The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Fourteen

THE NEXT day was Easter Sunday, and Ruslan and his relatives had to get up early for the long journey home. He and Tamara were close to tears when they said goodbye, but they were both optimistic. Something had definitely clicked.

Ksords always spent Easter Monday at a picnic in the graveyard where their ancestors were buried. Ruslan’s mother had prepared a lavish meal of chicken with walnuts and peanuts in a paprika sauce, plus chickpeas with spicy couscous and mixed salad.

Ruslan and his nephews carried everything to the memorial garden by the mass grave of the Rebels’ victims. Soon he found himself surrounded by old classmates, babushkas and children, all anxious for news of the village of Vakesia’s most famous son. Some of the babushkas asked how business had gone in Tatarstan. This wasn’t just curiosity on their part. Less than half of the flowers he had sold had come from his mother’s plot.

‘It was brilliant,’ he told them. ‘In the morning they were buying for two roubles fifty per stem. In the afternoon we had to go down to two, but we managed to sell everything.’

‘Two roubles fifty? That’s good.’

When he finally managed to prise himself away, he joined the extended family gathered around his mother.

‘So how come you decided to go to Tatarstan?’ she asked.

Everyone grinned.

‘There’s a nice young lady there I used to know.’

‘You should see her,’ said Venera. ‘She’s gorgeous.’

‘Is she a Tatar?’

‘No, you remember when I went to work in Bogmaperdi that summer?’

‘What? When you got in that fight?’

‘I met her there.’

‘Is she West Ksordian?’ asked one of Giorgi’s sons. ‘You know what they say about West Ksordian girls.’

Everybody laughed, apart from Ruslan, who had little choice now but to come out with it.

‘She’s not West Ksordian. She’s from Zeda’Anta.’


Ruslan’s mother was the first to speak. ‘You mean she’s a Rebel?’

‘She’s no Rebel, but she is Akhtarian.’

Silence again.

‘Mama, she’s lovely,’ said Venera. ‘If you saw her and Ruslan together…’

Giorgi glared at her: ‘None of your family lies in that mass grave.’

Venera bowed her head.

‘She’s no Rebel,’ said Ruslan. ‘Both of her grandfathers fought in the Red Army.’

‘There are a lot of people round here who’d be very upset to hear that you had an Akhtarian girlfriend,’ said his mother. ‘You know why, don’t you?’

‘Yes, Mama.’

‘You must never forget what they did, Ruslan.’

‘How could I forget that?’

‘Make sure you don’t. Just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you can forget where you came from.’

‘Yes, but don’t forget, one of Papa’s Partizans was Akhtarian, wasn’t he? He defended the village too.’

His mother nodded and looked at Giorgi. ‘Do you remember him? What was his name? He was very good at football.’

Giorgi’s face relaxed a little at the memory. ‘You mean Shota? I’d forgotten he was Akhtarian.’

Ruslan’s mother turned back to him: ‘Are you serious about this girl?’

‘It’s early days. Maybe very serious, I don’t know.’

‘You should bring her here so I can meet her. And Giorgi too.’

Tamara flew to Ronkoni two months later. Ruslan met her at the airport and took her to Giorgi and Venera’s flat, where Venera and Ketevan welcomed her as an old friend. Everyone else seemed to like her, but Giorgi was very quiet. He hardly spoke as they ate dinner, and when he did, he seemed to be ignoring Tamara. She did everything she could to draw him into the conversation. She asked him about his work and what Ruslan had been like as a child. She addressed herself to him more than to anyone else round the table, but still he remained morose.

Tamara slept in the living room that night. After a while, Ruslan crept in and snuggled next to her. He apologised for his brother’s behaviour. ‘Give him time. He’ll warm to you.’

He also made her promise to be careful with his mother the next day: ‘When she talks about the Rebels, don’t say anything about what happened to your family in the Great Repression. I know it’s not fair, but she’s not ready to hear it. Not tomorrow anyway.’


‘Are you nervous?’


‘I’m not. Nobody can resist you for long.’

‘Apart from your brother.’

