Authors: Sam Eastland
For John and Johanna
9 April 1945, Moscow. His footsteps echoed in the empty street.
Above him, framed by the snub-toothed silhouettes of chimney pots, the darkness shuddered with stars.
With hands shoved deep into the pockets of his coat, Pekkala made his way towards the Café Tilsit, the only place open at this time of night.
The windows of the café, blind with condensation, glowed from the light of candles set behind them.
Pekkala put his shoulder against the heavy wooden door and a small bell, tied to the handle, clanged as he entered the room. He paused for a minute, filling his lungs with the smell of soup and cigarettes, before heading to a quiet table at the back.
Pekkala had been coming here for years.
Before the war, most of the patrons who wandered in after midnight had been workers coming off their shifts – taxi-drivers, whores, museum guards. But there were also those who had no place to live, and some who, like Pekkala, fled whisperings of madness in the quiet of their empty rooms.
Here, at the Café Tilsit, alone but without being lonely, they chased all their demons away.
Nine years at a labour camp had taught Pekkala the value of this strange, wordless communion.
Schooled in the art of solitude by the lacquer-black winters of Siberia, he had come to know a silence so complete that it appeared to have a sound of its own – a hissing, rushing noise – like that of the planet hurtling through space.
Soon after he arrived at Borodok, the director of the camp had sent him into the woods, fearing that other inmates might learn his true identity.
Pekkala was given the task of marking trees to be cut by inmates of the camp, whose function was the harvesting of timber from the forest of Krasnagolyana. In that vast wilderness, Pekkala lacked not only the trappings of a civilised existence, but even a name. At Borodok, he was known only as prisoner 4745.
Moving through the forest with the help of a large stick, whose gnarled root head bristled with square-topped horseshoe nails, he daubed his handprint in red paint on trees selected for cutting. These marks were, for most of the other convicts, the only trace of him they ever saw.
The average life of a tree-marker in the forest of Krasnagolyana was six months. Working alone, with no chance of escape and far from any human contact, these men died from exposure, starvation and loneliness. Those who became lost, or who fell and broke a leg, were usually eaten by wolves. Tree-marking was the only assignment at Borodok said to be worse than a death sentence.
Everyone assumed that Pekkala would be dead before the ice broke up in spring, but nine years later he was still at work, having lasted longer than any other marker in the entire Gulag system.
Every few months, provisions were left for him at the end of a logging road. Kerosene. Cans of meat. Nails. For the rest, he had to fend for himself. Only rarely was he seen by those logging crews who came to cut the timber. What they observed was a creature barely recognisable as a man. With the crust of red paint that covered his prison clothes and the long hair maned about his face, he resembled a beast stripped of its flesh and left to die which had somehow managed to survive. Wild rumours surrounded him – that he was an eater of human flesh, that he wore a breastplate made from the bones of those who had disappeared in the forest, that he wore scalps laced together as a cap.
They called him the man with bloody hands. No one except the commandant of Borodok knew where this prisoner had come from or who he had been before he arrived.
Those same men who feared to cross his path had no idea this was Pekkala, whose name they’d once invoked just as their ancestors had called upon the gods.
For Pekkala, after those years spent in the forest, some habits still remained. Although there was a bed in his flat, he never slept in it, preferring the hard planks of the floor and his coat rolled up as a pillow. He wore the same clothes – a hip-length double-breasted coat, heavy brown corduroys and a grey waistcoat – no matter what season or occasion. And, thanks to the Café Tilsit, he often ate his dinners in the middle of the night, just as he had done out in Siberia.
Now, in the sixth year of the war, almost all the men who dined at the café were in the military, forming a mottled brown horde that smelled of boot grease,
tobacco and the particular earthy mustiness of Soviet Army wool. The women, too, wore uniforms of one kind of another. Some were military, with black berets and dark blue skirts beneath their tunics. Others wore the khaki overalls of factory workers, their heads bundled in blue scarves, under which the hair, for those employed in munitions factories, had turned a rancid yellow.
