Utama The Industry of Souls

The Industry of Souls

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Title Page

Copyright Notice


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Also by Martin Booth


for Vera and Volodya

who know of such things,

with love

It is the industry of the soul, to love and to hate; to seek after the beautiful and to recognise the ugly, to honour friends and wreak vengeance upon enemies; yet, above all, it is the work of the soul to prove it can be steadfast in these matters …


It was only this morning and yet it seems much longer ago. I might have lived a week since dawn.

Perhaps it is that, in my dotage, the god who controls time has seen fit to play the fool with me either by inexorably slowing down the clock or awarding me more hours than he does my fellow man, more than are my fair due. Perhaps the truth is that he is a sympathetic god who knew that, today of all days, I needed more time.

I woke as I always do, just after six, regardless of whether the summer sun is up and the birds contesting the day, or it is still night with the land clutched in winter’s Arctic fist, and lay quite still. Usually, this is a quiet time when I empty the jug of my mind in readiness for whatever the coming day may pour into it. Yet, this morning, I came to consciousness with an inch or two of life’s murky liquid already sloshing about in the bottom, and remained in my bed cogitating upon it: it had already occupied some sleepless hours of the night.

Eventually, there came the inevitable knock upon the door, quiet but assertive. From its insistence, I could tell the sound was Frosya’s knuckles playing upon the bare ve; rtical planks. Through the crack that appears a few centimetres to the left of the middle hinge every summer, when the air is dry, the sky is a washed lazy blue the colour of ducks’ eggs and the little house breathes, I could see her shadow. I cannot be sure but, on occasion, I think she tries to peer through the crack.

‘Shurik!’ she called, her voice not much above a half-whisper. ‘Shurik! Eight o’clock. It’s time to wake up.’

Shurik. That is her pet name for me and has been since the very start, since the tide of time cast me onto the beach of her life and left me stranded there.

She must know I am already awake when she comes for me every morning. I am sure she is aware of the fact that the habits of half a life-time are far too ingrained in me to change and that I have long since been awake. Yet, as I do every day, I did not let on for this is a part of our daily routine, the teasing little game I play with her.


Her voice took on a sudden, slight yet discernible tension. I knew what she was thinking. It was the thought which passes through her head every morning these days, that I will not answer and she, lifting the latch, will come into my room to discover me stiff, cold and no longer giving a damn.


She was a little louder, my name tinged with the fear which was momentarily lingering in her heart. If my hearing was better, I’m sure I would have picked up her pulse as it accelerated with her apprehension.

‘Yes,’ I replied at last, the game having reached its climax. ‘Good morning.’


Her anxiety vanished: her pulse was slowing and there was a hint of chastisement in her words.

‘It’s time to open your shutters.’

As I heard her steps retreat across the floorboards, changing pitch as she went out onto the porch, I wondered if, by shutters, she meant my eyelids or the aluminium panels Trofim fashioned and put up last autumn to cover the window, replacing the iron ones which had rusted. After a few moments, the musical tumble of water pouring from the spout of her kettle reached me.

I swung my legs over the edge of my bed, feeling for the floor with my toes and careful not to catch the loose skin on the back of my thighs between the mattress and the raised wooden rim of the frame. There is so much loose skin on me these days: I am forever watching out not to nick it.

Every morning, as I perch on the edge of the bed like an old turkey, with my wattles hanging loose around me, I take stock of all I am, all I have to show for my timeless journey upon this earth.

The bed is not mine: nor is the little table bearing my steel fountain pen and a sheaf of paper, the upright chair and the wooden chest under the window. The cushion embroidered with a tapestry butterfly on the chair is mine as are my steel-framed spectacles and the row of books on the shelf. The shelf, however, is not mine. The oil lamp with the smoke-stained glass chimney which I use when the electricity fails, the small framed photograph hanging from a nail in the wall above my books and, of course, my clothing which I keep in the chest, belong to me. However, the tumbler containing water on the floor beside my bed, the plate from which I ate one of Komarov’s apples in the night and the curtain folded away beside the window belong to Frosya and Trofim whilst the Afghan rug is on loan to me by Sergei Petrovich, a neighbour. The cutlery on the plate is mine. As Frosya once pointed out to me, a man who does not possess his own knife and fork is a stranger to dignity.

Footsteps approached again and there was a knock on the door once more. Before I could bid her enter, it opened and Frosya came in carrying a chipped blue enamel basin of steaming water in which a flannel floated just under the surface, looking vaguely like a miniature grey sting-ray.

‘Time to greet the new day, Shurik,’ she announced and, lowering the basin to the floor by my feet, bent over and kissed me on my brow. She smelt strongly of soap and faintly of roses. ‘It’s a fine summer’s morning.’

‘And what day is it?’ I enquired.

She snapped the catches on the shutters and swung them open but slowly so the brilliant sunlight did not catch my old eyes unawares and temporarily blind me.

‘Thursday,’ she answered. ‘August 14.’ She turned and held out a small packet which she had had secreted in her pocket. ‘Happy birthday, dear Shurik.’

I looked from the little package to her face. Her eyes were wet with tears which had not yet started to spill down her cheek.

‘So,’ I said, in English, ‘how old am I today?”

‘Today, Alexander Alanovich Bayliss,’ she replied, also in English, ‘you are eighty years old.’ She Russianified my name, giving me the middle patronymic for she knows my father was called Alan: then she rubbed the rim of her right eye with her finger and, reverting to Russian, ordered, ‘Open your present.’

My fingers pulled at the wrapping of silver foil. It might have contained a bar of dark, bitter chocolate. She knows I have a penchant for it. Yet it was not. It was a small icon, hand-painted upon wood with a thin halo of gold round its head.

‘And who is this?’

‘Saint Basil,’ Frosya replied.

With my glasses out of reach on the bookshelf, I held the icon closer to my face to get a better look at it. The colours of the painting, which lacked any sense of perspective whatsoever, were deep and rich and ancient. The saint had a bland unimpassioned look, neither a smile nor a frown. It was the stereo-typical look of the disparaging innocent, characteristic of all men who would be holy or profess power, gazing out upon a corrupt world from the safe cave of their belief, high up the mountain of their dogma, regarding human fallibility as a petty, passing flaw on their god’s creation, nothing more than a raindrop bending light on creation’s window. His hand was raised in front of his chest in a begrudging benediction.

‘His halo is gold,’ Frosya said. ‘Real gold. Thin, but solid gold. Not plated silver. The icon comes from Romania. The criminals there are selling them. Trofim purchased it when he was in Volgograd last month.’

I made to stand up but she put her hand on my shoulder. Now, the tears were seeping down her cheek. Just the weight of her hand was enough to keep me seated.

‘You should not have bought this,’ I remonstrated with her. ‘It will have cost far too much. And in dollars, not roubles.’

‘How many dollars buy love?’ she answered softly.

She knelt on the floor at my feet and dipped her hands in the basin, wringing out the flannel and holding it open upon her palms.

‘It depends where you are,’ I told her. ‘In St Petersburg, where I understand from the television there are a copious number of foreign visitors these days, love probably costs twenty-five American dollars at the eastern end of the Nevsky Prospekt, near the Metro station, whilst outside the Astoria Hotel in ulitsa Gertsena it must be about fifty. Within the Astoria, out of the rain and the snow, inside the cocktail lounge, the price will be higher…’

‘You’re a naughty old man!’ she chided me. ‘You know what I mean.’

I put my hand on the crown of her head. I might have been Saint Basil himself, giving her a blessing or, had I a beard the colour of wood ash and as dense as a blackberry bush, Father Kondrati who lives in the house by the bridge, below the church at the other end of the village.

‘Yes, I know exactly what you mean.’

Frosya looked up at me, like a child before her uncle or a sinner in front of her confessor.

‘We love you, Shurik,’ she said simply. ‘So much. So very much.’

I did not reply. There was no need to and she expected no answer. Between the two of us, much passes that requires no words of thanks, no explanation, no interpretation or extrapolation.

A movement at the door drew my eye. Just over the lintel lurked Murka, Frosya’s handsome tabby cat, with white socks on its front paws and a white flash on its forehead. I raised my hand from its mistress’s head in greeting. The cat, in the way of haughty women and supercilious felines, stared an ennuyant acknowledgement then strolled off.

Frosya draped the flannel over the side of the basin and rolled up the trouser legs of my pyjamas almost to my groin. The veins in my legs looked like a relief map of a particularly bizarre and byzantine underground railway system.

‘Now to get your blood warm,’ she said in the matter-of-fact and falsely jovial tone of a nurse. ‘Get you moving. Today, you must go round the village. Everyone wants to see you.’

With that, she spread the hot flannel over my shin, pressing it down with her left hand whilst the fingers of her right kneaded my skin just above the knee. The heat of the water seemed to run through me like the first vodka of the day in a confirmed drunk. No drug could have coursed its way so fervidly through such old flesh and brittle bones as those of which I am now constructed.

I sat quite still, my eyes fixed on the cloudless sky outside. The sun was warm upon my face. Somewhere in the village, a dog was barking. Sparrows in the gutter above the window were chattering gaily.

Gradually, the barking subsided and the sparrows’ twittering conversation faded until all I could hear was the voice of Kirill Karlovich, Frosya’s father, not ten centimetres from my ear. He was speaking as if his mouth were full of grit.

‘Shurik,’ he was saying. ‘Go to Frosya. One day, a million years from now. Even if you are a ghost. Go to her. Tell her it was good.’

‘What was good?’ I heard myself asking, my voice echoing as if from the end of a long, dark tunnel.

‘To die with a friend,’ Kirill replied. ‘To die by the hand of a man whose name you know.’

* * *

To the side and rear of the house, there is a yard surrounded by a flower bed in which Frosya grows marigolds and, closer to the wall under the window of my room, dahlias the tubers of which she pulls up every autumn to nurture safely in a box under her bed until spring. In this yard, as soon as the warm weather breaks, Trofim sets up a table under a silver birch which he has carefully pruned and trained into a weeping tree about three metres high to the crown. It is here I sit on sunny days, the leaves rippling in the breeze, the hanging tresses of the branches giving me a living cave from which to observe Frosya going about her chores and Trofim, when he is not working at the garage, tending his vegetable plot or looking after his hens.

This morning, Frosya laid out my breakfast on the table. It was a meagre repast for, in my advanced years, I do not eat much: a small piece of hard cheese, a slice of bread, a pared and cored apple and a cup of plain tea without milk or sugar.

As I cut into the cheese, Frosya joined me, sitting opposite me across the table. She, too, had a cup of tea.

‘You are such a man of habit, Shurik. A man of schedules. Every day, cheese, bread, apple. Do you never want something different? An egg?’

She looked up the gentle slope behind the house, towards the distant tree line where the forests begin that run, without interruption save for occasional roads and railway lines, clear to the Volga. Twenty metres in from the trees was Trofim’s chicken run built around an old, solitary oak tree.

‘I am not that fond of eggs,’ I informed her. ‘As for habit, I feel secure in knowing how my life pans out. A day with a timetable feels safe.’

