THE FOLLOWING morning, they said goodbye to their friends after the breakfast shift and took the bus to the top of the north cliff, getting off by an enormous poster that proclaimed, ‘The Party’s Programme is the Hope of Humanity.’ Ruslan sneered at it. Tamara didn’t give it a second glance.
They walked along the cliff and after an hour came to a point with a view of the whole of Bogmaperdi and its bay, all hazy in the midday sun.
‘Wow,’ said Tamara. ‘That’s really beautiful.’
They sat down and ate some black bread and goat-milk cheese that Ruslan had brought. Tamara had an orange, and they rounded off their lunch with that.
‘It’s lovely here, isn’t it?’ she said.
They stayed where they were and admired the view for a while, and Ruslan told her how much he loved university life: ‘I can’t get enough of studying. The librarian at the faculty library lets me go into the back rooms, and I spend hours and hours rooting around looking through old historical journals. It’s amazing what you can find.’
‘And that’s your idea of a good time?’
‘Yes. That and running forty-two kilometres.’
Ruslan laughed. ‘Well you’re just as odd. I mean, how can anyone hate history?’
‘Oh it’s just so boring. All those emperors and wars and revolutions.’
‘Yes, but history’s just a story. It’s about how we came to be where we are now.’
‘Yes, but come on.’
‘Come on what?’
Tamara hesitated before she answered. ‘Well I don’t know what it was like in your school, but in Akhtaria they miss the most important bits out.’
The conversation had suddenly become very serious.
‘You mean the Great Repression?’
‘Don’t they tell you anything about that?’
‘Nothing. Not a word.’
‘What about the Rebels? Do they tell you about them?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Tamara. ‘They drum them into our heads sure enough.’
Ruslan and Tamara were on dangerous ground, and both of them knew it, for there was bad blood between their two peoples, and as a general rule, Ksords and Akhtarians who wanted to be friends would avoid talking about the Rebels or the Great Repression.
The Rebels were pro-Nazi collaborators, Akhtarian nationalist exiles who swept into Ksordia-Akhtaria in the wake of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the summer of 1942.
They had managed to persuade Himmler that the Akhtarians were descendants of the Black Sea Goths and therefore an offshoot of the Master Race, so the SS helped them recruit an army and set up a puppet state. The Rebels then launched a genocidal campaign against the Ksords who made up a quarter of their population, murdering 100,000 civilians in the space of less than four months.
The Great Repression was the backlash that followed. After the Red Army ‘liberated’ Ksordia-Akhtaria, Stalin’s secret police shot every Rebel they could find. The slaughter extended to their families and anyone even vaguely associated with them. In a three-week bloodbath, they massacred at least 20,000 Akhtarians, many of them women and children.
The following year, Stalin, the Breaker of Nations, let rip the full force of his terrible vengeance. He had every single Akhtarian man, woman and child rounded up and deported to Soviet Central Asia, leaving them utterly destitute thousands of kilometres from their homeland.
Tamara had been born just five years after Khrushchev had rehabilitated her people and allowed them to return home. She had grown up in a wounded, embittered and depleted community. Hundreds of thousands had died during the Great Repression. Almost every Akhtarian family had lost loved ones.
Ruslan, for his part, had grown up in the Central Kuban countryside, where Ksordian children were weaned on stories of Rebel atrocities. He understood full well the hatred many Ksords felt towards all things Akhtarian, though it was a hatred he himself had never shared. Even so, Tamara was the first Akhtarian he had ever got to know really well, and the fact that he was falling in love with a ‘Rebel’ made him feel uneasy.
‘What about your family,’ he asked. ‘What happened to them during the Great Repression?’
’It was worst on my mama’s side. Her grandma died before they even got to Kazakhstan. They deported them in cattle trucks, and they didn’t give them anything to eat or drink for days on end, and she died of the heat and the thirst. Lots of people did. And then my mama’s little brother died about six months later. He kept getting diarrhoea and he just wasted away.
‘My grandpa was in the Red Army. He’d had commendations for valour, but that didn’t save him. They arrested him and deported him to Siberia. It took him four years to find the rest of his family, and then he discovered he’d lost his mother and his son.’
‘You can’t imagine how much resentment there is,’ Tamara said. ‘Our parents are always telling us about it, because that’s our real history, isn’t it? But in school, it was like it never happened. It really made us all so angry, but we didn’t dare to say anything.’
‘Do you get some kids who think maybe the Rebels weren’t as bad as they say?’
