Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Perfection of Hopelessness

by Sally Zigmund

Russian Tea

I’m drifting in the warm shallows between sleep and wakefulness when Tatiana shakes my shoulder.
‘We’re to leave without delay. Orders!’ she spits, dribbling saliva in my ear. I wipe it away with my shift I wear overnight. I no longer have my broderies anglaises nightgowns I stitched with such care.
‘At midnight? That’s stupid!’ I hiss back. Anastasia’s head pops out from underneath her blankets like a kitten from a basket. ‘What does silly old Yurovsky thinks he's playing at?’
Mama’s voice is grey with weariness. ‘Mein Gott. Why won’t they leave us alone? Come, Mashka, help me. Ach. my back aches so.’
‘I’m here,’ says Maria. ‘Is it the cream blouse or the blue?’
Mama is the Tsaritsa to her fingertips. She will speak English although we have been ordered only to speak Russian.
‘What has changed?’ she asked, ferocious yet bewildered, some months ago when the train brought us here from Tobolsk. We had been prisoners there, too, but at least we could sit at the window and wave to the peasants passing by, watch chaffinches pecking the crumbs we threw to them, gaze at the clouds sailing above us, write and receive letters.
Here, the windows are boarded up.
‘What is happening out there?’
‘Nothing is happening.’
So they say and we accept. How can we not? We read books, we pray, we play endless games of bezique; shuffle the packs and play until we are numb with boredom, feigning hope. We are allowed to pace the garden for an hour a day when it is not raining. We suffer without complaint the summer’s sultry heat, the storms, the furious rain that sweeps down from the Urals. There is nothing else we can do.
I hear the rustle of cotton in the gloom as we dress. Downstairs, the slamming of doors, the thud of boots is that of falling trees; the whispers like the scurrying of rats through straw. Sporadic gunfire peppers the world beyond, a world that no longer exists for us: the forests, the mountains, the railway lines, the riven arteries of war. But who is firing at whom or why, we do not know.
It is unknowing that paralyses us, as surely as Alexey’s thin blood cripples him. We are diminished like the soldiers we sisters used to nurse in the hospitals of Saint Petersburg when the war was new and glorious. Not so long ago but we have grown so old.
Papa speaks from the shadows. ‘We are being taken to England. Cousin George will not abandon us. He was behind those smuggled letters and plans.’
Plans that expect eleven people (two in wheelchairs) to squeeze through a narrow skylight, slide down a drainpipe and dash across an open courtyard with machine guns angled towards every entrance.
Anastasia sighs in the darkness. ‘The English breed fine horses.’
‘Not as fine as ours,’ says Papa. 'Now, the Cossacks…’
‘…I have a fine troop of Cossack horsemen in my model army,’ pipes Alexey.
Why are we talking about horses?
Maria soothes Mama’s grumbles as she lifts her arms, shifts her matchstick legs, coaxes her into her clothes. Papa lights a cigarette. It fills the room with the stench of burnt manure. He, who once smoked the best, custom-made, monogrammed cheroots.
Maria says, ‘Let me straighten your collar, Mama. There you are. Done. Come on, Alexey. Your turn. Sit up for me, please, darling.’
‘Can we take the dogs?’
‘I am sure we can, but I will ask,’ says Tatiana. I hear her walk to the door.
‘No!’ Mama’s voice is sharp. ‘We do not ask! We do not beg.’
Tatiana pauses, her hand on the latch. ‘Someone is listening outside the door.’
So? I care not. Do I alone know this is the end? But it is not the end but the beginning of the life of perfection. I sit on the edge of my bed and close my eyes. The fitful conversation around me becomes no more than the sighing of the wind in the cherry trees that once blossomed outside my window. I dream of perfection. Papa dreams of becoming an English farmer; to wear tweeds, shoot pheasants. I think of summers on the Isle of Wight with our English cousins, when the Schandart slid through silky water into Cowes harbour on a swell of polite English applause; when the Russian national anthem wafted towards us on the salt air; waving to our cousins, King George and the Prince of Wales, by his side. There was once talk of us marrying and my becoming Queen of England. Nothing came of it. I am pleased. I would not, will not leave Russia. Russia is my soul. The Church of Russia is the one true church, the only one that brings theosis—union with God. Paradise. This is my desire.
I open my eyes. I raise an arm and examine it. It floats before me, thin and white as skimmed milk in the gloom. It is no longer my arm, no longer my body, but flesh and bone, being refined, sublimated in the spirit. I no longer bleed. I shun the food they give us. I have surpassed hunger. My prayers sustain me.
Papa mourns his routine, his daily newspapers, his bulletins from the war, official papers which he read with such attention to detail, signing papers in the way his father did and his father before him. What need is there of change? The soul needs to trust the path that leads to God. Accept. Endure.