I smiled at her and, placing the sliver of cheese I had cut on the edge of the slice of bread, raised it to my mouth and bit into it. The bread was dark, dense, slightly moist and grainy.

‘What will you do today, Shurik?’

‘The usual,’ I replied. ‘Take my walk down through the village, across the river, through the forest and back here. My customary route, to my customary schedule.’

‘You will take longer today,’ Frosya predicted. ‘People want to talk to you.’ She cradled her cup in her hands as if the weather was chilly and she was warming her fingers. ‘Today is special for you and for them. If you want to be back on time, you will have to leave earlier than usual.’

‘I shall leave when I’m ready,’ I declared. ‘No sooner, no later.’

Frosya sipped her tea. She had something on her mind and was not sure whether to broach the subject or leave it be. I knew what she was concerned about, too: yet I did not intend to say anything. She would come to it in her own good time.

‘Do you like your St. Basil?’ she asked.

‘He’s very fine and I’m very grateful to you for him.’ I took a swallow of tea: a crumb of the bread had lodged in my gullet and I washed it down. ‘A remarkable man from a veritable clan of saints. As I recall, his grandmother, father, mother, older sister and two younger brothers all feature in the hagiographies. He was a friend of St. Gregory and upon his principles are based the monastic paradigms of the Orthodox church. He showed much sympathy for the poor, always took the side of the under-dog and was critical of wealth even though he came from a very well-to-do family. He was also said to be obstinate, argumentative and querulous. In short, he was an ideal saint for Russia.’

Frosya laughed and declared, ‘For an atheist, you know a lot about the church.’

‘To defeat your enemy,’ I justified my knowledge, ‘you must know him in all his guises.’

‘You, too, are a remarkable man, Shurik.’

‘No,’ I complained. ‘That is not right, Frosya. I am not. I am merely a man shaped by his destiny.’

For a long moment, she was silent. She was, I could feel it, about to bring up the subject which was haunting her. Casting me a quick glance, she then looked into the distance, steeling her courage.

‘When will they arrive?’ she enquired at last, still not looking in my direction.

‘This afternoon. The letter said they would get here about five o’clock. It is a long drive for them.’

‘Are they coming from Moscow?’

‘Not directly, no. I suspect they will have stayed last night somewhere. In Voronezh, perhaps.’

She was silent for a moment then opened her mouth to speak.

‘Do not ask, Frosya,’ I warned her.

Yet she had to. It was in her feminine nature to need to know.

‘But have you decided, Shurik?’

I did not reply but reached out and, unfurling her fingers from around her cup, took them in my own. I looked at our hands. Mine are old, gnarled as the roots of a cypress: hers are soft, not as a young girl’s might be but as a caring woman’s. Frosya was 48 last month.

‘How long have I lived here?’ I asked her.

‘Twenty years.’

‘And still you don’t know me? You who can tell everything that is happening in your husband’s mind? Surely you know what is going on in mine, too. I have lived here with the pair of you for all your married life bar the first four years.’

She smiled. It was a loving smile.

‘Yes,’ she admitted, ‘under normal circumstances, I can read your thoughts as well as I can my Trofim’s. But these are not normal circumstances and I am at a loss.’

‘Don’t worry, Frosya,’ I said. ‘Trust in fate. In destiny. What more can you or I do?’

‘Shape it!’ she answered quite firmly yet I knew she did not believe it. We have been through too much to do so.

I let go of her hand.

‘I want nothing more to eat. Save the apple for later.’

‘It will go brown.’

‘Then feed it to the hens and I shall break my habit and eat an egg in a few days made from it.’

She laughed, stood up and started to collect in the crockery. I drained my cup of tea. When she had returned to the house, I felt inside my jacket and removed the letter from the inside pocket. I slipped it from its envelope and, once again, unfolded it. I did not immediately read it but just looked at it. It was crisp and official, neatly typed upon a heavy bond paper, the expensive sort with the paper-maker’s watermarked lines evident as a faint grid in the weave of the pulp. The letterhead was printed in black, the letters embossed, shining and raised in relief from the surface of the page. I balanced my steel-framed spectacles upon my nose and, yet again, studied what was printed there.

* * *

I was five weeks making my way to Myshkino, the village in which I now live, travelling mostly by jumping freight trains, sleeping crouched up in box-cars parked in sidings or hiding in track-side maintenance huts. From time to time, I was moved on by railway officials or the transport authorities but usually I was simply ignored. They did not know who I was but they certainly knew what I was without asking for my papers. Some were sympathetic and gave me a few kopeks: others were antagonistic, punched and kicked me and stole the kopeks. Most were apathetic and paid me no heed whatsoever.

For food, I begged. Knowing instinctively the importance of appearing at least reasonably presentable, for a tramp in any society gets short shrift at all times, I managed to wash myself now and again in the public conveniences in stations, keeping my beard down to a trim stubble with a pair of nail scissors I filched from a street vendor’s stall in Kazan. My clothes, however, suffered on the journey and, by the time I had walked the thirty kilometres from Zarechensk to Myshkino, I looked more like a hobgoblin than a human.

With difficulty, for no one would offer the information to a vagabond, I found Frosya’s house around midday, opened the gate in the low fence and made my way up the path to the porch. I knocked on the door but there was no answer so, cupping my hands, I peered in a window. The living room was tidy, with comfortable furniture, a carpet and a radio on a table. Exhausted, I lowered myself down in the shade by the door and dozed fitfully, awaiting her return from wherever she was.

‘Who the hell are you?’ were Trofim’s first words when he found me at about five o’clock, hunched on the steps of the porch, my arms hugging my legs to my chest, my chin resting on my knees.

I woke from my semi-slumber and squinted at him in the afternoon sunlight. He was of average height, with dark hair and a handsome face, and dressed in a mechanic’s overalls. I could smell the syrupy scent of warm gearbox oil on his clothing.

‘You look like a thief who’s found nothing to steal,’ he added.

Slowly, I got to my feet and cast a quick glance at my reflection in the window. My face was grey and rough with several days’ stubble, my hair short but not to the extent of still being a criminal’s crop: it had had five weeks to grow. My jacket was soiled and my shirt, an old-fashioned clerk’s shirt with the collar missing, was grimy about the neck. My trousers looked as if I had slept in them which, save one or two nights, I had and the leather of my boots was cracked for lack of polish and too frequent soakings in the rain.

‘Go on!’ he exclaimed, waving his hand at me as he might a mangy cat routing round the garbage pail, dismissive rather than belligerent. ‘Otvali!’

‘My name is Alexander,’ I said quietly.

‘Fine!’ Trofim replied. ‘Otvali, Alexander!’

I felt weak and leaned against one of the posts holding up the roof over the porch. I had not eaten for several days except for some handfuls of wheat I had snatched in a field not yet harvested.

‘Are you are the husband of Efrosiniya?’ I asked, my voice hoarse and consequently not much louder than a whisper.

He looked at me, suddenly very suspicious, and said with no small degree of defensive menace, ‘What’s it to you?’

‘And was your wife’s mother Tatyana Antonovna?’

He was immediately on the offensive, glared at me and said, ‘Poshol k chortu!’

‘I will go to hell,’ I responded, my voice quiet with fatigue, ‘but first I must speak to your wife.’ I sucked on my own spittle to lubricate my mouth. ‘I have come from Kirill Karlovich.’

Trofim stared at me for a long moment then, his demeanour utterly changed, he stepped quickly forward, taking my arm and guiding me towards an upright chair under the window. It was the very same chair in which I still frequently sit on the porch on a warm evening, which over the years has become somehow shaped to my body, or my body has become formed to its curves and peculiarities.

‘Frosya!’ he called urgently as he let go of my arm. ‘Frosya! Come quickly!’

In a few seconds Frosya appeared, her sleeves rolled up. Her hands and forearms were wet from doing the laundry in a tub behind the house. She must have been in the house all along without my knowing. Her face was blushed from the effort of scrubbing. When she saw me, she stopped in her tracks. A dog, sauntering down the village street, spied me and started to yap.

‘Where have you come from?’ she asked, her voice barely audible over the dog’s noise. Trofim bent to pretend to pick up a stone. The dog fell silent and slunk off.

‘Sosnogorsklag 32,’ I told her.

‘Where are you going?’ Trofim asked.

I looked at him and said, ‘After I have given you my message, I am going to hell.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Trofim began to explain. ‘When I first saw you…’

I raised my hand to silence him and smiled weakly.

‘Sosnogorsklag,’ Frosya mused quietly.

‘Not a pretty town, I’ll bet,’ Trofim remarked soberly.

‘Labour camp number 32 was not in the town,’ I informed him, ‘but some way out. South of Pasn’a. Not far from Vojvoz.’

‘I think,’ Frosya said, ‘you must have come from hell.’

She came forward, then bent over me and kissed my cheek. As she did this morning, when she entered my room and gave me my present, she smelled of soap.

It was the first kiss I had experienced in many years, since that terrible, unforgettable winter which I have never been able to excise from my mind.

‘Get some water,’ Trofim suddenly ordered her, as if coming to his senses. ‘Make some tea. Prepare a bed.’ Turning to me, he said, ‘You will stay here. With us. For as long as you wish.’

I stayed that night, promising myself I would leave the next morning: but the night turned into a week which evolved into a month that metamorphosed into two decades, the remnant of my life.

* * *

Folding the letter once more and returning it to my pocket, I sat on for a short while, gazing out from the leafy parasol of the silver birch. From this vantage point, I had as usual a fairly panoramic view of the village.

The house is on a slight rise with most of the buildings below, on the gentle incline that goes down to the river and the road which crosses it by way of a concrete bridge. Now, in high summer, the gardens are a blaze of colour. Sunflowers stand against walls, smaller blooms in front of them. Where there are no flowers, there are vegetables.

In front of Trofim’s porch are several rows of raspberry canes and a patch of herbs and small onions. Between the house and the woodland up the slope behind it, Trofim’s plot is filled with cucumbers and marrows trailing on the ground, beans hanging like plump green fingers from a trellis of sticks, tomatoes tied against stakes, dark-leaved potatoes with their tiny white blossoms and rows of cabbages. The ranks of carrots, beetroots and radishes are protected from marauding birds by a thin black netting suspended from poles like a miniature, transparent Bedouin tent.

Beyond the gate, across the lane, stands a quaint little house made of age-blackened wood with a fretwork boarding around the eaves over the porch which is as deep as a room. The chimney leans precariously but has done so for at least a decade. I cannot look upon the house without being reminded of the world of Pasternak and Dostoyevsky.