‘Maybe. I know the Rebels were evil, and it’s right we should know about them, but the way they pretend the Great Repression never happened makes it so we don’t want to listen. Lots of Akhtarians think the Rebels are just irrelevant.’
‘They’re not irrelevant to me,’ said Ruslan. ‘Shall I tell you what the Rebels did in my village?’
‘They murdered a hundred and twenty-seven people, most of them women and little children. They raped some of the women first, and they kicked the shit out of the old men. Then they just lined them all up and shot them.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘They killed my papa’s first wife and two of his children. The only one who survived was my half brother Giorgi. They killed my mama’s children too. They were with my aunt and her kids. The Rebels raped my aunt and then shot her and all the children. My mama’s youngest was just six months old. The oldest was less than two.’
‘Oh God, Ruslan. I’m so sorry.’
‘So that’s why there’s a lot of bitterness on our side too.’
They sat still for some time. Ruslan didn’t look at Tamara.
She was the first to speak: ‘Do you mind if I ask – how did your half brother and your mother survive?’
’My mama was the village teacher. The school was a little bit outside the village and the Rebels drove right past it. Maybe they didn’t notice there was anyone inside.
‘As soon as my mama realised what was going on, she herded all the kids out, including Giorgi, and they all hid in a ditch. She had to keep them there while they listened to their families being butchered. Can you imagine what it was like for my mama? Her own children were being murdered, but she couldn’t do anything to save them. She had to stay where she was with the kids from the school.’
‘How would she feel if she knew you were on a date with an Akhtarian girl?’
Ruslan laughed. ‘Let’s just say I’d have to break it to her gently.’ He sat in silence for a moment and then added, ‘Maybe I’d start by reminding her that one of the Partizans who defended our village was Akhtarian.’
‘My papa was in the army. One day, him and twenty-nine others got caught behind enemy lines, not that far from here, actually. They didn’t know what to do, but several were from my home village, so they decided to go back there. They arrived a couple of weeks after the massacre. In fact, the Rebels attacked twice more, but my papa and his men managed to beat them off.’
‘And one of your papa’s men was Akhtarian?’
‘And he fought against the Rebels?’
‘Good for him.’
He looked at her: ‘So what would your parents say if they knew you were on a date with a Ksord?’
Tamara shook her head. ‘It wouldn’t be a big deal.’
‘My mama would tell me to make sure you behaved yourself.’
Ruslan raised his hands in mock surrender.
He looked down at the town and the beach below, at the Friendship Sanatorium. He thought he could make out the beach umbrellas, but the people were too small to see. His eyes followed his morning run all the way to the jetty at the far end of the bay.
He was feeling on top of the world. Tamara had said the words he most wanted to hear: ‘The Rebels were evil.’ If she believed that, then her nationality didn’t matter. He could love her with a clear conscience.
He looked at her and smiled.
She smiled back. ‘It’s so terrible, everything that happened. But we shouldn’t let it stop us being friends.’
‘Ah yes, that’s why we came here without the others. So we could be friends.’
She laughed. ‘Maybe I only want us to be friends.’
‘So you only kissed me because you were drunk?’
‘Blood and damnation. I knew I should have brought some vodka.’
Ruslan would always remember that July as the happiest month of his life. He adored Tamara. She was the most beautiful girlfriend he had ever had, and he felt so proud to be seen with her.
He loved the way her smile made him melt, just as he loved her ready laughter, her sing-song accent and the way she liked to flick her hair behind her ears with her fingers. He loved talking with her: he felt they had so much in common, even if she did pinch his arm and tell him not to be boring whenever he talked about sport or history.
And he loved her taste, her kiss and her body pressed against his. For in the evenings, they would often disappear into an alleyway for a little passion. Their lovemaking soon went as far as it could without the removal of clothes, and Ruslan longed to get her into his bed.
Murad regularly smuggled Fatima into his bedroom in the afternoons, and Ruslan knew he could do the same provided Josep would agree to stay away for an hour or two.
So one night in the alleyway, he said to her, ‘I want to have you in my room.’
‘I hope you’re not planning to do anything rude.’
‘How could you think such a thing?’
‘Well that’s all right then.’
At the appointed time, they walked into the male staff entrance and up the stairs as if nothing were happening. Once in the room, Tamara shut the door and Ruslan closed the curtains. They stood together next to Ruslan’s bed and embraced and kissed. Then he put his hands inside her T-shirt and began to undo her bra strap.
‘You’re sure nobody will come?’
‘Don’t think you’re going to get my knickers off, because you’re not.’
‘I’ve got some condoms. It’ll be safe.’
