THE SINGER waited until the dancers had exited. Then she went back onto the stage, to be greeted once more by rapturous applause.
‘Comrades,’ she said in Tatar. ’I’d like to sing you a song that I first heard when we toured Kazakhstan last month. Two old babushkas sang it to me. This song’s a lament. It’s about untended fields and unvisited graveyards, about growing old without ever returning to the woods where you played as a child, about never again walking past that special place where you stole your first kiss. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll sing it in the Kuban dialect, but the dialect I should really sing it in is Crimean.’
The Tatars in the audience burst into wild applause. Some of them stood up and cheered. The singer waited until they were quiet, then she repeated everything, this time in Russian. Once again, the word ‘Crimean’ brought forth thunderous applause. Every Tatar in the theatre resented the continuing exile of the Crimean Tatars, who Stalin had deported from their homeland and the authorities had never allowed to return, and all of them admired the singer’s courage.
And then she sang.
She sang without any musical accompaniment at all and her voice filled every corner of the theatre. It was a voice of such purity and clarity that it reached out to everyone in the audience and stilled their minds and captured their hearts, a voice of such beauty and intensity that all those who heard it were taken out of themselves and brought together as one.
When she finished, the whole theatre was silent for a moment, hushed by the lingering resonance of that extraordinary voice. And then the audience clapped, stamped and cheered its applause and threw crocuses and anemones onto the stage. The singer bowed gracefully and disappeared backstage before the applause died down.
‘Bravo!’ ‘Bravo!’ the other performers said as she rushed past to change her costume.
Her husband the director squeezed her arm.
‘You still get me every time.’
The singer smiled.
‘Did you see her?’ the director asked.
‘No, I couldn’t see a thing out there.’
‘It’s definitely her, about six or seven rows back, a little to the left.’
‘What’s she doing in Tatarstan?’
‘That’s a good question.’
When the performance came to an end, all the singers, dancers and musicians trooped onto the stage to take a final bow. The faces of the audience were now lit up, and the singer saw her, a striking young woman with dark hair and a pale complexion, six rows from the front, a little to the left.
The audience applauded all the different groups of performers: the musicians, the drummers, the dancers and the various groups of singers. But when it came to that particular singer’s turn, they stamped and clapped and called for more.
‘Do your Crimean lament again,’ said the other performers.
The lights dimmed and the others left the stage. The singer waited until the audience was still.
‘Comrades,’ she said in Russian. ‘I hope you will allow me to dedicate this song to a very dear friend of mine from Akhtaria.’
After the encore and more rapturous applause, the audience began to file out. One of the backstage helpers positioned himself at the end of the sixth row. ‘Is there someone here called Dadianova Tamara?’ he asked in a loud voice.
‘The director’s asked me to bring you backstage.’
‘Fantastic. Can I bring my friend?’
‘Yes, of course.’
He led Tamara and another young woman up onto the stage and back through all the chaos and clutter of costumes and props. There in the middle was Murad, his arms extended wide, a broad smile on his face.
‘Tamara, it’s wonderful to see you.’
‘It’s wonderful to see you too.’
They embraced and kissed, Ksord-Akhtarian style, and Tamara introduced her friend, a Russian.
‘What on earth are you doing in Tatarstan?’ Murad spoke in Russian, in deference to her companion.
‘Well, I qualified as a doctor last year, so I have to do two years out in the sticks.’
‘So are you in Menzelinsk?’
‘No, a little place called Staroye Safarovo, near the Bashkortostan border.’
‘How did you know we were here?’
‘One of my patients showed me Fatima’s picture in the newspaper and asked if I’d heard of her. And God, Murad, isn’t her voice wonderful? It made all the hairs on my neck stand on end.’
‘I know. It does the same to me.’
A few minutes later, Fatima came out of the dressing room. With her make-up removed and wearing Polish jeans and an old pullover, she was scarcely recognisable as the singer who had so mesmerised her audience.
They embraced and kissed and Tamara introduced her friend.
‘And look at my ring,’ said Fatima.
‘Yes, nearly six years now.’