The property is owned by a widow, Vera Dorokhova, whom the villagers refer to behind her back as The Merry Widow for she has been happiest since her spouse disappeared into the forest one January winters ago, not to be found until the spring when his half-thawed body, gnawed by foxes, was discovered beside a woodsman’s hut in which he had taken shelter. A lathe operator in a small engineering works which turned out tractor wheel bearings at Zarechensk, his wife may have been Vera but his mistress was Madam Vodka under whose instruction, as people put it, he frequently beat her and generally made her life miserable. In the first few years of my residency in Myshkino, the sight of him returning from work, his clothing powdered with iron filings and his shoes trailing the odd shiny turning like a weak spring embedded in the rubber soles, sent involuntary shivers down my spine. Had I the hackles of a dog, they would have been instantly erect but not on account of his cruelty to Vera Dorokhova: I had seen far worse cruelty than anything he could have devised, sober or sozzled. It was because, at a distance, he reminded me of a brute I had known called Genrikh.

Since Madam Vodka’s lover was planted in the graveyard by the church at the other end of his village, I have been haunted by a newer ghost in the form of his widow. She watches out for me and I watch out for her. Despite my being 20 years her senior – twenty years today, as it happens – she has a yearning for me, a longing she will only satisfy by getting me to the altar down the road. That I am past caring for women, that I have been past caring for them for decades, does not seem to put her off. Perhaps she has developed a macabre taste for burying men. I do not intend to find out.

One of Trofim’s cockerels crowing in the distant brought me back to my senses and I glanced at my watch. It was time for me to go, to set off on my constitutional, to go and meet all those who would pass the time of day with me and who, according to Frosya, were keen to talk to me, to see me on my birthday.

My daily walk is important to me: I may be old and becoming frail but I like to keep myself fit and my daily neighbourhood perambulation sees I stay in good condition, body and brain.

As Kirill always said, a fit man fights and therefore survives whilst a weak man wails and goes to the wall.


I first met Kirill in the primary shaft chamber on Gallery B of the coal mine six kilometres from Sosnogorsklag 32 labour camp.

After descending for two levels, the wire mesh door of the lift cage was opened by a shifty little man not over one and a half metres tall whose large skull with its bulbous forehead and huge hands were out of all proportion to the remainder of his body.

‘Get out! Get out!’ he squeaked in a falsetto voice. ‘Line up! Line up! You!’ He pointed at me then at the rock face behind me. His arms were short and also incongruous. ‘Mr. Soft Hands! Form a rank! Form a rank!’

I moved back. The dozen or so other new arrivals joined me, chivvied onto parade by the miniature martinet.

‘Silence! No communication!’ he shrilled again.

The cage door was slammed across, the safety bar swung down into place and the cage began its descent down the mine shaft, the cables humming, the grease on the guide wheels sucking.

Standing with my spine pressed to the rock, I studied the subterranean world into which I had been plunged, no wiser nor any more blessed than a kitten, surplus to the breeder’s requirement, dropped onto the carpet to the sound of water being run into a pail.

The main shaft contained two cages, one for the transportation of miners and the other for trucks of coal. The passenger cage had a sliding door to it but the truck cage door had been welded shut. Gallery B was mined out and was now used, I discovered from a board bolted to the rock, as a storage area. From the roof were suspended bare 60 watt light bulbs protected from breakage by wire baskets and hanging at five metre intervals. I could see them disappearing down the perspective of the gallery which ran off at right angles to the shaft, curving gradually out of sight as the tunnel turned to the left. Water dripped with melancholic monotony from a pipe overhead into a puddle below but, when I pressed my hands against the rock behind my back, I was surprised to find it dry and cool.

From a side chamber a little way down the gallery appeared three men who came towards us. As they passed under a light, their faces were momentarily illuminated from above, casting strange shadows downwards across their features.

‘Attention! Attention!’ squealed the little man. All his orders seemed to be repeated. The men drew closer. He waited until they were not ten metres away then he shouted, ‘You! Mr. Soft Hands! Stop shuffling! Stop shuffling!’

I was standing quite still. He was blustering for effect.

‘Shut up, troglodyte!’ said the tallest of the men. The martinet stepped aside and gave a semi-salute.

Despite his prison cropped hair, the grimy coating of coal dust blotching his skin as if he were in the early stages of leprosy, his grey and filthy uniform, he cut a handsome figure. His eyes, surrounded by two circles of comparatively clean skin, were filled with humour, his lips just touched by the faintest of wry smiles.

‘Number off,’ he commanded.

We each announced ourselves by our prison numbers. Mine was B916. Our voices sounded dull in the flat acoustics of the shaft chamber.

‘Good!’ he exclaimed and he ran his eye over us. We might have been auditioning for some macabre play. ‘So you are all new to the gulag,’ he divined accurately. ‘New to the concept that Labour is Dignity.’ There was an unmistakable sarcasm to his voice. ‘Has anyone here less than twenty years?’

I glanced along the line. No one put up their hand or stepped forward.

‘In that case,’ he said with a grandiloquent and ironic sweep of his arm, ‘welcome to the rest of your lives. And take a word of advice. Do not dream of the day of your release. Do not think about it for if you do, it will not come. Like the kettle you watch, it will not boil. Men go mad thinking about the past, the future. Here, there is no then and no next. There is only now. Live for now.’ He paused to let his words sink in. ‘There is no point in being morbid about it. Do that and you die. Inside.’ He put his hand on his chest. ‘In your heart. The blood will still pump but the spirit will be dead. The spirit is what they want to kill. Not the body. The body has a use.’

The cage sped by, heading upwards, the steel guide wheels hissing on their well-greased rails. A draft of fetid air preceded it.

‘You at the end,’ he said: it took me a moment to realise he was addressing me. ‘You come with me. The rest…’

The other two men divided the remainder of the group amongst themselves.

‘So, B916, what is your name?’ he enquired as I followed him along the wide tunnel.

‘Alexander Bayliss,’ I told him.

He stopped and studied me.

‘A good Russian name for the start. But the other? And your spoken Russian? Not so good. A curious accent.’

‘I’ve only picked it up recently,’ I admitted.

‘So where do you come from, comrade?’

‘I’m English.’

‘Ah!’ he wagged his finger at me. ‘So you are the Englishman.’ He held out his hand and I accepted it. This was the first time I had shaken a friendly hand for months: most hands I had come across had either pointed accusingly at me or slapped my face. ‘I am a Work Unit leader and you are joining my team.’ We walked on, passing a side gallery piled to the roof with crates and boxes. ‘My name is Kirill Karlovich Balashov. They call me Kirill. And you? Alexander is a bit of a mouthful. Do you know the diminutive for Alexander? It’s Shurik. So, from now on, you are Shurik.’

I nodded my head. At the next offshoot, we turned right and, in a short distance, arrived at a table upon which had been placed rows of kit.

‘Take one,’ Kirill said. ‘Don’t worry about anything but the metal hat and the gloves. If they fit, you’ll be all right. If they don’t you’ll spend twenty-odd years with your hat falling into your eyes or tipping off the back of your head.’ He grinned then added more seriously, ‘They must fit. Your life may depend upon it one day.’

I gathered up one of the piles. It consisted of a thick gauge aluminium hat, a pair of heavy duty gloves, a small hand axe and a ball-headed hammer, both attached to a worn leather belt. The hat fitted, the gloves did not. Kirill swapped them for a tighter pair then reached over to one of the other piles and removed a small battery-powered lamp from it.

‘Not everyone gets one of these,’ he said. ‘You are a lucky one.’ He flicked the switch. It did not come on. He thumped it on the table then against the palm of his hand. ‘No battery,’ he declared then, finding another lamp, he snapped open the reflector and unscrewed the bulb. ‘Get a spare. Best be on the safe side. You don’t say much.’

‘What is there to say?’ I replied and, nodding at the lamp, added, ‘Except thank you.’

Kirill laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. His teeth were white and pure against his besmirched face.

‘We’ll get along just fine. I can’t stand blabbermouthers. Put your kit on.’

When I was dressed, we returned to the main shaft, passing the other new arrivals heading for the store chamber. At the cage door, we halted. Kirill pressed a button to summon the cage. A tinny electric bell rang far above our heads.

‘This is Gallery B,’ he explained. ‘B for Beria who banged us in here.’ He smiled. ‘Two down from the surface. We are working at present on Gallery L.’

‘L for Lenin who invented Dignified Labour,’ I suggested.

For a moment, he looked at me and I felt a twinge of fear. He might, it suddenly occurred to me, have been testing me. Trust no one. That was the motto of the gulag: trust no one until you were so intimate with them that you knew the given names of every louse living in their pubic hair. Even then, you should still be wary. Yet I had no need to worry. Kirill exploded into laughter.

‘L for Lobanov who…’

The cage arrived, the noise drowning out Kirill’s metaphor. We stepped into it and descended at increasing speed, decelerating so quickly at our destination that I felt my legs bend and my head swirl. Kirill put his hand under my armpit to steady me.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ he said. ‘We all do. Unless you’re the troglodyte.’ He leaned conspiratorially towards me. ‘You ever wonder how the little bastard got so small?’

He opened the gate and we stepped out into Gallery L. Another prisoner carrying a wooden box got in and the cage rose out of sight.

The shaft chamber was not like that in Gallery B. A railway line ended here in a loop. Men stood around in the glare of three bare lights which did not hang from the roof but were mounted on the rock wall. Stripped to the waist, they were caked in coal dust, striped like zebras where their sweat had coursed in runnels over their skin. They wore their metal hats squarely on their heads. The air was surprisingly warm and there was quite a breeze blowing from the depths of the mine. Along the roof ran cables, pipes and a square, galvanised iron ventilation duct, air whistling out through a poorly sealed joint.

‘He was crushed?’ I asked incredulously.

‘It was his first day. At the time, the mine only went down to Gallery P. For the Politburo which pisses on us all. That was where he was headed. P is over two kilometres down. The last hundred metres … He didn’t brace himself like the old hands.’ He squeezed his palms together. ‘Phapp! He went from one metre eighty-seven to what you see now in less than two seconds. Thirty-nine centimetres he lost. His balls got caught between his thighs. He went from a bass to a soprano.’

‘How could he have survived?’ I said.

Kirill slapped me on the back and replied, ‘What do you think? Is the moon made of marzipan? No, it’s just my joke. A story we tell to get his goat up. His real tale is much funnier. Let’s go. I’ll tell you as we walk.’ He looked at my hands. ‘Put your gloves on.’

We set off along the gallery, keeping to one side of the railway track. Every fifty metres or so, chambers had been hollowed out on either side of the gallery. Some were shallow and empty, others filled with boxes. One had a door fastened across the entrance with a picture of a globular cartoon terrorist’s bomb nailed to the panelling.

‘The troglodyte,’ Kirill said, ‘was a trapeze clown in the Moscow State Circus. One of a troupe called the Flying Fedeyevs or something like that. All of them were dwarfs or not much bigger. They jumped and chased each other across a mesh of wires about ten metres up, scampering around like monkeys, playing the fool, bursting bladders of water, throwing talc. The children liked them. The troglodyte was the boss clown.

‘Anyway, some years ago, the circus went on tour to Czechoslovakia, giving performances at Prague, Decin, Ostrava, Brno. And Breclav. You know where that is?’ He did not wait for an answer. ‘Ten kilometres from the Austrian border. The little bugger couldn’t resist it. There was the usual brigade of KGB stoolies and minders along on the tour, occupied watching who did what to whom, where and why, and noting it all down for the files. But he still thought he could outsmart them. So, you know what he did? I will tell you.’

