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“What are you going to do when you leave school?” asked Alexander.
“I’m hoping to join the KGB,” Vladimir replied, “but they won’t even consider me if I don’t get a place at the state university. How about you?”
“I intend to be the first democratically elected president of Russia,” said Alexander, laughing.
“And if you make it,” said Vladimir, who didn’t laugh, “you can appoint me as head of the KGB.”
“I don’t approve of nepotism,” said Alexander, as they strolled across the schoolyard and out onto the street.
“Nepotism?” said Vladimir, as they began to walk home.
“It derives from the Italian word for ‘nephew,’ and dates back to the popes of the seventeenth century, who often handed out patronage to their relations and close friends.”
“What’s wrong with that?” said Vladimir. “You just exchange the popes for the KGB.”
“Are you going to the match on Saturday?” asked Alexander, wanting to change the subject.
“No. Once Zenit F.C. reached the semifinals, there was never any chance of someone like me getting a ticket. But surely as your father’s the docks’ supervisor, you’ll automatically be allocated a couple of seats in the reserved stand for party members?”
“Not while he still refuses to join the Communist Party,” said Alexander. “And when I last asked him, he didn’t sound at all optimistic about getting a ticket, so Uncle Kolya is now my only hope.”
As they continued walking, Alexander realized they were both avoiding the one subject that was never far from their minds.
“When do you think we’ll find out?”
“I’ve no idea,” said Alexander. “I suspect our teachers enjoy watching us suffering, well aware it will be the last time they have any power over us.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” said Vladimir. “The only discussion in your case is whether you’ll win the Lenin Scholarship to the foreign language school in Moscow, or be offered a place at the state university to study mathematics. Whereas I can’t even be sure of getting into university, and if I don’t, my chances of joining the KGB are kaput.” He sighed. “I’ll probably end up working on the docks for the rest of my life, with your father as my boss.”
Alexander didn’t offer an opinion as the two of them entered the tenement block where they lived, and began to climb the worn stone steps to their flats.
“I wish I lived on the first floor, and not the ninth.”
“As you well know, Vladimir, only party members live on the first three floors. But I’m sure that once you’ve joined the KGB, you’ll come down in the world.”
“See you in the morning,” said Vladimir, ignoring his friend’s jibe as he began to climb the remaining four flights.
As Alexander opened the door to his family’s tiny flat on the fifth floor, he recalled an article he’d recently read in a state magazine reporting that America was so overrun with criminals that everyone had at least two locks on their front door. Perhaps the only reason they didn’t in the Soviet Union, he thought, was because no one had anything worth stealing.
He went straight to his bedroom, aware that his mother wouldn’t be back until she’d finished her shift at the docks. He took several sheets of lined paper, a pencil and a well-thumbed book out of his satchel, and placed them on the tiny table in the corner of his room, before opening War and Peace at page 179 and continuing to translate Tolstoy’s words into English. When the Rostov family sat down for supper that night, Nikolai appeared distracted, and not just because …
Alexander was double-checking each line for spelling mistakes, and to see if he could think of a more appropriate English word, when he heard the front door open. His tummy began to rumble, and he wondered if his mother had been able to smuggle any tidbits out of the officers’ club, where she was the cook. He closed his book and went to join her in the kitchen.
Elena gave him a warm smile as he sat down on a wooden bench at the table.
“Anything special tonight, Mama?” Alexander asked hopefully.
She smiled again, and began to empty her pockets, producing a large potato, two parsnips, half a loaf of bread, and this evening’s prize, a steak that had probably been left on an officer’s plate after lunch. A veritable feast, thought Alexander, compared to what his friend Vladimir would be eating tonight. There’s always someone worse off than you, his mother often reminded him.
“Any news?” Elena asked as she began to peel the potato.
“You ask me the same question every night, Mama, and I keep telling you that I don’t expect to hear anything for at least another month, possibly longer.”