‘No thank you.’
He smiled and kissed her, and off came her T-shirt and bra. After a moment he eased her onto the bed, kissing her neck, her shoulders and her breasts. For a long time, they kissed and caressed. Ruslan removed her jeans and all of his own clothes and then, when he thought she was ready, he tried to take off her knickers.
‘Behave yourself,’ she said and pinched his arm.
He tried again a few days later, but it was obvious that she had made up her mind, so he did as he was told after that. In a sense it didn’t matter, because Tamara took a healthy interest in male anatomy and didn’t leave him frustrated, though he knew that when Murad found out from Fatima, he would give him a lot of stick.
And so it proved. ‘Still no action?’ Murad would whisper to Ruslan every time he and Tamara had spent the afternoon upstairs. ‘That’s pathetic.’
After they made love, Ruslan and Tamara would lie in each other’s arms and talk. Both of them loved these lazy afternoons together, but from time to time, Tamara would get the feeling that Ruslan was holding back. There were two things he didn’t seem to want to talk about: one was his university friends and the other was his father.
Tamara knew about his father’s wartime exploits, and she knew he had died when Ruslan was ten years old and that Ruslan was intensely proud of him, but there was something he wasn’t saying and she didn’t know what it was.
So she talked about her own family in an effort to get him to open up. On one occasion, she told him about her grandfather and what had happened to his house.
‘He built it with his bare hands when he got married. It was beautiful. I’ve seen it. But when they got back to Akhtaria after the Great Repression, there were Ksords living in the house and they refused to leave. So my grandfather had to build another house, except this time he was older and poorer and his new house was nothing like his old one. And every day, he walked past his old house on his way to work. Every time he walked past it, he swore at the Ksords who lived there and spat into the garden. Their dog used to bark at him, and if they were in the garden, they’d swear at him too.’
Ruslan agreed that her grandfather should have got his old house back.
‘You’re not like other Ksords,’ she said. ‘I’ve never met a Ksord before who would say that.’
‘I’m as Ksordian as they come. Don’t imagine that I’m not.’
‘You think so? Three years ago, I went on this Pioneer camp that was supposed to promote brotherhood and unity among Ksords and Akhtarians. We all got on really well, until one night someone started talking about the Great Repression. And then the Ksords just turned on us. They said, “So what? What about what the Rebels did to us?” Someone said, “They should never have let you scumbags back.” Then all the lads started fighting. It was terrible. That’s why you’re different from other Ksords. You can see both sides.’
‘You’ve got me completely wrong, I’m just as bigoted as Mingrelsky. It’s just that I’ll say anything to get laid.’
She went to pinch him, but he held her off.
‘You’re dangerous, do you know that?’
‘You deserve everything you get.’
‘All right, I admit it: I’m a nice guy.’
She laughed and kissed him. ‘I love you. I really do love you.’
Ruslan smiled. ‘I love you too.’
‘Brotherhood and unity.’
‘Never mind brotherhood and unity. This is more a case of lust and unity.’
Tamara solved the mystery of Ruslan’s university friends a few days later when the two of them left the evening promenade to walk along the beach.
‘You know when you study history at university?’
‘Do they leave bits out like they do at school?’
‘I suppose there are things we’re not encouraged to focus on. I mean, if you said you wanted to do a big assignment on the Stalinist repression, they might suggest you do something else.’
‘And sometimes if you interpret the evidence in a certain way, it might not be a good idea to say so.’
Tamara was beginning to reach her history tolerance level, but then Ruslan said something unexpected.
‘I nearly got myself expelled a couple of months ago.’
‘I said the wrong thing.’
He stopped walking and looked away from her as he spoke. ‘It was in a seminar. We were doing the Bolshevik takeover of Ksordia-Akhtaria. I said it wasn’t a liberation or a revolution. It was a foreign invasion.’
Tamara gasped. ‘God’s nails, Ruslan. You don’t muck about, do you?’
Ruslan said nothing.
‘So what happened?’
He turned to face her. ‘My instructor reported me and they put me on trial.’
‘What? They arrested you?’
‘No, my classmates tried me. They had to decide whether to expel me or report me to the KGB or whatever.’
‘So what did they do?’
Ruslan laughed. ‘I wanted to go down with all guns blazing, you know, to prove that I was right. I had all the evidence lined up ready.’
‘Yes, well I’ve got this brilliant instructor. She spent about six hours persuading me to back down. Literally six hours. She was a real terrier: she wouldn’t let me go until I agreed to recant. And then when I did, she put her arms round me and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.’