A rumbling sound reached us. A light rocked from side to side far down the tunnel. Kirill took my arm and pulled me to one side. A train of ten trucks laden with lumps of coal and rock juddered by, towed by a much dented and scratched electric locomotive driven by a man who gave Kirill a cursory wave as he passed. Kirill nodded in reply.

‘For the climax of the act, the troglodyte dressed up as a gorilla. Blacked face, hairy suit. He swung about scratching his belly, tickling his armpits and beating his chest. The big top tent had been erected close to the railway station. He had worked out that he could swing from rope to rope across the tent, out of the big door through which they brought in the larger acts, over the guy ropes, along a heavy telephone wire to the railway line and drop onto a train heading south.

‘The show began. It was a matinée. That was his first mistake. If he had moved at night, he might have stood an outside chance. He’s not one of nature’s brightest candles. Anyway, he’s up there, monkeying about. He hears a train whistle. It’s going the right way. He’s off. The minders don’t realise he’s done a runner until he doesn’t return through the big door to take a bow and throw a bag of talc. They unholster their Makarovs and set off in hot pursuit. By the time they get outside the tent, he’s well on his way down the telephone line. They run after him, taking a pot shot or two at him to impress their officers but they miss and they can’t get near the telephone line because it’s over the other side of a tall railing fence.’

The gallery widened, the rails dividing into two to provide a passing place with a short siding running into a side tunnel. From ahead came the faint, insistent but unidentifiable sounds of machinery.

‘At last,’ Kirill recounted, ‘he gets near the train. All he has to do is swing from the telephone line to a trackside cable and then jump. The comrade brothers are going berserk. If he gets away, they’re bound for Siberia. The troglodyte gets to the train, swings out from the phone line and grabs the cable. The momentum of the swing will carry him onto the train. He swings. Next he knows, he’s in a prison ward of the local hospital with his hands bandaged, his head aching and his eyelashes gone.’

‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘Why don’t birds get fried on power lines?’ Kirill asked. ‘He short circuited the telephone system with the railway high voltage supply. Like any cautious trapeze artist, he didn’t let go of one hold until the next was firm.’

The noise in the gallery grew louder until it was almost deafening. The air tasted of coal dust. Ahead was the working face, men bent to hydraulic-powered drills, water spraying onto the bits where they wormed into the coal seam. Behind them, others shovelled coal into a row of parked trucks, jammed pit props into place with lump hammers and laid another section of track.

‘Welcome to hell!’ Kirill shouted, his mouth close to my ear.

* * *

Imagine this.

It is a rest break, one and a half kilometres down. There are six of us, and Kirill. We are Work Unit 8, gathered in one of the side chambers six hundred metres back from the coal face, lounging on piles of sacks or sitting on boxes. At the face, the explosives team is setting the charges.

Around me, in the gloom cast by a single light, are my fellow workers, my comrades in coal, Kirill’s boys. From my perch on a crate of drill parts, I look from one to the other of them, observe their faces and the bend in their bones, share in their exhaustion, their aching muscles and tired souls.

Leaning against a pit prop under the light is Avel. Avel the Aviator, we call him. He is slightly shorter than I am with pointed features. His chin is sharp, his ears flat against the side of his narrow head and his fingers, despite the manual work we do, slender: they might be a pianist’s or a violinist’s. Before he fell foul of the system, arousing some jealousy or enmity in a colleague who shopped him to a cadre who passed his name on down the line, he had been a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force.

Even when they came for him, beat his shins with canes and imprisoned him for a crime he did not realise he had committed, he remained a dedicated Communist, a Party man through and through. In his early months in the mine, he had accepted his lot with the sangfroid of the unquestioning zealot. A mistake had been made but he was not going to complain: this was his fate, his sacrifice for Mother Russia. After all, he reasoned, someone had to mine coal.

As a pilot, he had actively fought the American Aggressor in Korea, at first as an advisor to the Chinese and North Korean air forces but, later, as a combat flyer. From late in 1950 to the summer of 1952, he had flicked and jived his MiG-15 in the deadly aerial ballet of dog-fights with American F-80 Shooting Stars and F-86 Sabres, being twice shot down and having to bale out. His had been a simplistic world of speed, sky and the red fire button on his control column spitting bursts of 37- and 23-millimetre calibre cannon shells at an overt enemy.

Now, as I watch him, he has changed. No longer a devoted follower of Marx and Engels, he has seen the error of their ways and his own.

He stands under the light for a purpose: none of us tries to rob him of his place. He might have been an air ace with eight kills to his name but he has the heart of an artist. With his dexterous fingers, he passes his time carving chess pieces out of coal and shale. Admittedly the shale chess-men, being grey, are not as white as they might be and are sometimes hard to distinguish from their opponents, but they are better than nothing. At this moment, as I watch him, he is concentrating on a black rook, turning a fragment of coal in his hand, shaping the battlements of the little tower with an awl he has fashioned from a broken drill bit.

Across from Avel, Kostya fumbles with his lamp. It is some weeks since we were last issued with batteries and his is the only one still charged: however, the bulb is ill-fitting and flickers irritatingly. He is intent on trying to repair it, wrapping single strands of copper wire round the base in the hope he might increase the diameter of the thread.

Although we are an informal band, only two of us are perpetually known by nicknames, myself and Kostya, which is short for Konstantin.

Poor Kostya! He was the one who felt imprisonment the hardest at first. Avel had possessed the freedom of the skies, but only saw it from the cell of a cockpit, surrounded by switches and dials, levers and gauges, buckles and belts. Before the darkness, as he put it, Kostya had been a warrant officer in the Soviet Navy, in charge of his own mess deck. For him, the world was huge, a vastness of empty ocean and sky which he could cross for days without seeing anything other than clouds, flying fish and the tail fin of a diving whale.

During his eight years in the service, he had been based in Vladivostok and sailed the Pacific and Indian Oceans in a frigate, stationed in Archangel and traversed the Atlantic watching out for American submarines from destroyers, and assigned to a battleship whose home port was Odessa and aboard which he had sailed the Mediterranean and the South Atlantic. He had been to Cuba and smoked an Havana cigar in Havana, to Shanghai where he had dined on snake, to Bombay where he had seen dead bodies being eaten by vultures on the top of a funereal tower and to Naples where he had taken a tour round Pompeii and caught a dose of the clap. Kostya has more stories than the rest of us but he keeps them suppressed for the sake of his sanity.

Ylli, who sits hunched up on a box, his eyes closed, is the only other foreigner working in the mine. His name means Star. He is an Albanian who came to the USSR as an engineering student. For two years, he lived frugally in a foreign students’ hostel and studied hard, rose to the top of his class and thereby engendered the envy of his peers. It was his girlfriend who turned him in when he beat her by one mark in a mechanics test upon which depended placement in the next term’s seminar groups.

They came for him at dawn, snapped the handcuffs on him, bundled him into a car and drove him straight to prison without even touching base in the KGB cells. He was beaten up a few times, questioned about subjects of which he was utterly ignorant, beaten again for his insolent non-compliance, accused of nothing, held for a month then transported east without so much as a rigged trial. He is a natural pessimist, and it is not unusual for him to fall into an incommunicative sulk every so often, his pessimism and the gulag getting the better of him: no doubt, he cannot quite rid himself of memories of the bleak, historic shores of his native Albania, basking under a Mediterranean sky, the sea unchanged since Julius Caesar crossed it to fight Pompey, the villages unscarred since Ali Pasha raided them for tribute.

Lying on a pile of tarpaulins farthest from the mouth of the side chamber, which luxury we take in turns, is Titian. Once a mathematics teacher, he is a cultured man of quiet intellect and charm who, in the sorry and typical catalogue of betrayal which put most of us here, was grassed on by a pupil to whom he gave low grades. It was foolish of him and he knew it at the time: the boy’s father was a Party official of some standing in the town. Yet he still gave the youth a D because that was all he was worth in the race for academic honours. In the race for personal survival, he was a certain A++.

Titian’s eyes are closed but he does not sleep. None of us sleep in rest breaks. If we did, we should be all the more tired when we returned to our labours.

Look closely. His lips are moving silently. He is not praying for release, or escape, or death, nor is he losing his mind. In fact, he is reciting a poem to himself and I think I know which one for, from the timing of the movement of his lips, I can tell it is a poem constructed in four couplets and his favourite is so written.

It is by the Korean poet, Yi Yuk-sa, who was arrested in Peking by the Kempetai, the Japanese secret police, who tortured him to death in 1944. Entitled The Peak, it goes

Lashed by the bitter season’s blast,

At last I am driven to the north.

I stand upon the sword sharp frost,

Where senseless horizon and flat land meet.

I do not know quite where to kneel

Nor where to place my fretting steps.

There is nothing to do but close my eyes

And think of the steel rainbow of winter.

Next to me, perched on the end of a crate marked Track ties and assorted fittings, is Dmitri who has, in his time, been a Soviet army conscript, a cook, a stevedore, the janitor of a block of sumptuous apartments for the exclusive use of the nomenklatura and a shopkeeper. With an irrepressible sense of humour, often scatological, and a treasury of stories, most of them either risqué or risky, depending upon your political standpoint, he comes from what is now known once again as St. Petersburg. He survived the Fascist siege towards the end of which he was reduced to surviving solely on soup, made by boiling algæ gathered from the Moika canal, where it joined the Fontanka canal just north of the Mikhailovskiy Castle, his belt and the leather straps from an old wooden trunk he had long since burnt for fuel.

Unlike the others, who were betrayed into the gulag, Dmitri put himself there. It was a slip of the hand, a momentary aberration, a miscalculation of infinitesimal insignificance but it did for him. A woman entered his shop, which sold household articles, one Thursday afternoon to purchase a colander: of course, when I say it was Dmitri’s shop, he was not the proprietor but the manager for the establishment belonged to the state. The colander was made of pressed aluminium and cost one rouble, 15 kopecks. He had wrapped the item up in brown paper, tied it about with cord with a loop that she might carry it more easily and given her change for a five rouble note. As he was counting out the change, his wife dropped a glass preserving jar. It shattered, glass flying in all directions. For five seconds, ten at the most, his attention was diverted and he lost count. The woman checked her change: she had received 3.35. not 3.85. She did not make a fuss, just gave Dmitri a sour look and demanded fifty kopecks. He apologised profusely and stumped up. Twelve hours later, he was in a cell being accused of anti-Socialist sentiments, of undermining the principles of Socialism, of harbouring greed and capitalist tendencies.

Despite his self-betrayal, Dmitri is an optimist. He survived the Nazis and a stretch in the army so the gulag is, for him, just another tribulation life has chucked in his way. He will, he is convinced, get through it.

Penultimately, there is Kirill.