‘Oh that’s fantastic. Congratulations. I’m really pleased for you.’
‘What about you?’
‘Still waiting for Comrade Right, I’m afraid.’
‘You must have broken a few hearts along the way.’
They went to a smoke-filled bar filled with other members of the cast. As the waiter brought their drinks, Murad and Fatima talked about how their career had taken off. ‘It’s taken us so long to get going,’ said Fatima. ‘And then in the last couple of months, everything’s just opened up. We’re booked to go all over the Soviet Union. In summer we’re going to tour Poland, Hungary and the DDR.’
‘That’s fantastic,’ said Tamara. ‘That makes three people I know who are doing really well.’
‘Yes, isn’t it great about Ruslan?’
‘Yes, but did you read about how he got into trouble? And then he was hit by that car. I was so upset both times, but especially when he got into trouble. I thought he’d never achieve any of his dreams after that.’
‘It was touch and go,’ said Murad. He glanced at Tamara’s friend.
‘He was quite despondent when he first got out of prison,’ said Fatima. ‘When we went to see him…’
Murad nudged Fatima ever so slightly and she stopped mid-sentence.
‘What? You’ve seen him? Are you still in touch?’
‘Yes,’ said Murad. ‘When did we last see him?’
‘Just after he won that gold in Kiev.’
‘Wow, that’s brilliant. So how is he?’
‘Still the same,’ said Murad. ‘An arrogant bastard.’
‘No he’s not,’ said Fatima. ‘He’s lovely.’
Tamara laughed. ‘He is an arrogant bastard, but he’s lovely too.’ She leaned over towards Fatima. ‘It said in the paper that he had an affair with his instructor. What happened to them? Are they still together?’
Fatima and Murad glanced at each other.
‘Well, therein lies a tale,’ said Fatima. ‘He spent fifteen months in prison because he wouldn’t testify against her, and then at the end of their trial, she turned round and dumped him.’
‘That’s terrible. Was he very upset?’
‘He was devastated.’
For a moment nobody spoke.
‘Tamara?’ said Fatima. ‘Would you like to see him again?’
‘Oh God. I don’t know.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, Tamara,’ said her Russian friend. ‘Of course you want to see him again. Honestly, she’s always going on about him.’
Tamara blushed. ‘It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see him. Of course I would. But you can’t imagine how much it hurt me when they wrenched us apart. I never want to go through anything like that again.’
‘It’s up to you,’ said Fatima. ‘I just know he remembers you very fondly.’
‘Well, why don’t you just tell him you’ve seen me? Maybe give him my address and say I’d be happy to hear from him. Then leave it to him to make the next move.’
‘Go on, Ruslan!’
‘Yes, go on!’
‘Well, I’m not sure.’
‘Oh please. Go on.’
Ruslan looked at his elderly neighbour, Babushka Yasemin: ‘What do you think?’
She smiled her gap-toothed smile: ‘Go on.’
‘Oh, all right then.’
All the children cheered.
‘Hold on a second,’ one of the young men said. ‘This fire’s only a kiddies’ fire. If you’re going to jump over it, we’ll have to stoke it up a bit.’
They put on more wood and some paper. Then they threw paraffin on and soon the fire was roaring.
‘What? You want me to jump over that?’
‘Yes,’ chorused the children.
Ruslan stepped back, took a quick run and jumped through the flames. Everyone cheered and then, as other young men jumped over the bonfire, a pretty young Armenian girl called Izabella shyly handed Ruslan an Azeri snack of govurga, with its sweetmeats, sultanas and nuts.
It was the Azeri spring festival of Novruz Bayram, a time of renewal and hope, a time to decorate your flat, buy new clothes, paint eggs and germinate wheat on little plates by your window.
‘Where did you say you were going next weekend?’ Yasemin asked.
‘In the middle of Russia.’
‘Oh. Got another tournament?’
‘No, there’s a young lady there I want to visit.’
‘She’s very nice, and I’m going to take her some flowers.’
Ruslan flew to Ronkoni the following Thursday. On the Friday, he flew via Kiev to Kazan, accompanied by his sister-in-law Venera, his nephew Ketevan and twelve large suitcases full of daffodils. They hired a van and then drove 300 kilometres to Menzelinsk.