‘He won’t last long.’

He put his arms around her and they kissed. He kissed her again and again, and on the fourth kiss, he introduced his tongue into the proceedings.

‘Behave yourself. We can’t do it here.’

‘Come on, Tamara. My whole body’s aching for you.’

‘Yes, I can tell. You’d better go and have a cold shower.’

He kissed her very gently and brought his hand up her side, near her breast, but not quite touching, his thumb brushing very slightly against her nipple.

‘Stop it, naughty boy.’

He moved his hand a little nearer to her breast and she pinched his arm.


‘I said stop it.’

The next day, Giorgi drove Ruslan, Tamara and Venera to Vakesia. They stopped by a small wooden house with a large brick extension.

Ruslan’s mother came out and Tamara saw her for the first time. She was a woman of more than seventy, wearing a black dress, cardigan and headscarf. Her back was still as straight as a rod and in her face were many of the features Ruslan didn’t share with Giorgi. Her eyes, however, seemed to carry the scars of her suffering. They had a harsh and haunted look about them.

Tamara stood back as Ruslan’s mother greeted each of her relatives with four kisses. To her surprise, it was Giorgi who took it upon himself to introduce her.

‘Mama, this is Ruslan’s girl.’

‘What’s your name, dear?’


‘I’m pleased to meet you.’

They shook hands rather formally, and Tamara handed over her gifts of flour and salt.

Once more, Ruslan’s mother had prepared an enormous meal, this time lamb kebabs and spicy egg salad served with buttered rice and noodles.

The interrogation was gentle, but Ruslan’s mother was keen to find out about her grandfathers. Had they served in the Red Army? Where? In particular, where were they and what were they doing between August 1942 and January 1943?

Fortunately, Tamara knew the answers.

‘Did Ruslan tell you what happened here?’

‘Yes. Auntie, what the Rebels did here was so evil. It just leaves me speechless.’

‘Me too, even after all these years.’

After that the conversation became more relaxed, with everyone joining in and regaling Tamara with family anecdotes, many of which concerned Ruslan and his foibles. Giorgi told her how heartbroken Ruslan had been when he got back from Bogmaperdi.

‘He was so miserable.’

‘I was not miserable,’ said Ruslan.

‘Yes you were,’ said the others in unison.

Tamara had to laugh.

After lunch, Ruslan’s mother brought out a box of old photographs, among them pictures of Ruslan and Giorgi when they were children and pictures of their father, who looked very much like Giorgi. There were also pictures of his first wife and the children he had lost and a picture of Ruslan’s mother with her first husband and the babies who died when the Rebels attacked.

This photograph shocked Tamara. Ruslan’s mother had been beautiful when she was young, and her eyes had been gorgeous, the same as Ruslan’s now. Tamara wondered when they had lost all their gentleness and humour. Was it when her first husband died at the front or when her babies were slaughtered? Had they regained any of their softness when she fell in love with Ruslan’s father, only to lose it again when he died?

Giorgi picked out a photograph of Ruslan’s father in the middle of a group of armed Partizans.

‘See this guy? He was Akhtarian. He helped fight off the Rebels.’

‘There must still be a lot of bitterness,’ said Tamara.

Everybody nodded. Tamara thought about the bitterness her own family still felt over the Great Repression, but she said nothing.

Later in the afternoon, Tamara and Venera went down to the village standpipe to get some water, leaving Ruslan and Giorgi alone with Ruslan’s mother.

Ruslan looked at his mother. ‘I hope you like her.’

‘She’s a nice girl and she’s definitely a beauty. I have to say her accent grates a little.’

‘She’s not a Rebel. You can’t blame her for what happened.’

His mother turned to Giorgi. ‘What do you think?’

‘Last night I was trying to find something to dislike about her apart from her accent.’


‘I couldn’t find anything. I like her.’

Ruslan was delighted.

‘That’s good,’ said his mother. ‘But there’s one other thing. Giorgi, please don’t take this the wrong way, but Ruslan, you’re my only living blood relative. My other children and my sister and her children, they were all killed just because they were Ksords. So I want you to give me Ksordian grandchildren. If you marry her, you have to promise me that your children will be Ksords.’