From my first day down the mine, we have been good friends. He is about my age, tall enough to have to duck in many of the side chambers where the coal seam is narrow or the nature of the rock overhead demands the use of extra thick pit props and cross-members. Even now, sitting on a barrel gazing down the main gallery in the direction of the coal face, he gives off a sense of authority, a certain charisma which commands respect and might, in other circumstances, occasion fear.

This is hardly surprising for he was an officer in the local militia before he arrested a young official called Nikolai Georgievich Krivopaltsev for corruption and fell from grace. It was not until after he had signed the charge sheet, slammed the cell door shut, turned the key and filed the arrest papers that he discovered his prisoner was the nephew of Innokenty Ivanovich Andronikov, First Secretary of the Communist Party for the entire region.

Upon making his discovery, Kirill immediately returned home, kissed his wife and two-year-old daughter, patted their Borzoi bitch and sat down on the porch of their house in the twilight of a late summer evening to await the inevitable. It was two hours in coming.

And finally, there is me.

Alexander Bayliss, bachelor, graduate of English Literature from the University of Durham, one-time representative of Scott, Pudney (Steel Stockholders) & Sons, Ltd., of Doncaster, England, arrested in Leipzig whilst on a trip to buy scrap iron, charged with espionage (erroneously, as it happens), accused of being an enemy of the Soviet peoples and reported tragically killed when my car was struck by a lorry on a bridge over the River Elbe. I was presumed drowned.

My trial, such as it was, was held in camera. It was short, efficient in the extreme and utterly irrelevant. I was dressed in prison clothing, taken to a corridor and seated on a bench alongside an assortment of other miscreants, some innocent, some foolish, some guilty. We were ordered to look to the front, not attempt to communicate at all with each other and to edge forwards as the queue shortened.

The court was nothing more than a large room. The judges – there were, I recall, three of them – sat behind a scratched table on a dais a few inches higher than the bare floorboards. On the wall above them hung a portrait of Stalin, his moustache prim and bristling, his piggy eyes glinting. I was marched in and stood on a low pedestal. The presiding judge shuffled some papers, looked up, stared at me for a moment then made his pronouncement speaking, for my convenience, in heavily accented English although I had acquired a reasonable smattering of Russian during my interminable and pointless interrogation.

‘B916, Bayliss Alexander,’ he said in a bored monotone and without taking a breath. ‘You are charged under Section 6 of Article 58 of the Criminal Code. The charge is that you are suspected of espionage against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Your sentence is twenty-five years of hard labour.’

With that, he stamped and signed several sheets of foolscap one of which was handed to me by a clerk. I looked at it. The rubber stamp was smudged. It was triangular and contained the letters SVPSh. I enquired what it meant and was told it was an acronym meaning I was accused of making contacts which might have led to my being suspected of espionage.

From that moment on, as the rubber stamp chopped down, I was – like Avel, Kostya, Ylli, Titian, Dmitri and Kirill – a filed dossier in a locked cabinet in the vaults of the Lubyanka, a lost man, a non-person.

Kirill sits up.


Far away down the gallery, someone is blowing a long blast on a whistle. It stops. There is a silence deeper than that on the inert surface of the moon. A dull thud reaches us as if someone far away has slammed shut a heavy dungeon door. The light over Avel’s head flickers a few times. The air seems momentarily dense and stifles breath.

Kirill puts his hands on his knees and pushes himself up. Avel slips the half-shaped rook into his pocket and secrets his home-made, contraband tool into the folds of his clothing. Kostya stops fidgeting with his lamp.

‘They’ve blown the charge,’ Kirill announces laconically. ‘Time to be dignified again.’

We set off towards the coal face, walking in a line between the steel rails. As we reach the passing place and siding which exists in every gallery at every level of the mine, Kostya starts to hum, loudly. The tune is familiar but it takes me several minutes to place it. He must have picked it up at the movies, on one of his many voyages around the world. It is the Heigh Ho! song from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

And there are seven of us.

* * *

Sosnogorsklag 32 forced labour camp consisted of fifty wooden barracks, assorted administrative buildings, stores, quarters for the guards and a large parade ground or mustering area where we were counted before leaving for the mine or returning from our shifts there. The whole camp was surrounded by several five-metre high barbed wire and electrified fences surmounted by watch towers, wire entanglements and a three-metre deep moat filled with more wire and iron stakes. The land around was covered in grass and scrub, more or less flat and treeless. Had it sand and had it not had the Arctic Circle bisecting it, it would have been a desert.

Work Unit 8 was housed in Hut 14, the last barrack in the first row alongside the wire. In it lived 160 prisoners, all of them men. The bunks, one per prisoner, were erected in tiers of four down either side of the hut with just sufficient space between them to allow access. Down the length of the hut ran an aisle, just two men wide. Every three metres, a light socket fitted with a 40 watt bulb hung from the roof beams, protected from any leaks in the roof or dripping condensation by a tin shade. There were no cupboards, foot lockers or the like except, at one end, there was a small and usually empty storage room not much larger than a lavatory cubicle by the door of which a sack of fuel was kept for the stove.

My bunk was on top of the last tier at the end of the hut close to the storage cubicle, bounded by two outside walls which, despite their insulation, did not keep out the cold. It was not unknown for the nails holding the wooden panels in place to conduct the Arctic winter in and become so cold as to have the heads ice up with condensation and crack.

At the farthest end of the hut from the door was an area devoid of bunks. Here, a large table stood surrounded by several benches. It was here we ate, three work units at a time for there were insufficient benches to seat more than twenty-five prisoners. Beyond the table was an open space in the centre of which stood the stove. It was large, made of cast-iron and the only form of heating in the hut other than our own bodies. It was our responsibility to light the stove every day, stoke it up with fuel before we were called out to roll call and a day in the mine. If we could get it really going before we left, and closed the air vent right down, it would stay alight through the day and have the place warm for our return.

It was as a result of this stove that I learnt what Kirill termed my first instruction in the philosophy of endurance from the Faculty of Incarceration of the University of the Gulag.

I had been in the camp about a month when, one morning, it came round to be Ylli’s turn to tend to the stove. He was out of his bunk before the rest of us, riddling the ashes, huffing and puffing on a few remaining embers which he had surrounded with several fistfuls of wood shavings one of the pit head carpenters had filched from the workshop where they cut the pit props. The fuel we were issued with consisted of lumps of compacted coal dust and clay which were bastards to ignite but which smouldered slowly for hours once they were alight.

As I settled my feet into my valenki, the Russian felt boots with which we were issued, there was a commotion by the stove. A Muscovite thug called Genrikh, the leader of the blatnye, had discovered it to be barely warm. The shavings were only just catching.

The blatnye were the criminal class inmates, arrested not for crimes against ideology and dogma but because they had broken heads and bones, slit some sucker’s throat in a dark alley and made off with his wallet. They lacked the close-knit camaraderie of our little group, were a more disparate bunch, individuals thrown together in a brotherhood of disdainful violence rather than souls, forced by a common circumstance rather than the powerful wills of sadistic men, into a common predicament.

There were eleven blatnye under Genrikh’s leadership. He was serving twenty years for murder, arson and the rape of six women which, he was proud to proclaim, he had had over a period of 65 hours. The murder charge was for the third woman, whom he had strangled because of her resistance to his fornication, the arson for the sixth whose apartment he torched. His fellow blatnye called him the Tsar, in which sobriquet he revelled for he saw himself as an emperor although he would have preferred himself to be coupled with Ivan the Terrible rather than Nicholas II, whom he referred to as His Milksop Majesty.

‘You!’ he shouted at Ylli. ‘You! The Balkan turd. The Mohammedan shit cake.’

Ylli turned. He was not the sole Muslim in Hut 14 but he was the only Albanian.

‘You! Allah’s bum-boy! You call this a fire?’ Genrikh growled, stepping towards his victim.

Ylli made no reply. Genrikh grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and shook him, thrusting him towards the stove, forcing him down on his knees in front of the fire-door through the stained mica window of which the first flames were beginning to flicker.

‘You call this a fucking fire?’ Genrikh repeated. ‘Feel it!’

He slammed Ylli’s head against the cast-iron carcass of the stove. The metal was hot but not enough to scald him. Ylli, with an animal cunning, allowed himself to go limp, to be completely at the mercy of the Tsar. After a moment, the blatnoi dropped him to the concrete floor and kicked him, not too viciously, upon the thigh.

‘You limp prick!’ Genrikh said, his voice thick with contempt.

Ylli, doubled at a crouch, headed back in our direction and did not stand upright until he was out of Genrikh’s sight between the rows of bunks.

We said nothing, just gave him a quick smile of encouragement and got on with readying ourselves for the day ahead. Ylli was no less in our eyes for his cravenness. We were there to survive. Any one of us might have done the same. He lost his dignity, perhaps, but he kept his life, his self-respect and our esteem and that was what was valuable.

Lining up at the door to go out for muster and counting, Kirill leaned over to me.

‘Are you ashamed, Shurik?’ he enquired.


‘Yes. Ashamed for Ylli, ashamed you did nothing to help him, ashamed we live like this.’

I nodded my head, embarrassed to admit I was. Outside, the guards were calling for Hut 13. It would soon be our turn to head out into the freezing darkness.

‘Don’t be,’ Kirill advised. ‘Just learn the lesson, Shurik. Take it to heart and hold it there, like a long-lost love. After all, what is the difference between Genrikh and the Politburo? Or, come to that, Genrikh and Winston Churchill? President Eisenhower? General De Gaulle? Nothing! All you have seen is the exercise of authority, the exploitation of power. It is always cruel, to suit its purpose. As for us? We fight and die, or adapt and live.’

* * *

The drill hit an unexpectedly hard vein of rock, the bit screaming. I flicked the switch to increase the flow of water from the spray nozzle by the chuck but it made no difference. The screeching continued, rising in pitch to the intolerable level of a dog whistle.

‘You see him?’ Titian yelled, jerking his head over his shoulder.

Glancing in the direction his head indicated I nodded, partly in recognition of his question and partly in response to the vibration of the drill. By the coal trucks stood a man with a scar upon his left biceps which showed white against the coal-caked remainder of his arm. The damaged tissue was devoid of hairs and was so smooth his sweat consistently sluiced it clean.

I eased back on the trigger. The drill slowed to a dull whine. Unclipping it from its tripod, I swung it back on its bracket, retracting the bit from the coal face. The cutting surfaces at the tip were as bright as molten mercury and just as blunt.

‘Lousy Ukrainian steel,’ Titian remarked. ‘Wrong carbon content. They can never get it right. You know his name?’ he added in an undertone, no longer competing with the drill to be heard.

I shook my head and, turning the compressed air tap shut, started to release the chuck. Dmitri, seeing what I was doing, went off down the gallery to fetch a new bit.

‘Vachnadze, a Georgian from Kutaisi. He’s the leader of 39. They usually work at the pit head.’

‘What’s he doing down here?’

Titian shrugged and said, ‘Someone blotted his copy book. But he’ll be back up in a week or two. Safe above ground with the birds and the clouds. You know what they call him?’