Tamara had booked a hotel for them and a stall at the Saturday peasant market. They took their flowers to the stall at six thirty, carefully unwrapped the first few cases and set them out. They were delighted to find that they were the only flower sellers there.
‘So what shall we charge?’ Ruslan asked.
‘Shall we start at three roubles a stem?’ said Venera. ‘We can always knock the price down if they don’t sell.’
‘We’ll make a fortune if we can sell them for that much.’
In the event, business was brisk. Russians tended to buy five or six at the asking price, while Tatars almost invariably tried to knock them down and would often leave with eight flowers for twenty roubles or ten for twenty-five. Ruslan enjoyed practising his Tatar with them. They found his rendition of the Kuban dialect highly amusing but seemed to understand him.
Tamara arrived in Menzelinsk just after ten o’clock and made straight for the peasant market. She soon spotted the daffodil stall, but not Ruslan.
Venera addressed her in Ksord-Akhtarian, ‘Excuse me, comrade. Are you Tamara?’
‘Yes, hello. You must be Venera.’
‘Yes, and this is my son Ketevan.’
‘Hello, pleased to meet you. Can I give you a hand?’
‘Yes, we’re selling for three roubles a stem.’
‘We’re beginning to wish we’d charged three roubles fifty.’
Ruslan returned a few minutes later, carrying a tray with a jug of hot tea and four bowls of dumpling broth.
‘Hi, Tamara. I waved, but you didn’t see me.’
He handed his tray to Ketevan and exchanged four kisses with Tamara.
‘You look good, but then again you always did.’
‘Thanks. You’re not looking bad yourself.’
‘You’ve met Venera and Ketevan.’
‘We’ve introduced ourselves.’
‘Have you eaten? Here, have some dumplings.’
They barely had time to eat, they were so busy unwrapping, stacking and selling their flowers. Ruslan and Tamara had little time to talk.
A Tatar policeman strolled along just before eleven. ‘You’ve got a lot of daffodils, comrades.’
‘Yes, only three roubles each,’ said Ruslan. ‘Would you like some for your wife?’
‘Where did you get them?’
‘My mother’s private plot in Ksordia-Akhtaria.’
‘Are you all family?’
‘Yes,’ said Venera. ‘I’m his sister-in-law and this is my son.’
The policeman turned to Tamara: ‘And what about you?’
‘I’m his girlfriend.’
Having established that they weren’t capitalist exploiters, the policeman seemed satisfied. ‘How much for five?’
‘No chance of a discount for an honest policeman?’
‘Okay, make it twelve.’
The policeman nodded. When he walked away, they all burst out laughing.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ said Tamara. ‘I didn’t mean to jump the gun.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
By four o’clock, they had sold everything.
‘What shall we do first?’ said Ruslan. ‘Take the cases back to the hotel or have lunch?’
‘I agree,’ said Tamara. ‘I’m starving.’
Ruslan borrowed some tarpaulin from another stallholder to cover the suitcases, and then the four of them went off in search of food. As they were walking, Venera placed a thick wad of notes in Tamara’s hand.
‘I can’t take that.’
‘Go on, you’ve worked hard today.’
‘Yes, but it wasn’t for money.’
‘Well we were working for money,’ said Ruslan. ‘And believe me, we’ve made a lot today. I just wish we’d charged a bit more.’
‘There must be more than a hundred roubles here.’
‘Three hundred,’ said Venera.
‘But that’s more than a month’s salary!’
‘It’s your lucky day. Take it, dear. You’ve earned it.’
‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’
In the restaurant, the waiter pointed them towards some empty tables at the front, but Ruslan insisted that they sit in a crowded area at the back.
Tamara spoke a little about her time at medical institute and her life in Tatarstan, but she was far more interested to hear about Ruslan. ‘So what happened after you got out of prison?’
He told her how he had been expelled from university (‘I know what for,’ said Tamara, ‘so don’t worry.’) and had been called up, spotted as a runner and sent to Azerbaijan.
