The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Five

EVERY DAY Ruslan would wake up before dawn. And every day his thoughts would immediately turn to Tamara. Was she all right? Had the last six months been as difficult for her as they had for him? Did she still think of him? Did she miss him? Did she blame him for what had happened?

He got out of his bunk and put his bare feet down onto the freezing cold floor. He reached for a pullover, put it on and walked over to the window. The condensation had turned to ice, and Ruslan could barely see the courtyard in the gloom below.

His whole body felt heavy and lethargic. He desperately wanted to go out for a run, at least a couple of kilometres, better still five or ten. But he hadn’t been able to run for almost a week now because of the snow.

So instead he put on his socks and shoes and crept out to the bathrooms. Today would be a good day, he told himself. He had been given a fantastic assignment, and he couldn’t wait to get his teeth into it. He would be waiting outside the faculty library when it opened and would get down to work straight away. Josep would turn up at eleven and drag him out for a coffee, but he would still be able to get another two hours’ work in before lunch.

In the afternoon, he and Josep would go for their first lecture of the day. It was with his favourite instructor, Nina Begishveli. That was something to look forward to. Nina was brilliant.

At the end of the lecture, Ruslan and Josep decided to say hello. They walked to the front of the hall and waited while Nina dealt with the usual queue of students. An elegant woman in her mid-twenties with long dark hair that she liked to tie up round a pencil, Nina didn’t so much as glance at Ruslan or Josep until she had dealt with all the others. Then she turned towards them and smiled. ‘Hello there boys,’ she said in a Timashevsk accent very similar to Ruslan’s. ‘How was military training?’

‘I quite enjoyed it, actually.’

‘I thought you would. What about you, Josep?’

‘It was okay, if you like getting up at six and running three times round the camp while a Tatar sergeant yells obscenities at you.’

Nina laughed. ‘I tell you what, I’m having a dinner party on Saturday night. Why don’t you two come along? Remember those two nice postgrad students who came at Christmas? They’ll be there.’

Ruslan looked at Josep, who nodded enthusiastically.

‘That’d be great. About nine?’

‘Make it eight-thirty.’

‘Okay. See you Saturday, Comrade Begishveli.’

Ruslan usually enjoyed Nina’s dinner parties. You could be guaranteed good food and subversive conversation into the small hours. On this occasion, however, he drank far more than he was used to and spent much of the evening slumped in a corner listening to two guests arguing about aesthetics.

Eventually he could take no more. He thought he might puke if he didn’t get some fresh air. He went out onto the balcony and took deep breaths of the cold, wintry air.

His mind turned to his last hours with Tamara. He remembered how the Police Commissioner had assembled them all in his office and lectured them about hooliganism and criminality and the importance of law and order. Then he told them how lucky they were that Comrade Mingrelsky was a magnanimous man who had agreed that their previous good conduct should be taken into account.

Ruslan and Tamara had looked at each other and grinned surreptitiously. They were going to get away with it.

But then the Police Commissioner told them the price they would have to pay. ‘I’ve spoken to the Manager of the Friendship Sanatorium, and he tells me you’ve all been dismissed. A police minibus is going to take you to the sanatorium. You’ll go straight to your rooms in staff accommodation and you’ll have ten minutes to pack your bags. Then you’ll leave the sanatorium at once. You will not be permitted to enter any other part of the building. Is that understood?’

Ruslan and his friends all nodded.

‘You’ll then board the minibus at once, and it will take you to the central bus station, where you will take the first bus to Khosume. If not, you’ll be arrested and charged with hooliganism and battery. Is that clear?’

They were marched out and onto the minibus. Ruslan and Tamara sat together. He put his arm round her and they kissed. Then she burst into tears.

‘Oh God, Ruslan. I was so scared.’

‘Me too.’

Ruslan was trying to work out why they had got away with it. Had someone else agreed to inform for the KGB? Maybe Josep? But he was wearing a grin as wide as his face. He certainly didn’t look like someone who had just thrown away his integrity.

Tamara wiped her eyes and her nose. Ruslan hugged her tight, and then he realised what all this implied. How would they ever be able to see each other again?

He had no time to think. They had reached the sanatorium.

Their arrival caused a sensation. More than twenty staff came to embrace them and kiss them and say how unfair it was that they should be dismissed. They said it was Sergei and Natasha who had saved them. Apparently, as part of their deal with Mingrelsky senior, Sergei and Natasha had agreed not to speak to Ruslan and his friends again. The staff passed on their best wishes, and Ruslan and the others asked them to convey their sincerest thanks.

‘Sergei says you’re to contact him at once if Mingrelsky’s father ever causes you any trouble,’ said one of the chefs. ‘Because he’s promised that this is the end of the matter. No victimisation.’

The policemen on the minibus wouldn’t let any sanatorium staff accompany them to the bus station, but once there they did allow Ruslan and Tamara to leave their cases with the others and wander offsite to spend some time alone. They found a broken down old bench next to a dusty little children’s playground.

‘What’s going to happen to us?’

Tamara put her hand in his but said nothing.