I shook my head again. The chuck was loose and the bit starting to slide out. I tilted the drill forward, the bit clattering onto the rock at my feet, spitting where the hot metal touched a puddle of standing water.

‘They call him Odds-On.’ Titian saw the puzzlement on my face. ‘He was caught embezzling Party funds,’ he continued, ‘to pay off his debts. He’s a gambler.’

‘What did he gamble on?’

‘Football matches, boxing fights, cards, dice.’

I looked at Vachnadze. He was leaning on a shovel, looking like any other prisoner in the mine but, now I knew his story, he took on a different aura. It was always like this: we were such a uniform-looking bunch in our regulation prison issue clothing and layering of coal dust that all that really distinguished us, apart from our heights, was our backgrounds. When you learnt that so-and-so had been a rocket scientist or a farm-worker, a general or a tram driver, it coloured them in your eyes. You started to perceive those pieces of their past which fitted their present character and you used the information to judge them and know them.

‘I would imagine,’ I said, ‘that a long stretch in the gulag will cure him.’

Dmitri returned with a new bit wrapped in oiled paper which he started to strip off.

‘Don’t bet on it!’ Titian replied with a broad grin. Even his teeth were speckled with coal. ‘He’s still at it.’

‘Wagering on what?’ I asked, somewhat incredulously.

‘Anything. Anything at all. He has to gamble just as a miser has to count money, a whore screw or a priest pray.’ He gave Dmitri a glance. ‘Shall we?’

Dmitri slid the bit into the chuck and I started to tighten the teeth on it. He thought for a moment as he held the bit in place.

‘Shame to miss the chance,’ he mused.

‘Could do…’ Ylli contemplated.

‘We’ll have to be good, comrades,’ Titian commented. ‘He’s as cunning as a viper.’

‘Could do what?’ I wanted to know.

Titian glanced at Vachnadze. He was now back at work, shovelling the last of the previous shift’s coal and rubble into one of the trucks.

‘Lay a bet with him,’ said Titian.

‘And where do we get so much as a kopeck, never mind a rouble, to put on the table?’

‘Ah, Shurik!’ Dmitri exclaimed. ‘You have been here now for – how long? Don’t say. We don’t count such things. But still you don’t know Russians.’

‘We don’t need money,’ Titian said. ‘Do you have any makhorka?’

‘I don’t smoke,’ I reminded him.

‘No, but you get the issue all the same and you trade it like the others who don’t use it. Now, have you any?’

The bit was tight in the chuck. Some way down the pressure hose, compressed air was escaping from a weak seal. If I did not turn the tap on soon, it might blow, we would be forced to stop drilling, the holes would not be ready for the explosives team, we should be docked rations for not meeting our quota and life would be tougher than it was already.

‘No, I don’t,’ I admitted and I began to open the air valve, the chuck starting to spin once more.

‘But tomorrow is issue day,’ Dmitri pointed out over the rising whine, ‘so when you get some, keep it. Don’t trade it. And in four days, when everyone’s smoked their makhorka, we’ll have a bit of fun.’

In the next rest period, whilst the dynamite charges were set, Titian and Dmitri huddled together with Kostya. They whispered and chuckled. When I enquired what they were up to, they just smirked and told to me save my tobacco. By the fourth day, their plan was in place.

We were hard at work shovelling newly-blasted coal into the trucks. Odds-on Vachnadze was attached to the team installing the new props. Dmitri and Titian kept exchanging glances and winks. At one stage, Titian leaned over to check I had my tobacco ration on me. Finally, the new props were installed and the trucks filled. The locomotive appeared down the track, its wheels grinding and its brake pads sparking, to tow the filled trucks away and bring down an empty train to replace them. This gave us three or four minutes’ respite from our labours.

‘What I’d like right now,’ Titian observed in a marginally louder than normal voice, ‘is a smoke. A good long drag on a Virginia, an American cigarette. A Lucky Strike would do.’ To add emotion to this statement, he mimicked putting a butt to his mouth and drawing on it, exhaling with a leisured sigh.

Kostya interjected, ‘Lucky Strike! I’d like a fat cigar, thicker than a negro’s penis. And longer. A real three-hour smoke. Cuban tobacco. One of those cigars that comes in a metal tube like a toy torpedo.’

Dmitri said, a little wistfully, ‘I’d just settle for makhorka. But I’m clean out. The old trouble. Smoke it all at once. We zeks,’ it was the slang word for an occupant of the gulag by which we referred to ourselves, ‘savour a cup of soup with gristle like an old tart’s lips in it, and sip it as slowly as if it was French champagne just to make it last longer. But tobacco…’ He turned to me and winked. ‘You don’t puff, Shurik. You still in possession?’

‘Yes,’ I said, taking my cue.

Vachnadze, I noted, was standing by a pit prop, watching us and listening to the conversation.

‘Will you trade it?’ Dmitri enquired, but his eyes told me to refuse.

‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

‘How much do you have, English?’ asked Vachnadze, stepping forward.

‘My full ration.’

‘Why haven’t you traded yet?’

There was a touch of suspicion in his voice. Just as Titian had said, he was, I thought, a crafty sod.

‘It’s best to wait a day or two after the issue,’ I explained.

‘Then I get a better deal.’

I could sense the machinations of his mind shift into motion, the gear wheels of thought beginning to churn.

‘You got it on you now?’ the Georgian enquired.

‘I’ve got it where I can get it,’ I replied, sliding my hand over my waistband.

‘What do you want for it?’

I caught Titian’s eye. He was willing me to refuse to trade, to up the stakes, to play the game.

‘I haven’t thought,’ I said. ‘What do you have?’

‘Dried fish,’ Vachnadze answered. ‘Not the usually salty shit we get in the stew. Not crushed into dust. Whole fish. Head, gills, tails – the lot.’

I pretended to give his offer consideration then rejected the offer.

‘Salted fish makes me thirsty,’ I complained.

‘And dried meat,’ Vachnadze continued.

‘What meat?’ Avel asked, joining in the conversation.

‘He doesn’t want cat,’ Kostya butted in.

‘Some beef, some reindeer,’ Vachnadze declared. ‘Good quality jerky. Tough but you can chew it or boil it.’

‘How much do you have?’ I asked.

‘Enough,’ Vachnadze assured me. ‘How much tobacco do you have?’

‘Why trade?’ Titian suggested. ‘You’re said to be a gambling man, Georgian. Make a bet. What do you say, Shurik?’

Vachnadze looked at me for confirmation of my agreement and I knew then he was hooked.

I nodded my agreement and said, I hoped not too nonchalantly, ‘Why not? I shan’t be smoking it. It seems a fair risk.’

The wager was made: forty grams of makhorka against two hundred and fifty grams of jerky. Then, of course, the question arose as to what the bet would be based upon. A few ideas were mooted – how many trucks full of coal would be carted in the next shift, how many times the lights would dim when the dynamite was detonated, how many drips of water would fall from a certain cracked pipe in a certain length of time. These were all discarded. What constituted a truckful of coal? It could be manipulated. Who would count the dimming of the light, which was not finite? How could we time the drips when none of us possessed a watch?

The quandary was answered by Ylli who had taken no part in the discussion at all so far. Indeed, for the preceding few days he had hardly spoken to any of us when down the mine and I had assumed he was in one of his periodic huffs. Yet it was all part of the grand design. Ylli was our ringer.

‘What have we in the mine, which is unpredictable, often seen, easily counted and does not require timing?’

Everyone looked at him.

‘Well what?’ said Vachnadze testily.

‘Mice,’ replied Ylli.

It was true. There were mice in the mine, as far down as the very bottom-most gallery. They lived by nibbling crumbs of bread the prisoners accidentally dropped, seeds carried in the mud on the soles of our boots and the packaging of machine parts: it was even rumoured they gnawed sticks of dynamite.

‘I suggest,’ Ylli said, ‘that you bet on the likelihood of a mouse appearing during the next rest period. When the blasting team blow the charges, the little buggers sometimes show their heads.’

‘What do you say?’ Titian offered. ‘If a mouse appears, Shurik gets the jerky, if no mouse turns up, you get the tobacco.’

Vachnadze thought about it for a moment before his face broke into a grin and he held his hand out.

‘Done!’ he stated.

Titian slapped his hand against Vachnadze’s and the bet was sealed.

In the next rest period, he quit his own work unit and joined us in a small side chamber quite empty of stores. We all stood in the semi-darkness alert, watching the entrance to the chamber for a mouse to enter or run by. The leader of the team setting the charges blew the long blast on his whistle, the lights flickered, there was the customary dull thump and thickening of the air.

‘That’s it,’ Vachnadze declared. ‘It was odds on no mouse would turn up. You get plenty of them in the summer months, but not so many in the winter.’ He pointed to the roughly hewn roof of the chamber. ‘It’s December up there, comrades.’

I put my hand in my clothing and tugged the packet of makhorka free of the lining where I had secreted it. It was forbidden to bring tobacco down the mine.

‘What’s that?’ Kirill remarked in an off-hand manner, pointing to the rear of the chamber. As our leader, he had kept himself aloof from the business of the wager.

Kostya switched on his lamp. Cowering against the rear wall was a grey mouse, its whiskers quivering and its tail straight out behind it.

‘A mouse!’ exclaimed Dmitri. ‘A bloody mouse!’

Vachnadze stared at the rodent with a mixture of annoyance and disbelief. Its beady eye shone in the lamp light: then it was gone, running for cover in a crack in the rock.

‘Some you win, comrade, some you lose,’ Titian remarked with a smirk he could not control.

Vachnadze handed over a package and stomped out of the side chamber. I replaced the makhorka in my clothing and shone my lamp around to see if I could catch sight of the rodent but it had vanished.

Six hours later, as we queued for the cage to lift us to the December night above, shuffling on our padded jackets in readiness for the sub-zero temperatures awaiting us, each of us chewing on a wadge of the jerky, I noticed Dmitri was holding his thumb in the palm of his hand.

‘Problem?’ I asked.

Unfurling his fingers, I saw the coal grime was darker than usual and shiny. He was bleeding from a gash behind his thumb nail.

‘No problem,’ Dmitri said.

‘Drill bit?’ I enquired. ‘If it is you’ll need to clean it well. The grease they come in…’

‘No, no drill bit,’ he cut in then, whispering, added, ‘Those little buggers have quite a bite.’


I have always thought myself to be safe here in Myshkino.

Not from enemies, you understand. I have no concern for them now. Most, if not all, of them have died off, or been demoted, or sacked from whatever service bound them by its codes of hate and fear. The gulag is shut for the likes of me and, until I join a crime gang in St. Petersburg and peddle dope, or attempt a coup in Moscow which fails for lack of commitment or lousy planning, it will remain closed. The only wire that holds me in now is that which also encloses Trofim’s chickens which, from time to time, I enter with a bowl of scraps or a handful of corn: the key to their door hangs by a length of string from a hook by the back door.