‘The climate. There are nine climate zones in Azerbaijan, so we can train all year round, plus altitude training in the summer. The rest of my military service was great. I was a full-time athlete.’
‘Didn’t your past ever catch up with you?’
’Yes, in a big way. I mean, they always made it very clear that I had to toe the line all the time or I’d be in deep trouble. I always behaved myself, you know, paid attention in the political education classes, made effusive toasts to our brave boys in Afghanistan. You name it, I did it. Well, I never informed on anyone. Sometimes people made pretty outrageous statements in my hearing and I’d just refuse to get drawn. I could never be sure they weren’t informers.
‘Anyway, I was favourite to win in the All-Union Spartakiad in 1983 but the KGB didn’t like the sound of that, so they sent someone to break my leg.’
‘You’ll never guess who they sent.’
‘What?’ said Venera. ‘Do you know him too, Tamara?’
‘Yes, I met him when I first met Ruslan. He’s really…oh, he’s just horrible.’
‘I’ll go along with that.’
‘But I read that he was arrested for armed robbery. Is he working for the KGB now?’
‘Yes, the military said he was definitely KGB.’
‘God, that’s terrible. I thought the KGB weren’t supposed to be corrupt.’
‘I know,’ said Venera. ‘It makes you sick.’
Tamara frowned: ‘Was that when you were run over? Did he drive into you on purpose?’
‘No, that never happened. He hit me with a hammer.’
‘Yes, the car accident was just a cover story.’
Ruslan explained how the army and Sergo Lionidza had protected him since then.
‘What? The Sergo Lionidza?’
‘The one and only.’
‘That’s a big fish to have on your side.’
‘Are you still in the army?’
’No, I left after my military service. Lionidza used his blat to get me a place at Baku State University to do my final year for my Diploma.’
‘So you’ve got it then?’
‘Thanks. I’ve got a no-show job at the big steel plant in Sumgait. I’ve never actually been inside the place though. In reality, I’m a full-time athlete.’
‘And a brilliant one too.’
Ruslan smiled. It was good to see Tamara again.
The two of them spent the evening alone together in a Georgian restaurant. Tamara had to smile her sweetest smile to get them past the doorman, but she was desperate to eat something different from Russian and Tatar food.
Once again, Ruslan insisted on sitting in the most crowded part of the restaurant.
‘Why do you want to sit over here?’
‘Think about it. Chances are, nobody over here can speak Ksord-Akhtarian, so we can say anything we want. If we sit where it’s empty and someone comes and sits near us, then we have to be careful.’
‘Do you think they’re following you?’
‘I just have to be careful. This way I know I can be open with you.’
They ordered their meal. They wanted chicken tabaka or satsivi, but this being Russia, chicken meat was in short supply. They settled for kachaputi, baked egg and yoghurt dough filled with eggs and cheese, together with a side dish of beets and walnuts.
‘Why don’t they tell you there’s no chicken when they give you the menu?’
‘They would if you ran this place, wouldn’t they?’
They both laughed.
Their conversation was fairly general until the waiters had gone. Only then did Tamara’s questions begin. ‘Was it really bad in prison?’
‘Remember what it was like, just two nights in the cells?’
‘Well imagine fifteen months of that. It was a nightmare from start to finish. Awful. I never want to go through anything like that again.’
‘You poor thing. Do you mind if I ask, were you guilty?’
‘No, I wasn’t involved. My then girlfriend was, and the others were all my friends, but I wasn’t involved at all.’
‘So why did they arrest you?’
‘I think they’d only planned to arrest her, but I was with her so they picked me up too.’
‘What happened to your girlfriend, the instructor?’
‘She got four years. Obviously it was dated from the time of our arrest, so she was released about eighteen months ago. She’s back in prison now, though. She got herself arrested again last September.’
‘She set up a Helsinki Watchdog Group.’
‘A dissident organisation. They monitor human rights violations.’
‘She must be very brave.’
‘Either that or very stupid.’
‘Fatima said they only kept you in prison because you refused to testify against her.’
‘And then she turned round and dumped you.’