‘I’m not sure I like the sound of that. I hope she’s old and ugly.’
‘She’s quite fanciable, actually.’
Tamara turned her back on him and walked away. He had to run to catch up with her, and then he grabbed her round the waist and lifted her up.
They both laughed.
‘So what did your classmates do with you then?’
‘Well, I grovelled and apologised and got a severe reprimand.’
‘So you got away with it?’
‘More or less. I thought that was that, but in fact it cost me all my friends, apart from Josep. He stuck by me.’
‘Because he’s that kind of guy.’
‘No, I mean why did you lose all your friends?’
Ruslan didn’t answer.
‘You mean you got a reputation as a troublemaker?’
‘Not a troublemaker, just not someone to be seen with too often.’
‘So don’t you have any other friends now? Just Josep?’
‘Oh I’ve got loads of friends. My instructor, Nina, she sort of took me and Josep under her wing and introduced us to her friends. Amazing people: university instructors, postgrad students, artists and writers. Some of them are nationalists or social democrats or Christians.’
Tamara looked very impressed, but then she frowned. ‘So I’m going out with someone I shouldn’t be seen with too often?’
‘Don’t worry. Nobody here knows anything about me, and I’ve learnt to keep my opinions to myself.’
‘That’s a pity. It’d be fun to have a dangerous boyfriend.’
One evening, Ruslan and his friends came across two newly arrived guests in their favourite bar. They introduced themselves as Sergei and Natasha and said they were journalists from Moscow, where they worked for Literaturnaya Gazeta. They invited Ruslan and the others to join them and then proceeded to ply them with drink. Ruslan got far more drunk than Tamara had ever seen him.
Like many guests before them, the two Russians asked why there were three waiters in the restaurant who never did any work.
‘That big lad’s father’s in the Ksord-Akhtarian Politburo.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘The father? Aleksander Mingrelsky.’
Sergei and Natasha looked at each other.
‘I think I’ve heard the name,’ said Sergei.
‘Well the other two haven’t got any connections,’ Natasha said. ‘I don’t see why they shouldn’t do some work.’
Sergei and Natasha were fascinated to discover that Ruslan and Tamara were a couple even though one was a Ksord and the other was Akhtarian.
‘I thought Ksords and Akhtarians didn’t get on.’
‘You get some idiots,’ said Ruslan. ‘But it’s often impossible to tell us apart.’
‘Oh, don’t you speak different dialects?’
‘Me and Tamara speak different dialects, but lots of Akhtarians speak the same as me.’
The two Russians were curious to know more about the Great Repression, and Tamara told them what had happened to her family. She made Ruslan tell them about the Rebel attacks on his home village. Drink had loosened his tongue, and he told them something he had never told her.
’When the Germans retreated and the Red Army came along, everyone thought they were safe. But then the secret police came. The first thing they did was arrest my father. Why hadn’t he attacked the Germans instead of just protecting the village?
‘The fact that he’d kept hundreds of people alive meant nothing to them. And how was he supposed to attack the bloody Germans? They didn’t have a radio, and they never had any contact with other Partizan units, apart from a few stragglers. Even at their strongest, they only had about forty men and women under arms and hardly any ammunition. But they were supposed to abandon the village, find some Germans and attack them. And never mind the reprisals that would follow.’
‘What happened to your father?’ Natasha asked.
‘They court-martialled him. They should have given him a medal for what he’d done, but instead they sentenced him to serve in a punishment unit.’ He turned to Tamara: ‘Do you know about punishment units? That’s another thing they don’t teach you about at school. They were just cannon fodder, pure and simple. They had to do things like run across mine fields to clear them. Literally. I’m not joking. It was quicker than sending in the engineers, and bastards like Marshal bloody Zhukov didn’t give a damn.’
Tamara and Josep exchanged anxious glances, but Ruslan was in full flow.
‘My papa survived three weeks, and then he stepped on a mine. Boom! Off went half his leg, so he was invalided out of the army. But he was still under suspicion, and in 1946, when they found out my mama was planning to marry him, they threatened to sack her from the school. She married him anyway and so they sacked her.’
‘That’s terrible,’ said Sergei.
‘Yes, well soon after that, my papa got drunk with one of the neighbours and he started swearing and cursing about the way the Party had treated her. He said they were all bastards and he hated them. They came for him two nights later. He got eight years in prison for that. Can you believe it? Eight bloody years.’
For a moment there was silence, and then Natasha said, ‘There’s hardly a family in Russia that doesn’t have a similar story from the Stalin era.’