As I totter towards eternity, a crusty old cove in a tidy jacket in a small village in the middle of Russia, you would think I was beyond care, beyond the reach of elements that might shake my security. What, you would think, could possibly happen to the old boy now. He’s been through hell’s kitchen – and the adjacent pantry, too – and has still come out with a smile in his heart. What, you could surmise, could possibly test him further.

Until this last week, I would have agreed with the conjecture. I thought I was done with earthquakes of the soul twenty years ago when the gates of the camp swung open and I was cast adrift, a remnant of human flotsam to wash up on Frosya’s shore. Time’s passage, winter storms, angry words and aching bones held no terror for me now. I was not afraid of them. They could not affect me. But fate, carrying in its basket the disconnected fragments of a long-forgotten past – that was a different matter altogether. Believe me.

As the dawn broke this morning, to turn the eightieth page of the chronicle of my trespass upon earth, I woke to discover the relentless clock taking me closer to being tested yet once more and, as the day drew on, I sidled inexorably nearer to the moment when fate was to knock its gavel on the block and, pointing at me with a finger like a malformed talon, shriek, ‘Decide! Decide!’ And, just as it was in the gulag or down the mine, I knew I should have no choice but to square up to the inevitable, take what chance served to me and dance to the pipes of fortune.

In truth, I thought, I would rather face death than five o’clock on this sunlit day, the sky dotted with fair weather cumuli, the world at peace with itself and the harvest in the fields half done. Over towards Stargorod, the wheat is already gathered in and the barns are blizzarded by sparrows and finches. Here in Myshkino, they are still gleaning the stubble rows or filching from the uncut ears. The apples in the orchards are early this year, some already suitable for picking, the first of the ripe fruit falling into the grass which, every morning, glitters with dew bedecking the webs of field spiders. Butterflies vie with Stepanov’s bees for the bounty of the blossoms.

At least, where death was concerned, I considered, I was prepared, have been so for most of my life.

As I brushed my white and – at last – gradually thinning hair, I studied myself in the mirror. Make no mistake, mine is a face that has seen the action. Gazing into my own eyes, I could spy the past slipping by not in detailed pictures but in moments of love and hatred, terror and joy, elation and depression. The lines on my forehead are furrows you could plant seeds in yet they are not frowns of disgruntlement or cantankerous age but channels of experience, rails to guide me into my thoughts. My cheeks are slightly pink, a sort of healthy glow such as one sees in the faces of children or old men like me who might, if their minds were weak, revert to infancy, spending their days drooling, fingering their privates and waiting for the god to beckon.

Even as the bristles scarified my scalp and tidied my not-too-short locks, for an old man with hair slightly longer than decency dictates has a certain dignity, I could see particles of that past which I have so long denied, to such an extent that now it is little more than a series of disjointed shards of time, like badly edited film, connected by short breaks of darkness.

There was a dog, possibly an Old English setter with a liver and white coat, running under trees the ground beneath which was a carpet of what might have been bluebells. It must have been spring-time although of what year, or of my life, there was no way of telling. A woman in an ankle-length, dark skirt and lace-trimmed, long-sleeved cream blouse called after the dog but it ignored her and scampered on. I could not make out the features of her face nor could I hear so much as a whisper of her voice nor the faintest of yaps from the dog. This was a silent film. A flash of time’s void and a house appeared across a wide lawn. The roof was indistinct, the windows nothing more than glass oblongs reflecting a grey sky, the chimneys squat but vague although the upper section of one of them might have consisted of a pattern of double twisted bricks. All that was plain to see was a rampant wisteria hung with lilac bunches of flowers like gossamer grapes. Another flick of black and I was moving down a street, turning a corner and facing a shop the window of which was filled with colourful objects although I was not certain quite what any of them were save three. These were tall, narrow-necked glass bottles with ornate stoppers, each a metre high. One contained liquid red as a blood ruby, the second hyacinthine blue and the third chartreuse green. Above these hung a sign upon the polished black background of which were painted, in gold leaf shadowed with deep vermilion, two indistinct letters and a name I could read as clearly as I saw my own visage in the mirror.

That was enough! Be gone! I had seen sufficient to know what I am and what, as the afternoon drew to an end, I had to decide.

* * *

The lane outside Frosya’s and Trofim’s house is not surfaced but merely a dirt track about three metres wide running down the hill towards the centre of the village. The house is, with the Merry Widow’s, the last habitation before the forest begins. In winter, the lane is either a glassine slope of ice upon which Trofim throws the ashes from the fire to give the soles of his valenki some purchase, or a morass churned up by feet, Spitsin the pig farmer’s horse and cart and the occasional motor vehicle. Now, in summer, it is a dusty track made uneven by the winter’s traffic. When it rains, the wheel ruts act as gutters and the hoof-prints as little pools from which, when the sun reappears, swallows and swifts come to dip their beaks and sip. The verges, where the lane runs unevenly along the edge of people’s vegetable plots or flower beds, are rank with grasses and wild flowers visited by bees from Stepanov’s hives and wild bees’-nests in the forest or butterflies drifting across the world on the currents of their trade winds.

I stepped gingerly along the lane. At my age, a twisted ankle is no laughing matter. It could be the death of me.

A few years ago, Trofim made me a walking stick out of a length of hazel, with a carved boss shaped like an eagle’s head and occasionally, so as not to hurt his feelings, I carry it about with me, but I refuse to rely upon it. I needed no stick in the gulag, when I was often bowed by the burden of my labours, and I will not depend upon one now. Today, being my birthday, I left the thing behind. It was not a matter of pride: it was a matter of surrender. I will not – I have never – surrendered, not to circumstance, not to man and certainly not to the tyranny of time.

Halfway down to the village, on the left of the lane, is Komarov’s property behind which extends his orchard of about a hundred apple trees, many of them far more gnarled and decrepit-looking than I, but all considerably more fruitful.

As I advanced, making my way cautiously over the rock-hard ruts, I heard a rhythmic squeaking. It emanated from a large shed twenty metres to the right side of the house, approached by a path neatly lined with smooth stones collected from the bed of the river. Against the side of the building were piled hessian sacks tied with twine, dark stains upon them.

Drawing still nearer, the sound suddenly stopped to be followed by a noise akin to a man dropping a load of rubber balls into a wooden bucket. It had a curious music to it, somehow primeval like the throbbing of drums in the jungle or distant thunder in imaginary mountains and meant Komarov was hard at his seasonal work.

It had been my intention to make Komarov my first call on this auspicious day but, as he was clearly busy at his toil, I decided to move on. It was not yet mid-morning: there was plenty of time. Yet it was not to be for, just as I reached the gate and passed through it, Komarov appeared at the door of the shed and, seeing me, shouted out.

‘Shurik! Where are you going?’

‘On my rounds,’ I said. ‘As usual.’

‘Your rounds?’ he echoed, then he remembered. ‘Your rounds! As usual! Today is your day, my friend. Nothing usual about it! Come!’ He waved his hand, frenetically beckoning to me.

‘I don’t want to interrupt you.’

‘Interrupt me? You won’t. I can work and talk. Would welcome it.’ He looked towards his house and called out, ‘Katya!’ There was no reply so he shouted louder. Komarov has a deep booming voice which can carry half a kilometre. ‘Katya! Shurik is here.’

I turned back through his gate and started up the path. Had I my walking stick with me, I should have trailed it against the round, grey stones like a boy running his ruler along a fence. Old men have puerile ways and I am no exception.

‘Happy birthday, Alexander,’ Komarov said somewhat formally, stepping out from the shade of the shed.

‘Thank you, Komar,’ I replied.

His nickname is an ironic play upon his surname: komar means mosquito. It is most inappropriate for Komarov is a big bear of a man, with a full black beard just starting to grey, hands the size of dried herrings and a laugh so jovial one would think it could draw nails from wood.

‘Shurik, step into my lair,’ he invited me, shaking my hand, his fingers softer than at any other time of the year. ‘Enter the den of the happiest man in the world.’

‘It is that month,’ I remarked.

The interior of the shed was cool and dark, but not without light. There were cracks in the roof through which sunlight was filtering, spaces between the boards of the walls. Indeed, the building is less of a shed and more of a temporary shelter. Against the far wall was piled firewood for the winter and split lengths of kindling next to three bales of straw the size of steamer trunks, the topmost cut open and trailing stalks on the earthen floor. Yet the function of the shed is not as a store or a winter byre. Komarov keeps no sheep or cows.

In the centre of the structure stood a tall contraption made of wood. At the top was a square funnel below which, projecting from a sturdy oak casing, were two large wooden wheels, one connected to a crank with the other acting as a governor. Both engaged several toothed wooden gear wheels and a pair of stone rollers set only a few millimetres apart. Below this was an oblong tray. All the wood was either grey with age or blackened with usage. This is Komarov’s pride and joy, the one thing for which he is envied not just in the village but in the entire district. It is his apple mill.

‘There she is,’ Komarov declared. ‘My once-a-year lady friend. The only whore who can steal me from my wife’s bed.’

‘How old is this machine?’ I enquired.

He laughed and said, ‘If she was a woman, she’d be past bedding and if I was her age I’d be past trouncing her. She is…’ he thought for a moment ‘…just over 150 years old. My great-greatgrandfather made her. Every square centimetre of the timber used in her came from trees growing within a five kilometre radius of the village. Of this very house. The same with the press.’

He moved around the mill to the other side of the shed. The apple press stood against the wall, a massive wooden screw thread holding the pressing plate in mid-air.

‘You know what I call this?’ Komarov asked, resting his hand on the suspended plate.

I shook my head and said, ‘Komar, you have told me. Every year when it is time to harvest your orchard, you tell me. And every year I forget.’

‘The right of an old man, Shurik. This top part, which presses the fruit, is called the bull and this…’ He touched the bed beneath, made of elm planking stained to ebony by year upon year of juice. ‘…is the cow. Sex,’ he added, ‘is everywhere in the agricultural life.’

Upon the cow was piled a half-made cheese of pomace, alternate layers of straw and mashed fruit. Yellow and black striped wasps hovered lazily in the air around it, drunk on a surfeit of apple flesh. I followed one as it flew unsteadily up to the rafters to become entangled in a spider’s web.

Komarov, seeing my eyes tracing the wasp, said, ‘Watch now what happens.’

The wasp started to struggle to free itself. The more it endeavoured to free itself, the more enmeshed it became. Suddenly, the owner of the web appeared on the scene. It was a big, dark grey spider with a leg span of at least eight centimetres. Pausing at the edge of its web, it placed its two forelegs upon crucial strands.

‘He’s testing the tension,’ Komarov observed, ‘judging the size of his captive.’

With a sudden rush, the spider crossed the web to within a centimetre or two of the wasp. It paused again.

‘Now he knows,’ Komarov declared. ‘Watch what he does, Shurik.’

The spider, far from leaping on the wasp and sinking its poisoned fangs into it, stepped back one arachnidian pace and began to snip the threads of its own web. The wasp was loosened but was still ensnared. The spider moved round, still cutting the net of the web. Finally, the wasp dangled at the end of a single strand. The spider reached it and severed it. The wasp fell to the ground, still threshing about to get free of its bindings.