Most of them sat at one of two long, wooden tables, elbow to elbow, eating from shallow wooden bowls.
As Pekkala passed by, a few of them glanced up from their meals, squinting through the smoky air at the tall, broad-shouldered man, whose greenish-brown eyes were marked by a strange silvery quality, which people noticed only when he was looking directly at them. Streaks of premature grey ran through his dark hair and a week’s worth of beard stubbled his wind-burned cheeks.
Pekkala did not sit at the long tables. Instead, he made his way to his usual table at the back, facing the door.
While he waited to be served, he pulled a crumpled photograph from his coat pocket. White cracks in the emulsion of the picture criss-crossed the image and the once sharp corners were folded and torn like the ears of an old fighting dog. Intently, Pekkala studied the image, as if he were seeing it for the first time. In fact, he had looked at this picture so many times over the years that his memory of the moment it was taken remained far clearer than the photograph itself. And yet he could not stand to let it go. As the owner of the café made her way towards his table, shuffling in a worn-out pair of felt
boots, Pekkala tucked the picture back into his pocket.
The owner was a slender, narrow-shouldered woman, with thick, blonde hair combed straight back on her head and tied with a length of blue yarn. Her name was Valentina.
In front of Pekkala, she set a mug of kvass: a half-fermented drink which looked like dirty dishwater and tasted like burned toast.
‘My darling Finn,’ she said, and rested her hand on his forehead, as if to feel a fever on his brow. ‘What dreams have brought you to me on this night?’
‘For dreams, there would have to be sleep,’ he replied, ‘and I’ve had very little of that. Besides, it’s past midnight now. I might as well just stay awake.’
‘Then I will bring you your first meal of the day.’
He did not need to ask about the choice of food because there was none. At the Café Tilsit, they served what they made when they made it, and he’d never had cause for complaint.
As Valentina sauntered back into the kitchen, Pekkala retrieved the photograph and looked at it again, as if some detail might have risen from the frozen image.
The picture showed Pekkala, leaning up against a waist-high stone wall, his eyes narrowed as he squinted into the sun. He smiled awkwardly and his arms were crossed over his chest. His face looked thinner, and his eyes more deeply set than they seemed now.
Behind him stood a brick building with a sharply canted slate roof and tall windows arched at the top. A cluster of small children peered from behind the wall, their eyes big and round with curiosity.
Standing beside Pekkala was a young woman with a softly rounded nose and freckled cheeks. Her long hair was tied in a ribbon, but a breeze had blown a few strands loose. They had drifted in front of her face, almost hiding her eyes, and her hand was slightly blurred as she reached up to brush them aside.
Her name was Lilya Simonova. She was a teacher at the Tsarskoye primary school, just outside the grounds of the Tsar’s estate.
Each time Pekkala glimpsed that photograph, he felt the same lightness in his chest, as he had done on the first day he caught sight of her at an outdoor party to mark the beginning of the new school year.
He had been passing by on his way from a meeting with the Tsar at the Alexander Palace to his cottage near the Old Pensioners’ Stables on the grounds of the estate when the headmistress of the school, Rada Obolenskaya, beckoned to him from across the wall. She was a tall and dignified woman, with grey hair knotted at the back, and a practised severity in her gaze; a tool of the trade for anyone in her profession.
‘Inspector!’ she called and, as she approached the wall which stood between them, a cluster of children fell in behind her. ‘Some students here would like to meet you.’
Inwardly, Pekkala groaned. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to go home, take off his boots and drink a glass of cold white wine in the shade of the apple tree which grew behind his house. But he knew he had no choice, so he stopped in his tracks and bolted a smile to his face.
It was in this moment that he noticed a woman whom he had never seen before. She was standing just outside a white marquee tent set up in the school playground for the occasion. She wore a pale green dress and her eyes were a luminous and dusty blue.