Sergei nodded, and then a relieved Tamara gently steered the conversation towards the much safer topic of Ksord-Akhtarian food.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about your father?’ she asked Ruslan the next day.
‘Because you never get me drunk.’
‘I knew there was something you didn’t want to tell me about.’
‘Well you don’t advertise it, do you? “My papa’s been to prison.”’
‘I suppose not, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘I still get very angry about it. They rehabilitated him under Khrushchev, but it was a bit late. He never got his health back.’
‘Is that why you hate the Party?’
‘I suppose so. But I think I’d hate them anyway, they’re such sanctimonious bloody hypocrites.’
There was one blot on the landscape of Ruslan and Tamara’s happiness and its name was Mingrelsky.
It astonished Ruslan that he was allowed to get away with never doing any work at all. He turned up for nearly every shift, however, probably to make sure the other two Ksordian waiters did no work either, and they would sit at the back of the restaurant making snide comments in Ksord-Akhtarian about the Russian and Ukrainian guests or about the other waiters as they hurried past to do their work.
Murad and Fatima had to put up with a good deal of anti-Tatar abuse, but Mingrelsky reserved most of his venom for Ruslan and Tamara: he was a Rebel-loving traitor, while she was a stuck-up Rebel slut who wasn’t half as fit as she thought she was.
Ruslan gave as good as he got, mostly with references to Mingrelsky’s ‘important papa’. Tamara constantly warned him to be wary of Mingrelsky, but Ruslan would shake his head. ‘He’s just a half dick.’
By the end of the first week in August, matters were beginning to come to a head. Murad told the others that he and Fatima had had as much as they could take. ‘I don’t see why we should have to put up with it. We’re thinking of complaining to the management.’
‘Good idea,’ said Ruslan. ‘We’ll all back you up, won’t we?’
Josep agreed, but Tamara and Lana were reluctant.
‘I’m just really scared of him,’ Tamara said. ’Him and his friends will beat you up if you make trouble, and they’ll get away with it too. His father’s got so much blat that the police won’t touch him.’ (She used the Russian word blat for the most useful commodity in the Soviet Union: influence.)
‘So we just have to put up with him?’
‘Ruslan, he’s twice as big as you.’
‘I could have him,’ said Josep.
Tamara rolled her eyes.
‘I could. I’m as big as he is, and we do military training at university. Ruslan will tell you I regularly knock the shit out of him in unarmed combat classes.’
‘No you don’t.’
‘Yes I do.’
‘We’re not talking about beating him up,’ said Fatima, speaking Russian. ‘Just complaining to the manager.’
‘But the managers are all scared of Mingrelsky,’ said Tamara. ‘It’s a waste of time.’
‘How do we know till we’ve tried?’ said Murad.
‘I tell you what,’ said Ruslan. ‘Why don’t we try something else? That table where they always sit – tonight at dinner, we go early and we take that table, and we get rid of all the chairs on the table next to it. Then him and his friends will have to sit somewhere else, and we won’t have to walk past them every time we go to the kitchen.’
He looked at the others.
‘Come on. Why not?’
‘Yes all right,’ said Murad. ‘Let’s do it.’
Josep and Fatima nodded. Lana shrugged.
‘Okay,’ said Tamara. ‘Let’s give it a go.’
So that evening, when Mingrelsky came down to the restaurant, he found Ruslan, Murad, Josep and Fatima sitting at his favourite table.
‘What are you lot doing here? This is my table.’
‘Is it?’ said Ruslan. ‘Well, why don’t you run and tell your papa, and we’ll move if he asks us to.’
‘I’ll get you for this,’ Mingrelsky growled before moving off to the far side of the restaurant.
‘Do you think he means it?’ Fatima asked.
‘He’s full of shit,’ said Josep.
Ruslan and his friends made sure Mingrelsky’s favourite table was well guarded for the rest of the shift, and they were at last able to go to and from the kitchen without having to endure Mingrelsky’s taunts.
That evening they went to a bar to toast their victory, and by the time they got to the promenade, the six of them were all quite drunk. When they headed for the beach at ten thirty, Murad brought along a bottle of Georgian champagne.
They sat on the sand and drank straight from the bottle, laughing uproariously whenever anyone got champagne up their nose.
Then Ruslan noticed Mingrelsky in the distance. He was striding towards them. Ruslan counted five other lads with him, along with half a dozen girls.
‘Uh-oh,’ he said to the others. ‘Look who’s here.’
Everyone turned round.
‘I don’t think they’re coming to say hello.’