‘So much for the grey wolf of my rafters,’ Komarov stated, ‘and the stripped tiger of the forests.’ He stamped his foot down. ‘Even when they are soporific, the spider knows better than to take on a wasp’.

From a lip in the rim of the cow, juice dribbled into a wooden pail large enough to bathe a baby. It was a dull, cloudy amber.

‘Try it,’ Komarov suggested. ‘Go on! Have a sip of the whole of the summer concentrated in a thimble.’

I held my finger under the trickle and sucked my skin. The juice was sweet but had an edge to it.

There was a movement at the entrance to the shed. Katya, Komarov’s wife, was there with a tray bearing three glasses of kvas, made from the apple juice. The liquid was the faint golden colour of raw plasma.

‘Happy birthday, Shurik,’ she said and, placing the tray in the sunlight on the edge of the cow, kissed me lightly. ‘Eighty years. Such an age. Just to think, you were born in the year of the October Revolution.’

She handed the glasses round and raised hers to me.

‘To you, Shurik,’ she declared. ‘With thanks to God for you being amongst us.’

I nodded politely, accepted the toast and sipped the drink. It was sweet and I imagined it tasted of warm days and meadows. A small shadow edged across the square of bright morning sunlight upon the earth by the door.

‘Stas is here,’ Katya announced. ‘Come, Stas. Uncle Shurik is here and you know what this day is.’

Into the shed stepped a small, tow-headed boy of about five. He was a handsome child, already showing his father’s strength but still in possession of his mother’s softness. I sensed he wanted to hide behind the bulk of the apple mill but had been instructed not to.

‘What have you say?’ his father prompted him.

The child swallowed, stared up at me and brought his hands round from behind his back. He held out a small package wrapped in red paper.

‘Well, Stas?’ his mother urged.

‘Alexander Alanovich Bayliss,’ he uttered, his voice not much louder than the drone of the inebriated wasps, ‘merry birthday.’

‘Not merry birthday!’ Komarov exclaimed. ‘It is happy birthday.’

The little boy grinned sheepishly. I stooped to accept his present.

‘Thank you very much, Stanislav Yurievich,’ I told him. ‘And you may be sure I shall have a merry day.’

It was, in part, a lie. I knew I should not actually be unhappy. That much was the truth. But later on, I considered, when the sun started to dip, then my day might take on a different mien.

The package was easily opened. Within was a small cardboard box. I opened this to discover, protected by flakes of cotton wool, a carved model of a wealthy land-owner’s kibitka about ten centimetres long. It was perfect down to the smallest detail. The runners under the sleigh curved perfectly, the sides were finely cut and decorated and, beside the sleigh-driver’s seat, a whip stood up in the air, a thin twine of leather curling away from it as if caught in mid-motion. I turned the model over appreciatively in my hand.

‘When Shurik was a little boy like you,’ Katya said to Stas, ‘if he had lived in Russia, he would have travelled to school every day in a sledge like that.’

‘How did you go to school?’ the child queried, drawing courage from his mother’s presence.

In truth, I do not remember for I have chosen to forget, and time has aided me in my deliberate neglect, but it is the role of an old man to entertain the young so I lied again.

‘When I was six,’ I said, ‘I went to school in an omnibus. Later, when I was older, I went in a train.’

Stas thought about this: I might just as well have told him I was taken to school in a gondola set with amethysts, mounted on wheels and drawn by a pair of white unicorns. He walks to the school in the village and, although he has travelled on a bus to Zarechensk, he has never seen a train except in pictures or on the television.

‘It was a toy, a hundred years ago,’ Komarov explained, pointing to the model.

‘How did you get it?’ I enquired.

Komarov smiled and replied, ‘Like the mill, like the press, my great-great-grandfather made it.’

I was deeply touched. These people were not giving me a gift so much as parting with a treasured and, I was sure, a valuable heirloom.

‘What can I say? It is exquisite. I am deeply honoured. Yet, surely, you should keep this, for Stas, for his son, for the future…’

Komarov put his hand on my shoulder.

‘My dear friend,’ he said, ‘we are the honoured. That you have chosen to live here, with us, for – how long is it now?’

‘Too long,’ I teased him.

‘Many years. It must be twenty for I was eleven, or twelve, when you arrived.’ He paused to gather himself as if to make a speech. ‘You chose to live amongst us, after all we had done to you, after all the years of hate, after the pain.’

‘Enough!’ I complained. ‘You did nothing to me, Komar. Nothing.’

‘But the Russians,’ Katya begins, ‘the Soviet…’

‘Are you those people?’ I replied. ‘Are you the chosen eunuchs of the Supreme Soviet? No. You are not. Like me, you are just common people going about your lives caught in the common mesh of history.’ I glanced upwards at the wasps receiving their liberty. ‘Like them, but without the sting. And as for this hate of which you speak?’ I shrugged dramatically and cast an obvious theatrical glance about the shed. ‘I do not see it. As for the pain, well, that was in my muscles, not in my heart.’

‘The common mesh of history,’ Komarov reiterated. ‘I like that. You were always good with words, Shurik. When I was a boy…’

‘The less said about your boyhood,’ I announced, ‘the better. I remember you as a rumbustious little sod. Quick to answer back, full of irrepressible impertinence. I am sure you would not wish your son to hear of his father’s waywardness. Or your wife, come to that.’

‘I learnt from you,’ Komarov said.

‘Rubbish!’ I retorted. ‘You merely came to your senses, realised there was more to life than standing in the fields killing jays. Remember that?’

‘I remember,’ he admitted. ‘You shamed me.’

‘You shamed yourself,’ I said. ‘You knew you were doing wrong.’

‘And can you recall what you said to me?’

I thought for a moment before speaking and saw, once again, a well-built twelve-year-old with a small bore shotgun standing at the edge of the forest with a dozen jays dead at his feet, their azure plumage catching the sun and speckled with black clots of congealing blood.

‘I think I said that for every beautiful thing a man destroys, two ugly ones are born. You were good at arithmetic, looked at the ground and the message sank in.’

‘It scared the hell out of me,’ Komarov confessed.

‘It was meant to. Teach the father and you teach the son.’

I looked down at Komarov’s little boy and put my hand out. ‘Stas, shake my hand.’

He was cautious again. Katya nudged him. He slowly brought his small hand out and I took it in mine. It was lost between my fingers.

‘There,’ I said, ‘the old world passes on the future to the new.’

Not looking at their faces, for I knew they were sad, I returned the kibitka to its box.

Komarov could not let it go. He had to ask me, as he has done before in what he has decreed to be moments of gravity.

‘Do you forgive us, Shurik?’

‘Forgive you? For what?’

Komarov avoided my eye and said, ‘You know, Shurik.’

I sipped the kvas. The sun, cutting through the door and striking the jug, had warmed the contents. It was smooth, like honey brought to blood heat.

As for what it is Komarov knows I know, it is this: his father, Vladimir Nikolaevich, was for six years the nachalnik – which is to say, the commandant – of a forced labour camp near Ust’ Olenëk. I was never held in that camp but that is of no concern to Komarov. It is enough that I was in the gulag and that his father was a part of the apparatus that held me there.

‘Komar,’ I said, ‘are you a religious man?’ It was a rhetorical question and I answered it immediately. ‘No. Like me, you give no truck for gods and angels and yet you know the text as well as I do. The soul that sinneth,’ I quoted, ‘it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him. The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, chapter 18, verse 20.’

For a Russian from peasant stock who possesses nothing more than a small house his grandfather built, a hundred apple trees and a derelict car which cannot move for lack of a new rear axle, Komarov is exceptionally well-read. When most of his peers sit around the long winter fires playing cards, roasting chestnuts or their toes, watching television or lying cosseted under the blankets with their wives, Komarov reads. This, he claims, is why his friends have four children but he has only one to show for ten years’ of marriage: and he has spent long nights forsaking his wife’s love, seeking to come to terms with the burden his soul has carried, of which I am a constant reminder.

‘Horace,’ he parried, ‘wrote in his Odes, Delicta maiorum immertius lues.’

‘I know my Horace,’ I rejoined and translated the quotation. ‘Though without guilt, you must atone for your father’s sins. Do you believe that? If this were the case,’ I argued, ‘the sins of men would be passed on, multiplying with every generation until the whole world was full of nothing but sin.’

‘You have been in the gulag, Shurik,’ Katya almost whispered.

‘That, my dear Katya, was not the whole world. It was a small blot on the landscape west of the Urals and up towards the Arctic Circle, a few kilometres from a coal mine. If you had been with me in the gulag, you would agree with me that the world is not full of evil. Even there, there was friendship, love, compassion. True, human goodness.’

For a long moment, she looked at me with such puzzlement. She cannot understand my stoicism, cannot come to terms with the fact that I bear no grudges and have simply, as she sees it, shrugged off a quarter of a century hacking coal out of the frozen north to feed the power stations of the temperate south.

‘Stas,’ I said, to break the tension of this awkward moment for us all, ‘will you take this box home for me and ask Frosya to put it in my room? If I carry it with me around the village, I may drop it.’

The child nodded gravely and, accepting the box containing the miniature sleigh, went off with Katya in the direction of Frosya’s house.

‘I have not told this to you before, Shurik,’ Komarov said, watching his wife and child turn through the gate and start off up the lane.

‘Said what?’

‘I have never told you this,’ he ignored my question, ‘because I have not wanted you to think I was using it as an excuse.’

‘An excuse? For what? What are you going on about, my friend?’

‘For…’ He had to choose his words. ‘For the Soviet Union, as it was. For my father.’

‘No man, Komar,’ I insisted, ‘has to excuse his father. I’ve said this many times to you. Believe it, believe me!’ I raised my finger to drive home the point. ‘Himself? Yes! His father? Never!’

‘Let me tell you, Shurik, this story,’ he went on undaunted by my brief didactic outburst. ‘It is true. I swear it on Stas’ head. On March 5, 1953, the radio announced the death of Stalin. Maybe he died a few days before. Who can tell? That was the official date of his death. All over the Soviet Union, people gathered in the streets, in the town squares, around the local Party offices. In Moscow, people died, hundreds of them crushed to death in the mass of people on the streets, mourning, wondering about their futures. My father was on leave from his posting. Of course, I was not there. I was not yet born. But my mother – he had married her only the year before – told me he was distraught.’

Komarov turned and emptied another sack of apples into the mill. The rubber ball sound resounded in the shed. An apple bounced free and I picked it up, tossing into the gaping maw at the top of the machine.

‘The next day,’ Komarov continued, ‘my father went to Zarechensk. They had opened a book of mourning in the Party office there. He inscribed his name.’

He set the mill in motion. The apples rolled down, slid into the teeth of the mill and were split apart. The sound of each apple breaking open was a sharp click, like a bone being snapped. The air filled with the tart tang of the raw juice. From between the rollers oozed a mush of apple flesh which dropped heavily into the tray beneath.

For several minutes, Komarov evenly revolved the handle. Not until the last of the appl