At first, he thought he must know her from somewhere but he felt quite certain that she was a stranger. Whatever it was, he couldn’t explain it; this sudden lurching of his senses towards an inexplicable familiarity.
‘Are you really the Inspector?’ asked a nervous, little voice.
Dazed, Pekkala looked down to see the face of a five-year-old girl peering from behind Madame Obolenskaya’s skirt. ‘Why, yes,’ he replied. ‘Yes, I am.’
And now another face appeared, framed by an untidy shock of red hair. ‘Have you met the Tsar?’
‘Yes,’ answered Pekkala. ‘In fact, I just saw him today.’
This produced a collective gasp of approval, and now half a dozen children broke cover from behind Madame Obolenskaya and crowded up to the wall.
‘Are you magic, like they say?’ asked a boy.
‘My mother told me they ride polar bears where you are from.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ muttered Pekkala. Then he noticed the twitch of a smile in Madame Obolenskaya’s normally immovable expression. ‘Oh, a polar bear, did you say?’
The boy nodded, as curious as he was terrified of what the answer to his question might be.
‘Well, of course!’ exclaimed Pekkala. ‘Do you mean to say you do not ride them here?’
‘No,’ answered the red-haired girl, ‘and the fact is I have never even seen one.’
‘I told you,’ the boy announced to no one in particular. ‘I told you that’s what he did.’
Throughout this, Pekkala kept glancing over Madame Obolenskaya’s shoulder at the woman in the pale green dress.
This did not escape the attention of the headmistress, and she turned to spot the source of his distraction. ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘you haven’t met our new teacher, Lilya Simonova.’
‘No,’ replied Pekkala, his voice falling to a whisper, as if his throat had filled with dust.
Madame Obolenskaya raised her arm and, with a flip of her wrist, waved towards the new teacher, like somebody hailing a carriage off the street.
Obediently, but not without a faint trace of defiance in her step, Lilya Simonova made her way across the school playground.
What Pekkala said to her in the few minutes of that first conversation was nothing of consequence, and yet the words came so slowly and with such difficulty that it was like talking with a mouthful of cherry stones.
Lilya was polite, but reserved. She spoke very little, which made him speak too much.
At some point, Pekkala heard a click and glanced up to see that Madame Obolenskaya had taken a photograph of the two of them, using a Kodak Brownie camera which she had bought from the DeLisle photographic studio in the arcade at the Gosciny Dvor in St Petersburg. Since it became known that the Tsarina herself possessed one of these cameras, which she used to photograph the daily lives of her family, they had become all the rage in the city.
Madame Obolenskaya had recently set about taking pictures of each class at the school, prints of which would be given out to each student and a copy hung on the wall of her office.
Under normal circumstances, Pekkala would have taken Madame Obolenskaya aside and politely explained to her that the film on which that image had been frozen would have to be destroyed. On the orders of the Tsar, no pictures could be taken of the Emerald Eye.
On that occasion, however, he simply asked if he might have a copy of the print.
One year later, having borrowed a rowing boat from the Tsar, Pekkala proposed to Lilya at the pavilion on the little island in the middle of the Lamskie Pond.
A date was set, but they were never married. They never got the chance. Instead, on the eve of the Revolution, Lilya boarded a train heading north towards Finland, on a long and circuitous journey that would eventually deliver her to Paris, where Pekkala promised to meet her as soon as the Tsar allowed him to depart. But Pekkala never did get out. Some months later, he was arrested by Bolshevik militia men while attempting to leave the country. From there, his own journey began, only one that would take him to Siberia.
Along with a scattering of images captured only by the shutter of Pekkala’s blinking eyes, this picture was all he had left to prove to himself that his most precious memories had not, in fact, been conjured from a dream.
These thoughts were cancelled by the ringing of the little bell, as yet another stranger tumbled in out of the night.