‘More or less, I suppose.’
‘Weren’t you angry with her?’
‘No. Well maybe a bit, but I had no right to be. I think she did it for my sake, not hers. If I was still with her, I’d probably be back in prison by now.’
‘Did you love her very much?’
‘You know how it is, you have to move on. I once loved someone else very much but she ended it too.’
‘It broke my heart, Ruslan, it really did.’
‘It took me so long to get over you.’
They sat in silence for a moment, then Tamara put her hands forward across the table. Ruslan took them and caressed them.
‘One more question,’ Tamara said in a whisper. ‘Are you still…’
‘You know...well, do you still hate the Party?’
Ruslan answered very quietly, ‘Did you see that TV interview I did?’
‘The one where you said you weren’t a dissident?’
‘Yes. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s a decision I made. They made me denounce her, but I chose my words very carefully. I said that if she was a nationalist who wanted to break up the Soviet Union, then she deserves everything she gets and I have no sympathy for her. The thing is, you see, she isn’t a nationalist. She’s anti-Communist, but she’s anti-nationalist too.’
‘So they haven’t quite extinguished the old Ruslan?’
‘No. Battered into submission, perhaps, but not quite extinguished.’
Tamara smiled. ‘I’m glad the old one’s still there. I was very fond of him, even if he was a bit of a nutcase.’
‘This is just between us.’
‘Don’t worry. You can trust me.’
After their meal, they walked back to their hotel arm-in-arm. The weather had turned very cold, but they felt warm in each other’s company.
‘There’s one other thing I wanted to ask you about. In the paper, it said Josep testified against you.’
‘Yes, but I don’t blame him. He had no reason to screw his life up for me.’
‘Have you seen him since?’
‘No. We were like brothers, but when he testified, he broke that bond. You can never get it back.’
‘What about us, Ruslan? Can we ever get it back?’
They stopped walking and Ruslan looked into her eyes. That was the question he had been asking himself for the last six weeks.
‘You know, I haven’t spoken to anyone like this for ages. I’m so used to keeping my mouth shut, I can’t afford to open up. But with you it’s different. I haven’t seen you for eight years and it just all comes out, and I know I can trust you absolutely. There was something very special between us. We’d be crazy if we didn’t at least try to get it back.’
‘I really want to try. I really want to make it work.’
Ruslan took her hands and pulled her towards him. They kissed, and as he tasted her, he was reminded how much he had loved her, how perfect they had been together.
They walked along a little farther, until Ruslan spotted a dark alleyway and pulled her into it. They kissed again and Ruslan’s hands began to reacquaint themselves with her body.
‘Will you spend the night with me?’
Tamara said nothing.
‘I’ve got protection.’
‘What about your relatives? I don’t want them to think I’m some sort of slut.’
‘Don’t worry, Ketevan’s a man of the world, and he won’t say anything to his mother. Anyway, she really likes you.’
‘You planned this all along, didn’t you? All that nonsense about me having a double room in case more relatives come.’
He smiled innocently and they kissed again.
‘There’s no need for your galoshes,’ said Tamara. ‘I’ve got a coil.’
They hurried back to the hotel, grinning like naughty schoolchildren as Tamara picked up her key. They almost ran up the stairs to her room and threw their thick coats onto the floor.
They stood breathless by the bed and laughed. Then they embraced and kissed. After a moment, Ruslan pulled Tamara’s shirt out from her jeans and put his hands up her back.
‘Ow!’ she said. ‘Your hands are freezing.’
He rubbed his hands together and blew. She put her hands on his and rubbed them. They embraced and kissed again, and he put his hands up between her pullover and her shirt.
They kissed frantically, and she tugged his pullover over his head, undid the buttons of his shirt and opened his trousers. He pulled her pullover and blouse off in one go and took off her bra. Then he pulled her jeans down, followed by her knickers. She stepped out of them.
He looked up at her.
‘Are you cold?’
‘You’d better keep your socks on then.’
She got into the bed, and he took the rest of his clothes off and joined her. The bed was freezing, and they lay shivering together until the heat of their bodies warmed them.