The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Sixteen

RUSLAN RECEIVED a summons to Khosume, the Ksord-Akhtarian capital, a week later. He flew up on the Sunday and stayed overnight in Murad and Fatima’s apartment. He guessed that Lionidza probably wanted to see him about his request to compete abroad and felt increasingly nervous as he approached Party headquarters.

The appointment was for ten thirty. Ruslan arrived twenty minutes early and was shown to Lionidza’s office. His secretary, an elderly Akhtarian with a mischievous grin, brought him a glass of tea and told him to expect a long wait. He turned out to be correct: Lionidza kept Ruslan waiting for more than two hours.

Several groups of people came and went, most of them senior Party officials or directors of state enterprises. Everyone recognised Ruslan as they waited to queue jump him. Some simply stared at him and nudged their comrades, but many chatted with him or asked him for his autograph. Ruslan wasn’t used to such attention. In other parts of the Soviet Union, people tended to look at him and wonder where they had seen him before, but in Ksordia-Akhtaria, everybody knew who he was.

Eventually, Lionidza’s secretary led him into his office. Lionidza emerged from behind his enormous desk and shook Ruslan’s hand warmly enough. He invited him to sit down and then told him the bad news: ‘I’m afraid you won’t be able to compete in the European Championships this August.’

This news came as a heavy blow. It was all Ruslan could do to stop himself crying. ‘Do you mind if I ask why not?’

Lionidza sat back in his intimidating leather chair and lit a cigarette. ‘There’s a very good reason why they won’t let you go and you know what it is.’

‘But sir, I’ve done nothing wrong since I came out of prison. I did everything you wanted. I went on TV and I said everything they told me to say.’

‘Two words, Ruslan: Nina Begishveli.’

‘I’ve had no contact with her for four years, none whatsoever. I’m going out with another girl.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard about her. The KGB tell me she was very abusive to two of their officers. They know you put her up to it. Things like that don’t help, Ruslan. You’ve got to win their trust, and that’s not the way to do it.’

‘Sir, all I want to do is run.’

‘Believe me, I find the whole thing almost as frustrating as you do. You travel around, don’t you? You know what everyone in the rest of the Soviet Union thinks of Ksordia-Akhtaria?’

‘Most people have never heard of it.’

‘Exactly. And those who have think it’s full of stupid yokels who like nothing more than to slit one another’s throats. Do you know that no Ksord-Akhtarian has ever won an Olympic medal? Not one. You could do so much to put this republic on the map, to make us famous for something else apart from Akhtarian Rebels and West Ksordian blood feuds.’

‘That’s what I want to do.’

‘Well there is a way.’ Lionidza didn’t look at Ruslan as he spoke. ‘Marry this Akhtarian girl. If you do that, we should be able to convince the KGB that you’ve put Nina Begishveli behind you.’

Ruslan was astonished. He didn’t know what to say.

‘You need to marry her.’

‘Well, maybe I will, who knows?’

‘You need to.’

‘She doesn’t finish her national service for another nine months. After that, maybe, but it’s much too soon to think about that now.’

‘Do you love her?’

Ruslan hesitated. ‘Yes.’

‘Does she love you?’

‘I think so.’

‘Then marry her.’

‘You have to give us a bit of time, sir. We’ve hardly spent four days together since we’ve been back in touch.’

‘Ruslan, look into my eyes. Now I’m going to tell you something, but if you ever quote me, I’ll call you a liar and you’ll lose the most important protector you’ve ever had. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘There are people who are working very hard for you, and there are other people who want to stop you ever running again. Now we, the people who are working for you, we need you to marry this girl, and quickly, before the start of the next running season.’ Lionidza drew on his cigarette and blew smoke to the side, away from Ruslan. ‘If you do that, you get to compete abroad. If you don’t, you can say goodbye to your career. Do you understand?’

Ruslan swallowed. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good. Now you may leave.’

As a shaken Ruslan made his way to the door, Lionidza said, ‘Oh, one other thing. Did you know that Nina Begishveli’s trial’s coming up in November?’

‘No, sir, I didn’t know.’

‘Good. Pretend you haven’t heard, and make sure you aren’t seen within fifty kilometres of the courthouse.’

‘Don’t worry, sir. I’ll be in Azerbaijan.’

‘Well stay there and don’t talk about it to anyone.’

It was two weeks before Ruslan had a chance to speak to Tamara. He flew to Kazan on the Friday night. Next day he hired a car and drove to Menzelinsk, where he checked into the same hotel as he and had stayed in just three months earlier, booking another room for her.

She arrived at the bus station some four hours later. They embraced and kissed, four times on the cheeks and once on the lips.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Let’s go somewhere we can talk.’ He took her overnight bag and led her toward his car.

He drove to Victory Park, where they parked and sat under the shade of a beech tree some distance from the road.

‘Sorry to be so mysterious,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a problem and I want to ask you for help. To be quite honest, though, I don’t really know where to begin.’