“It’s just that your father would be so proud if you won the Lenin Scholarship.” She put down the potato and placed the peel to one side. Nothing would be wasted. “You know, if it hadn’t been for the war, your father would have gone to university.”
Alexander was very aware, but always happy to be reminded how Papa had been stationed on the eastern front as a young corporal during the siege of Leningrad, and although a crack Panzer division had attacked his section continuously for ninety-three days, he’d never left his post until the Germans had given up and retreated to their own country.
“For which he was awarded the Defence of Leningrad medal,” said Alexander on cue.
His mother must have told him the story a hundred times, but Alexander didn’t tire of it, although his father never raised the subject. And now, almost twenty-five years later, after returning to the docks he’d risen to Comrade Chief Supervisor, with three thousand workers under his command. Although he wasn’t a party member, even the KGB acknowledged that he was the only man for the job.
The front door opened and closed with a bang, announcing that his father was home. Alexander smiled as he strode into the kitchen. Tall and heavily built, Konstantin Karpenko was a handsome man who could still make a young woman turn and take a second look. His weather-beaten face was dominated by a luxuriantly bushy mustache that Alexander remembered stroking as a child, something he hadn’t dared to do for several years. Konstantin slumped down onto the bench opposite his son.
“Supper won’t be ready for another half hour,” said Elena as she diced the potato.
“We must only speak English whenever we are alone,” said Konstantin.
“Why?” asked Elena in her native tongue. “I’ve never met an Englishman in my life, and I don’t suppose I ever will.”
“Because if Alexander is to win that scholarship and go to Moscow, he will have to be fluent in the language of our enemies.”
“But the British and Americans fought on the same side as us during the war, Papa.”
“On the same side, yes,” said his father, “but only because they considered us the lesser of two evils.” Alexander gave this some thought as his father stood up. “Shall we have a game of chess while we’re waiting?” he asked. Alexander nodded. His favorite part of the day. “You set up the board while I go and wash my hands.”
Once Konstantin had left the room, Elena whispered, “Why not let him win for a change?”
“Never,” said Alexander. “In any case, he’d know if I wasn’t trying, and leather me.” He pulled open the drawer below the kitchen table and took out an old wooden board and a box containing a set of chess pieces, one of which was missing, so each night a plastic salt cellar had to substitute for a bishop.
Alexander moved his king’s pawn two squares forward, before his father returned. Konstantin responded immediately, moving his queen’s pawn one square forward.
“How did you do in the match?” he asked.
“We won three nil,” said Alexander, moving his queen’s knight.
“Another clean sheet, well done,” said Konstantin. “Although you’re the best goalkeeper the school’s had in years, it’s still more important to win that scholarship. I assume you still haven’t heard anything?”
“Nothing,” said Alexander, as he made his next move. It was a few moments before his father countered. “Papa, can I ask if you’ve managed to get a ticket for the match on Saturday?”
“No,” admitted his father, his eyes never leaving the board. “They’re rarer than a virgin on Nevsky Prospect.”
“Konstantin!” said Elena. “You can behave like a docker when you’re at work, but not at home.”
Konstantin grinned at his son. “But your uncle Kolya has been promised a couple of tickets on the terraces, and as I have no interest in going…” Alexander leaped in the air as his father made his next move, pleased to have distracted his son.
“You could have had as many tickets as you wanted,” said Elena, “if only you’d agree to become a party member.”
“That’s not something I’m willing to do, as you well know. Quid pro quo. An expression you taught me,” said Konstantin, looking across the table at his son. “Never forget, that lot will always expect something in return, and I’m not willing to sell my friends down the river for a couple of tickets to a football match.”
“But we haven’t reached the semifinal of the cup for years,” said Alexander.
“And probably won’t again in my lifetime. But it will take far more than that to get me to join the Communist Party.”
“Vladimir’s already a pioneer and signed up for the Komsomol,” said Alexander, after he’d made his next move.