‘They are taking us to Livadia,’ says Anastasia, rushing to Papa to envelop him in a hug. ‘The palace is far away from the fighting, is it not?’
‘Perhaps, my little schwipsig,’ he says, stubbing out his cigarette and lighting another. ‘Perhaps.’ There are times I envy her naïveté, her ability to poke fun at our gaolers behind their backs, mimic their accents and mannerisms.
If I close my eyes, I am in Livadia, our palace of dreams, my face tilted towards the sun I can smell the pines on the cliffs, the blowsy roses dropping petals along the paths. I can hear the crunch of gravel beneath my feet as I take Papa’s arm and walk with him through the restless palms, breathing the magnolias, bougainvillea, the drowsy scent of chamomile, grass and mint our feet crush as we stroll together. The dogs scamper after us, leaving looping silver trails in the lawns that slope towards the blue, blue sea. The shrubs are thick with swallowtails. Papa claps his hands and they swirl around us like confetti ...
‘This is intolerable,’ says Mama. ‘Why did they wake us so early?’
She snaps the thread of my dreams. The perfume is the stink of petrol, the crash of waves on the beach is the marching feet of soldiers going who knows where and who knows why.
‘Why will no-one tell us what is happening?’ Tatiana moans.
What will be will be. I mouth the words that comfort me. Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The door opens; an arc of light across the floor. We are silhouettes, casting shadows which will remain forever in this place. We are imprinted in its floors, its walls. It has absorbed us. We will always be here. Like the calendar on the wall that hasn’t been changed for weeks.
‘Follow me,’ snaps Yurovsky.
We step out onto the landing. We wait. Papa stands first in line, Alexey in his arms, then Mama, who beckons me to her side. My sisters and our four loyal servants follow.
‘What about our things?’ Tatiana is ever practical.
He almost smiles. ‘Do not worry about trivialities.’ I have a desire to hug him. He is right. I long to tell my family that perfection awaits us so why fear the future on this earth.  Yet we know not when exactly so we must always be ready. Perfection will come to us where Alexey will no longer bleed, Mama will no never feel pain again and Papa can walk his English fields forever in plus-fours. I also know they will not listen to me or smile at me and shake their heads. We follow fussy old Yurovsky into the darkness, as he casts furtive glances over his shoulder, counting heads, a nervous goose leading its brood away from the following scent of a fox.
Our progress is slow; one by one, we step outside, across a cobbled yard, then through another door; then down more steps into a basement. The air is cool and musty. I smell mushrooms, potatoes, a hint of last year’s apples and coal dust. Facing us is another door, open and flanked by two boys, one of whom shifts his rifle from his shoulder and uses it as a peasant’s stick to guide us as if we are pigs.
We are in an empty storeroom; its windows boarded, its walls featureless. A naked light-bulb hangs from the ceiling, feeble, apologetic. We arrange ourselves so that we face the door. Papa stands, still cradling Alexey who clings to him like a monkey. His child’s eyes, wide with curiosity, observe. To the left of Papa, Maria and Anastasia clutch each other’s hand. Tatiana’s back is stiff and proud. Behind us, our servants are vigilant, ready to defend us.
Yurovsky says, ‘You will wait here for the truck that is to take you to safety.’
‘Why are there no chairs?’ Mama’s voice is a cracked bell that clangs against the bare walls. ‘I cannot be expected to stand with my sciatica. And one for Alexey.’
Yurovsky cocks his dark head to someone behind him who is heard to mutter something I cannot make out but chairs are found.
Papa places Alexey on a chair next to him and helps lower Mama into hers. We wait. As if posing for a photograph, expectant, watchful.
The voice of my English governess. ‘Watch the birdie, Olga. Smile!’
The grating sound of a truck grows louder. Nearer. The sound of its engine fills the room, shakes the walls; the driver impatient, foot on the throttle. We wait.
The door opens. Yorovsky steps forward, a piece of paper in his hand. Behind him are more men—all strangers. ‘You will all stand … please.’ Why the politesse?
      Mama grumbles but struggles to her feet, pressing her weight on Papa’s elbow. Alexey would obey but cannot.
        Yurovsky coughs before he reads the document. He begins. He ends.
         It has come. Dear, Lord. I will very soon stand before you.
         The men raise their rifles. The stink of mouldy potatoes and damp fade and are replaced by the sweet scents of dew-laden freshly-mown grass, chamomile and mint crushed under my bare toes. I have found my perfection. Thanks be to God, blessed be thy name.  

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