!” snarled the man. “All the bread in town was sold by midmorning today. You’ll have to come back tomorrow and get in the queues early.”
Five paces further on Lyuba drew to a halt. “There’s no point in going into the town if there’s no bread.”
Hunger gnawed in the pit of Konni’s stomach. “There must be something we can buy to eat. You go back to the train, I’ll go on my own.”
The cold, moist air was brittle and freezing. Konni braced himself against the gusting breeze and walked on. When he reached it he found the town was actually more like a large village. A few stone structures gave it a centre, but most of the buildings were of timber stanchions and drab grey clapboard, all scattered around without any definite street plan. It was bursting at its seams with people; Poles, Czechs and multitudes of confused peasantry from the countryside. In a wayside field a large number of small fires were flickering – refugees fleeing from the Reds, old and young, several hundred of them, most with nothing for protection against the weather but the clothes they wore. They looked destitute and many of them already seemed ill.
Dispirited White Army soldiers were everywhere too, standing around or squatting disconsolately. One of them explained that their unit had completed a weeks hard fighting at the front and had been pulled back to reorganise. Konni didn’t think they looked much organised at all. Numbers of them were drunk, sitting at the side of the road as if on holiday, waving bottles. Others were in the trading places and houses, filled with arrogance and indifference as they scrounged, scavenged and looted, shoving loaded fists into their packs. No one with authority was there to interrupt any of it.
He hurried through them, making eye contact with no one, almost forgetting why he was there and what he was doing, but he faltered and stood as paralysed as Buridan’s legendry ass when a big, rough hand gripped his arm. “Got you, you guttersnipe.”
He gazed up to see a man with tiny malevolent eyes set in a suety, undistinguished face. He had a heavy bulldog jaw and a snout on a flabby body, inelegant and brutish. Without exchanging any words the man shoved him briskly through the door of a tavern, and he found himself peering into a large smoke-filled room filled with military officers and their lady friends. They were listening and dancing to a tzigane, a gypsy orchestra. Empty wine bottles and full ash trays littered the tables.
The women were tired looking girls who nonetheless laughed energetically at whatever the men said. Some of the officers were slumped across the furniture, sleeping like beached whales; others were conducting a heated discussion. It seemed their colonel was dead and the adjutant of their regiment had gone missing, and they were arguing about who should take command.
The man hauled him through into a small room at the back that served as a kind of parlour to the woman who ran the place. The woman pushed herself from a chair as they entered, obviously resenting the intrusion. She was middle-aged, wearing a green velvet skirt so long that it trailed on the floor. “What have you brought her here for?”
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