‘Well why don’t you tell me about your problem?’

Ruslan thought for a moment. ‘Can I start with a confession?’

Tamara nodded.

‘Every time I write you a letter, I end up having to rewrite it. I have to tone it down because I’m worried that I might scare you off by being too keen,’ He looked at Tamara, who smiled. ‘The thing is, I’m madly in love with you. Madly. It’s the full works. I can’t stop thinking about you. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, weak at the knees, butterflies, I’ve got the whole package.’

Tamara was still smiling,

‘But I’m not stupid,’ he said. ‘Do you remember that book you lent me back in Bogmaperdi.’

‘What book?’

‘I don’t remember the title. It was a Russian story about this girl who falls in love. At first she thinks he’s perfect, but then she slowly realises that he’s a complete half-dick.’

’Ah, I know, Ideal.’

‘And do you remember the moral of the story? That this kind of love is a passing madness. Maybe I’m not in love with the real you but with some idealised image of you that I’ve got in my head.’

‘You were doing really well,’ said Tamara. ‘Now you’ve gone and spoilt it.’

They both smiled.

‘But you know what I mean? We have to spend time together and get to know each other properly and find out if we really are right for each other.’

Tamara nodded.

‘And I really, really, really hope it works out.’

‘So do I.’

‘But we need time.’

‘Yes.’

‘The trouble is, I haven’t got time.’

Tamara frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Sergo Lionidza called me into his office a couple of weeks ago, the day before I sent that telegram. He told me off for getting you to swear at the KGB. Then he said they wouldn’t let me compete abroad until I married you.’

Tamara was clearly shocked. Ruslan didn’t know if it was what he had said about the KGB or about not competing abroad until he married her. Perhaps it was just the fact that she had come to the attention of such a big fish as Sergo Lionidza.

‘I told him it was too early to talk about getting married and in any case, we couldn’t possibly get married until you finish your national service.’

‘No.’

‘Then it was really weird. Lionidza said, “Look me in the eye, Ruslan. Look me in the eye. If you marry her, they’ll let you compete abroad, if you don’t, the KGB will stop you running altogether.”’

‘What do you mean, stop you running altogether?’

‘I don’t know. That’s just what he said.’

‘You mean they’ll send someone to break your legs again?’

‘I hope not. He didn’t say how. He just said they’d stop me running.’

‘Blood and damnation.’

‘I know.’

‘But why? Why do the KGB think it’s so important for you to marry me?’

Ruslan had been dreading this question. ‘They need me to prove that I’ve put my ex-girlfriend behind me.’

‘The dissident?’

‘Yes.’

‘And have you put her behind you?’

‘One hundred percent. Ever since Fatima and Murad told me they’d bumped into you. No other woman stands a chance against you.’

Tamara smiled. ‘So when do we have to get married?’

‘Before the start of the next running season.’

‘When’s that?’

‘March at the latest.’

She visibly flinched. ‘That’s very soon.’

‘I know.’

‘So are you asking me to marry you?’

‘Yes.’

They sat in silence for some time. Ruslan felt he should leave the next word to her.

‘When you say get married, do you mean just on paper or the real thing?’

‘The real thing.’

‘It’s a very big decision.’

‘I know. I’m not asking for an answer now.’

‘Good, because you’re not going to get one.’

They went to the hotel, where Tamara left her bag. Then they looked for somewhere to have dinner. The Georgian restaurant they had gone to last time was closed, so they ended up in a Russian restaurant whose menu included beet soup and pirozhki pastries, neither of which were available. In the end they settled for pelmeni dumplings filled with unsatisfyingly gristly meatballs.

Conversation was strained. Normal chit chat was clearly an effort for both of them. Eventually Tamara gave up and subjected Ruslan to what felt like an interview.

‘Do you want children?’

‘How many?’

‘Would you help change their dirty nappies?’ (Ruslan couldn’t help laughing at this question.)

‘Can you cook?’

‘Really? Like what?’

‘What are you like with money?’

Her final question was whether his family would accept a ‘Rebel’ wife.

‘Yes. You know they like you. Would your family accept a Ksordian husband?’

‘My mother would tell me I was mad to rush into it.’

As they walked back to the hotel, Ruslan asked if he would be allowed to sneak into her room that evening.

‘Only if you promise to be good.’

‘Oh I’ll be very good.’

She laughed and tried to pinch his arm but he took evasive action.

After they made love, then lay together for a while, neither speaking nor sleeping. Then Tamara rolled over, turning her back on him. It was some time before he realised that she was crying. He stroked her hair and kissed her neck.

‘I’m so sorry, my love.’

She wiped her tears with her fingers.

He said he wouldn’t be angry if she said no.

‘Yes, you will.’

‘I won’t.’

‘You will. You won’t want to, but you will. You’ll feel I’ve let you down and you’ll resent it. And I’ll end up losing you. I have a straight choice: either I marry you now or I lose you.’

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