Ruslan nodded. ‘I promise. My children will be Ksords.’

It was a long journey back home for Tamara: one plane from Ronkoni to Kiev, and then another to Kazan, where she stayed overnight. Next day she took the bus to Menzelinsk, where she had to wait two hours for the bus to Staroye Safarovo.

While she was killing time in the bus station café, a kind looking old Tatar asked if he could sit near her.

‘Of course,’ she answered in Russian.

‘Are you going far?’

‘Staroye Safarovo. And you?’

‘Kazan. But you aren’t from Staroye Safarovo, are you?’

‘No, I’m from Ksordia-Akhtaria.’

‘Really? I would have said you looked more like an Armenian.’

‘Yes, a lot of people say that, but I’m Akhtarian.’

‘Do you go back to Ksordia-Akhtaria often?’

‘I’ve just come back from there.’

‘What? To see your family?’

‘No, my boyfriend actually.’

‘Oh, does he live there?’

‘No, he lives near Baku. We went to visit his family.’

‘Baku? That’s a long way away. It’s a shame when you can’t live near each other, isn’t it? It was like that in the war. Me and my girlfriend, we were separated for a long time.’

‘Were you?’

‘Yes. Sometimes I worried about her: I thought, “Maybe she’s messing around while I’m away.” Do you ever worry about your boyfriend?’

‘No, I’m sure he wouldn’t do anything like that.’

‘He’d be a fool if he did, with you being such a pretty girl.’

Tamara smiled.

‘Still, all the same, it would be nice if you had a friend in Baku, just to keep an eye on him. Then you’d be sure, wouldn’t you? Just like, if you had someone who wasn’t doing anything wrong, but some people didn’t really trust him, maybe because of something he did a long time ago. Well, it would be good if someone could just keep an eye on him, wouldn’t it? Then they’d be sure they really could trust him, and that would open doors for him, wouldn’t it? Make life much easier.’

Tamara nodded, somewhat cautiously.

‘It would be the act of a true friend. Just to let us know who he’s mixing with and if any of them might be the wrong sort of people who might get him into trouble.’

Tamara stared at the old man. ‘Who are you?’

‘Just someone who wants to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. You know he wants to compete abroad, don’t you? Well, they won’t let him unless they’re absolutely sure they can trust him. That’s where you can help. You can prove to us that he’s put it all behind him.’

Tamara realised with horror that he was KGB.

Ruslan had warned her that this might happen, and he had told her what to say. He had even checked that she knew how to say it in Russian.

She hesitated for a moment. Then she stood up. ‘Fuck off,’ she said in a shaky voice. ‘Just fuck off!’

She started to back away, but then she realised she had forgotten her luggage and went to get it.

The old Tatar grabbed her arm: ‘Tamara, you might be making a big mistake.’

‘Fuck off.’ Now she was shouting. ‘Don’t come near me you bastard. Just fuck off.’

Everyone in the café was looking at them. He let go of her arm.

She grabbed her bag and hurried out of the café. She ran into the ladies’ toilets and locked herself in. She was shaking and crying. It was several minutes before she dared to come out.

The toilet next to hers flushed, and a fat Russian woman emerged. She looked at Tamara in the mirror.

‘Are you okay, comrade?’

Tamara said nothing.

‘Are you all right? You look upset.’

‘Just fuck off! Just fucking leave me alone.’

‘Well, there’s no need to be like that!’

Tamara ran out of the toilets and walked briskly towards her bus stop, terrified of the KGB and almost equally afraid that she might have abused an innocent traveller.

The fat Russian woman walked out of the toilets soon afterwards. She looked into the café where she caught the old Tatar’s eye and gave a little shake of the head. Then she turned round and walked away. A few minutes later, he followed her down the road and got into the black Volga in which she was waiting.

‘Ah well,’ he said. ‘You win some, you lose some.’

‘I told you we should do it at her clinic. She wouldn’t dare behave like that there.’

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