Vilnius, Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic
Emma woke to the sound of her phone ringing.
She reached over to the nightstand and picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi,” Clayborne said. “Have you been watching the telly?”
“No. What is it?”
“Turn your telly on.”
“Oh, all right,” Emma said, then reached for the remote and did what he asked, more to placate him than anything else.
There were images of tanks on the streets of – Moscow?
Emma sat up. “What’s going on?”
“No one’s sure, but it looks like Gorbachev’s out, and these other guys are in. Anyway, I’m coming over.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea –” Not in any case, but especially when the situation was so uncertain.
“Be there in ten minutes. Bye.”
Emma got out of bed, all thoughts of catching a few more winks forgotten. She went to the bathroom, climbed into the small tub and rushed through a shower. Quickly as she moved, the hot water ran out even more quickly, but she finished up all the same, then hurriedly dressed, all the while getting glimpses of the television she hadn’t bothered to turn off since Clayborne called her.
Muddled as the anchorman’s words were, it seemed there had been a coup after all.
Emma heard the rumbling of heavy vehicles outside, and she went over to her window for a look. Down in the street a big Soviet army truck rumbled by with a squad sitting in its bed, followed by another truck just like it and then another, a whole convoy of them.
Emma pulled away from the window and sat down, looking at the screen but thinking about other things. The broadcast she was watching really hadn’t said much about events outside of the Soviet capital. Of course, it was by far the biggest and most populous city in the country, as well as the unquestioned center of life and politics in an exceptionally centralized state. But events elsewhere mattered too. Especially to the people living elsewhere.
The memory of watching Soviet troops skirmish with Lithuanian protestors in January was still fresh in her mind, and even though she didn’t know a repeat was underway, she knew that the essential issue remained unresolved.
As far as the people of Lithuania were concerned, they lived in an independent “Republic of Lithuania” resisting an attack by foreign Soviet forces. As far as Moscow was concerned, they were still the “Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic,” a Soviet territory in rebellion against their legitimate authority.
So far just about every government in the world went along with Moscow’s line, the British government included – officially. Unofficially, it sent Clayborne over to provide an informal line to the non-government claiming sovereignty over Lithuanian territory, and monitor the situation. She was picked to go along with him, so following a crash course in Lithuanian she was packed off to the country in the fall of 1990, just as British soldiers were massing in the Arabian desert for war with Iraq – a war the Soviets joined Britain in supporting at the United Nations.
Were the Soviets allies now? Enemies? It wasn’t so simple a thing anymore.
Clayborne’s knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. She let him in, and he invited himself to sit down in the nearest chair.
“Did you have a hard time getting here?” she asked.
“Of course not,” he said proudly, like it was all a game, which everything was to him, the way it was to so many upper class boys. Clayborne struck her as being long past the age at which that attitude could seem even marginally cute, and increasingly seemed pathetic. Looking older than his forty-one years, he made her think of Albert Finney in the movie Under the Volcano.
As Clayborne watched her telly, and she watched him, it occurred to her that he might end up stuck in the apartment with her for a while. That was something she wouldn’t have welcomed with anyone in this small flat, least of all Clayborne. Still, putting up with him at close quarters, even when he got into his more juvenile moods, was just a nuisance.
The real problem was what might happen to them if the Soviets reasserted their control over the republic. Neither of them had diplomatic status or its protections.
That meant they couldn’t count on being labeled Persona Non Grata and tossed out of the country. They would be at risk of arrest and prosecution, and worse than that, if the Soviets decided not to bother with the rules, which she couldn’t rule out: legally speaking, they were aiding a rebellion on the territory of a foreign state, which didn’t oblige their captors to play nice. And she didn’t kid herself that her presence, or Clayborne’s, was unknown. They’d had their brushes with Soviet operatives, some profitable (she’d developed one useful source), some unfriendly, but all of whom could turn on them at any given time. For all she knew, they might have been on a list of people to be rounded up –
“I’ve already got in touch with London,” Clayborne said, as if he could read her thoughts. “They’re telling us to stay put for now, but to keep a low profile.”
So they did that. Emma and Clayborne went on watching the news long after the repetition of the same handful of facts became monotonous. She spent some time packing a bag for a quick getaway after that, paying the telly much less mind. Then she was surprised to see a fat man getting on top of a tank. Emma recognized him as Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President. She wondered why he hadn’t been arrested beforehand. Maybe it was because such grandstanding wouldn’t amount to anything, and his bluster was just likely to get him killed when the Soviet army stormed the White House.
“The Politburo sacked Khrushchev for a hell of a lot less than Gorby’s done,” Clayborne said. “And Khrushchev was a lot more popular, in a time when the Soviets looked a lot more dynamic than they do now.” He looked at her then. “We were fools to think the Soviet leadership would give up their empire without a fight. In all of history, who ever has?”
She hadn’t noticed anyone giving up anything here. It had seemed more like the apparatchiks were styling themselves capitalists, that was all, owning instead of just controlling. But this wasn’t the time to argue, even if that would have helped fill the time as the situation unfolded with painful slowness.
Late in the afternoon Clayborne took his leave. He made it sound like he had a job to do, though Emma thought he was more likely to go see that woman she suspected he was sleeping with. Regardless, he was going, which was a relief in one way, but a worry in another.
After all, what if the soldiers out there stopped him? True to his background, Clayborne was instantly conspicuous on Vilnius’s streets, and even worse when he opened his mouth. He tended to conduct his meetings in English, or have her translate for him, citing a convoluted diplomatic logic that would saddle the language barrier and not Her Majesty’s Government with the responsibility for any “misunderstandings,” but really it was because his Russian was bad and his Lithuanian almost nonexistent. Indeed, Emma guessed she drew this assignment precisely because their bosses wanted someone else – someone junior who didn’t have a patron – to compensate for a favored man’s shortcomings.
To his credit, Clayborne went out just long enough before dark that he wouldn’t draw instant notice from a patrol if the authorities suddenly decided to impose a curfew. Still, his way of treating the whole thing like a lark would go on worrying her as long as the uncertainty continued.