“Hardly surprising,” said Konstantin. “Otherwise he’d have no chance of joining the KGB, which is the natural habitat for that particular piece of pond life.”
Once again, Alexander was distracted. “Why are you always so hard on him, Papa?”
“Because he’s a shifty little bastard, just like his father. Be sure you never trust him with a secret, because it will have been passed on to the KGB before you’ve reached home.”
“He’s not that bright,” said Alexander. “Frankly, he’ll be lucky to be offered a place at the state university.”
“He may not be bright, but he’s cunning and ruthless, a dangerous combination. Believe me, he’d shop his mother for a ticket to the cup final, probably even the semifinal.”
“Supper’s ready,” said Elena.
“Shall we call it a draw?” said Konstantin.
“Certainly not, Papa. I’m six moves away from checkmate, and you know it.”
“Stop squabbling, you two,” said Elena, “and lay the table.”
“When did I last manage to beat you?” asked Konstantin as he placed his king on its side.
“November the nineteenth, 1967,” said Alexander, as the two of them stood up and shook hands.
Alexander put the salt cellar back on the table and returned the chess pieces to the box while his father took down three plates from the shelf above the sink. Alexander opened the kitchen drawer and took out three knives and three forks of different vintages. He recalled a paragraph in War and Peace that he’d just translated. The Rostovs regularly enjoyed a five-course dinner (better word than “supper”—he would change it when he returned to his room), and a different set of silver cutlery accompanied each dish. The family also had a dozen liveried servants who stood behind each chair to serve the meals that had been prepared by three cooks, who never seemed to leave the kitchen. But Alexander was sure that the Rostovs couldn’t have had a better cook than his mother, otherwise she wouldn’t be working in the officers’ club.
One day … he told himself, as he finished laying the table and sat back down on the bench opposite his father. Elena joined them with the evening’s offering, which she divided between the three of them, but not equally. The thick steak that along with the parsnips and the potatoes, had been “repatriated”—a word Alexander had taught her, had been cut into two pieces. “Waste not, want not,” she could manage in both languages.
“I’ve got a church meeting this evening,” said Konstantin as he picked up his fork. “But I shouldn’t be back too late.”
Alexander cut his steak into several pieces, chewing each morsel slowly, between mouthfuls of bread and sips of water. He saved the parsnip till last. Its bland taste lingered in his mouth. He wasn’t sure if he even liked it. In War and Peace parsnips were only eaten by the servants. They continued to talk in English while they enjoyed the meal.
Konstantin emptied his glass of water, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket, stood up, and left the room without another word.
“You can go back to your books, Alexander. This shouldn’t take me too long,” his mother said with a wave of her hand.
Alexander happily obeyed her. Back in his room, he replaced the word “supper” with “dinner,” before turning to the next page and continuing with his translation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. The French were advancing on Moscow …
As Konstantin left the apartment block and walked out onto the street, he was unaware of a pair of eyes staring down at him.
Vladimir had been gazing aimlessly out of the window, unable to concentrate on his schoolwork, when he spotted Comrade Karpenko leaving the building. It was the third time that week. Where was he going at this time of night? Perhaps he should find out. He quickly left his room and tiptoed down the corridor. He could hear loud snoring coming from the front room, and peeped in to see his father slumped in his ancient horsehair chair, an empty bottle of vodka lying on the floor by his side. He opened and closed the front door quietly, then bolted down the stone steps and out onto the street. Glancing to his left he spotted Mr. Karpenko turning the corner and ran after him, slowing down only when he reached the end of the road.
He peered around the corner, and watched as Comrade Karpenko went into the Church of the Apostle Andrew. What a complete waste of time, thought Vladimir. The Orthodox Church may have been frowned on by the KGB, but it wasn’t actually banned. He was about to turn back and go home when another man appeared out of the shadows, whom he’d never seen at church on Sundays.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Archer