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Authors: Vanora Bennett

Midnight in St. Petersburg

BOOK: Midnight in St. Petersburg


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For the Karpovs in St. Petersburg






The train was still hurtling through the darkness, with hours to go before St. Petersburg and dawn, when Inna had her fortune told.

Not that she'd ever meant to show her palm to a gypsy. She'd slunk on to that train in terror of being noticed at all.

Of course, she couldn't help hearing what was being said by all the raucous men crowded together on the bottom bunks of the communal compartment, drinking, eating sausage and chicken legs and eggs, and singing along to a squeezebox playing sad songs far too loud and fast. She couldn't help being aware, either, that there was a gypsy woman on the bunk below hers, reading the drunks' hands.

But she'd spent the first part of the journey pressed up against the wall of her top bunk, keeping very quiet, like all the other shadows in all the other corners she didn't dare look at, shying away from the noisy talk. In an attempt not to be overwhelmed by the racing of her heart, she'd been repeating, hypnotically, in time with the rhythm of the wheels, ‘Nearly safe, nearly safe, nearly safe…'

She'd never have imagined, alone with her fear, that anything or anyone could have persuaded her out of the prickly darkness. Until it happened. The talk had been enough to keep her hidden – the talk that kept coming back to the assassination.

The Prime Minister, shot dead in the theatre in Kiev by a terrorist. The Tsar, down south on a visit, standing in the brilliantly lit royal box, frozen-faced as a photograph, watching Stolypin hold his chest and stagger to his knees.

What I don't understand is, how did he get past the security police in the first place?

He had a pass, can you believe? I was told he was a police informer himself.

An anarchist, I heard.

Or some sort of Red. An SD, an SR …

But a Jew, of course.

There, of course. Her heart thudded. It was only ever a question of time before the conversation turned to the Jews.

Reds, Yids, what's the difference? Always the Yids, isn't it? A viper in the much-suffering Russian breast.

The door kept banging. Word must have gone around in the restaurant carriage that there was a gypsy telling fortunes down in the third class. New drunks came, wanting to cross the woman's palm with silver.

Miserably, she heard:
Yeah, give them a good kicking.
And, after a rustle of newsprint, another voice, less obviously belligerent, but nasal and full of hate:
Yes, like it says here … ‘The Government must recognize that the Jews are as dangerous to the life of mankind as are wolves, scorpions, reptiles, poisonous spiders and other such-like creatures. These are destroyed because of the risk they present to humanity. Yids must likewise be placed under conditions that will make them gradually die out. This is the task of the Government and the best men in the country.'

There was a roar of approval. Inna cringed back. Here, too, she thought; they're the same even up here.

And then it died away.

She risked a peep over, down from her bunk.

A thin man of medium height was stepping into the carriage. He had the longish hair and beard of an Orthodox religious man, and a big gleaming cross at his breast. He was dressed like a peasant.

She waited for him to join in too. But then she saw he was shaking his head. ‘Did the Lord Jesus preach hate, brothers?' he said. His voice was quiet.

In the embarrassed throat-clearings and shufflings of buttocks on seats that followed, she heard the rustle of
the right-wing hate newspaper, being stuffed back into a pocket. No one liked being caught with a red angry face, baying for blood. Not up here in the safety of the north, anyway. Good, she thought, savagely. Good for the little father.

The peasant didn't press his point. He just moved on to the fortune-telling gypsy, right below Inna, and held out a coin, then his hand.

Inna hoped the gypsy would have a happy-ever-after fortune for him.

But instead she dropped his hand and said, ‘I'm not telling
future. Take your money back.'

‘What's wrong, my dear?' the peasant said in his burr. Now he was so close, Inna saw he had the soft expression of a countryman approaching a skittish horse, apple in hand.

Then he looked up at Inna, caught her looking down at him from her top bunk, and shocked her again with the directness of his gaze. He had extraordinarily pale eyes. ‘Ah, well, all our hands are full of troubles,' he said to the gypsy woman. ‘No escape from troubles, in these wicked times…'

‘Don't you go hunting for that coin any more,' he went on cheerfully, patting the gypsy's bedding for the coin she'd let fall. ‘Tell the little lady's fortune instead … the one up there.'

The gypsy squinted up at Inna in surprise; then, abruptly, she pulled Inna's hand down, as if to get the whole business over with as fast as possible.

Inna was too surprised to resist.

The peasant wasn't put off by the gypsy's hostility. As Inna felt the woman's bony fingers on her palm, he murmured, ‘A happy future, mind: flowers in the field, a chicken in the pot, a handsome husband…'

But the gypsy didn't look at Inna's hand for more than a moment, either. Then, with a scowl, she pushed it away too. ‘Another one,' she muttered. ‘One thing's for sure. We live in evil times.'

Inna kept her hand out. Her fear had receded a bit now and she wasn't going to let this woman make her cringe away as if she'd done something wrong. ‘What did you see?'

But the gypsy shook her head, tied her scarf over her head and picked up her purse, as if she was off out shopping.

‘Come on, tell me,' Inna said. She didn't know why her voice was trembling.

Perhaps the gypsy heard that. At any rate she looked reluctantly up and took back Inna's hand. ‘Lifeline, here, see?' she said, jabbing at the palm, all round the base of the thumb.

Inna nodded.

‘Well, it stops, doesn't it?' the gypsy said irritably, as if Inna was being stupid. ‘Look. Just peters out. Nothing.'

There was a silence.

‘You asked, Abramovna,' she said, loudly enough for Inna to think others might hear the contemptuous Jew slur.

Hating herself, Inna shifted hastily backwards into the darkest corner of her bunk as the gypsy flounced off towards the compartment door. She let her breath out. No one except the peasant had heard, and he was safe.

He was spreading his hands in resigned acceptance. ‘Five kopeks wasted, that's for sure,' he said peaceably. ‘Both of us doomed. Ah well, God be with her, poor thing, with her nasty thoughts – and at least we'll have each other for company on the road to Hell, if she's right…'

He nodded and turned to make his own way out of the carriage. Once again Inna was left on her own, with her arms wrapped tight about her knees, and the rowdiness below gaining in volume, and, for comfort, only the rhythm of her phrase, ‘Nearly safe, nearly safe, nearly safe,' in time to the wheels.

But now even that lullaby had stopped working so well. Different words to the rhythm were coming unbidden into her head. The gypsy's words: ‘Peters out, peters out, peters out…'

*   *   *

The poorer passengers were out of the third-class carriage almost before the train had stopped in St. Petersburg.

They rushed guiltily in the grey light along the platform of Emperor Nicholas Station towards the station building, ignoring the weight of their parcels and packages. It was only September, but already their quick breath came out white in the chilly air.

Anyone watching the fast-emptying green carriages would have seen the long-legged spider of a girl who emerged last, with only a smallish bag in each hand. She stood on the step for a moment, blinking, seeming bewildered by the pace of the retreat into town.

Then she jumped down, too, set her worn woollen coat with its respectable bit of beaver at the throat straight, adjusted her plain hat over her black hair, and strode off to catch up with the crowd.

In her head, she was reciting the address she was making for. Strictly speaking, she didn't need to. Next to the passport in her wallet she had folded the much-fingered piece of paper on which she'd written it down. She didn't know where it was, exactly. She didn't even know her way out of the station. But she knew she'd be safe once she'd found it.

She let her hand brush against the pocket in which she could feel the wallet. She was already walking fast. But she speeded up.

‘You there, girl!' Inna heard a man's rough rasp just behind her, talking in the exclamatory way the lower classes of Russia talked to their women, labelling everyone either ‘girl!' ‘woman!' ‘aunty!' or ‘granny!'

She ignored him, raised her nose a fraction higher and speeded up. That kind of voice meant trouble.

,' the voice said, sounding less certain as it moved up the social scale with its forms of address, but following her, all the same. Definitely her. Footsteps still right behind. ‘

Inna had left her own Jewish documentation behind in Kiev. No point in keeping it when all it allowed her to do was live in the south of the empire, in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were supposed to stay under strict police control. It wouldn't get her anywhere here, up north, in the imperial capital.

She didn't need her papers any more anyway, since she'd been lucky or quick-witted enough to pick up Olya Morozova's evening bag in the panic at the theatre. She'd known what was in the bag because Olya had spent the whole of the first interval showing it off to her classmates: a travel passport to spend a month with her grandmother in St. Petersburg, missing the start of term at their secondary school in Kiev. It was something Inna could only dream of, and, oh, didn't Olya, impeccably Russian, and the daughter of the city's deputy police chief to boot, know it, and didn't it sweeten the pleasure for her in showing Inna the pass.

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