He squeezed her hand. ‘We can still see each other.’

‘I don’t see how I could come and see you. Even if my parents let me, I don’t know if I could afford the bus fare.’

‘I’ll come to you. I can hitchhike easily enough. Most motorists wouldn’t charge much, and sometimes you can get a lorry driver to take you for free if you help with loading.’

‘What about all your Saturday lectures and all your running?’

‘I can leave on Saturday afternoons, and I can train in Zeda’Anta.’

‘Where would you stay?’

‘I’d find a cheap hotel. Then I could smuggle you in on Sunday mornings.’

‘How would you afford it?’

‘If you really want something, you can make it happen.’

Tamara smiled and shook her head. ‘Look, I think we just have to face up to it. It isn’t practical, is it?’

‘Why not?’

‘We’re too busy. We’ve both got our studies and you’ve got all your sport. And neither of us has got two kopeks to rub together. I just don’t see how we can do it.’

‘Tamara, we’re just so perfect together. You can’t throw that away.’

‘What alternative do we have?’

‘We can try. See how it works out. If it doesn’t work, then we can end it, but at least we can try.’

‘It won’t work Ruslan. I don’t want us to make each other miserable. End it now and we’ll both have a beautiful memory that will last the rest of our lives.’

‘I don’t want to remember you, I want to have you.’

‘It’s just not possible.’

‘You mean you don’t want me. There’s no such thing as not possible when two people really want something.’

‘How can you say I don’t want you?’ Her eyes were filling with tears. ‘How can you think that? What else can I do to show you how much I love you?’

‘Then why do you want to finish it?’

‘I don’t want to, for heaven’s sake.’ A tear rolled down her cheek, and she made no effort to wipe it away. ‘God’s nails, Ruslan. You know I’m right. Please don’t make this any harder than it already is.’

He looked away. He felt angry with her, let down. She was backing away because she was afraid to be associated with him, just like all the others.

But then he looked into her eyes and his anger dissolved.

He hugged her tight and she cried in his arms. He fought against his own tears and only just managed to hold them back.

The bus journey to Khosume took over four hours, and the two of them spent it clinging onto each other in whispered conversation.

‘I wish I’d let you have me,’ Tamara said at one stage.

‘I did have you.’

‘No, I mean…’

‘I know what you mean.’

‘I was planning to. I wanted to lose my virginity with you.’

‘I did have you. I had you and you had me, all of me. That’s much more important than anything we did or didn’t do in bed.’

As he stood on Nina’s freezing balcony now, Ruslan smiled. He gave himself ten out of ten for that little speech. He had meant every word, but even as he spoke, he had a condom in his back pocket just in case she had fancied a quickie behind the bus station.

The door to the balcony opened, and Ruslan turned round, expecting to see Josep. To his surprise, it was Nina.

‘You okay?’

‘Yes. Just a bit pissed, that’s all.’

‘I noticed you were drinking a lot. Not running tomorrow?’

‘With all this snow? It’s too dangerous. By the way, have you seen Josep?’

‘Yes, he’s gone. He got off with one of those postgrads.’

‘You’re joking.’

‘No I’m not.’

‘Well, this is a first. Which one?’

‘Asmat.’

‘The little devil.’

‘Her friend’s still here you know. I bet you could charm her.’

‘No, not my type.’

‘You can’t spend the rest of your life pining for that Akhtarian girl, you know.’

‘I’m not pining for anyone. She’s just not my type, that’s all.’

Nina flicked her cigarette off the balcony, and they watched its red light fall to its death in the snow below. ‘Anyway, come inside. It’s bloody freezing out here.’

Ruslan spent that night on her sofa. He woke up early and hung over. He tuned into the BBC on the radio and listened to the news in English. Then he tried to follow a drama about farmers but found it too difficult. Eventually he switched off and tidied up instead, emptying the ashtrays and doing the washing up.

There wasn’t enough space in Nina’s tiny kitchen to drain all the plates, cups and glasses, so he opened her cupboard drawers to find a tea towel. As he did so, he noticed an old blue folder under her oven gloves and aprons. Curious, he pulled it out and looked inside. It was full of cuttings from newspapers, articles about the trials of dissidents and nationalists. Nina had written notes on all the cuttings: each had what was clearly an index number and a date, plus other letters and numbers that seemed to be in code.

He had obviously stumbled across something he wasn’t supposed to see. He hurriedly put everything back as he had found it and resumed his search for a tea towel.

Nina emerged soon after ten.

‘The perfect guest,’ she beamed, as she helped herself to some of the coffee he had made and poured an extra cup for her lover, Avdantil. Soon afterwards she showered and got dressed, and then she and Ruslan sat on her sofa and talked. She asked him about his encounter with Aleksander Mingrelsky and he told her about how the KGB had known about him and had attempted to recruit him as an informer (he had never previously spoken about this with anyone). He told her about his sleepless night wondering what to do and the abuse he had heaped on the KGB officer.

‘God’s teeth. Did you really say that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘I thought that if I was going to say no, I’d have to make it very clear that I meant it.’

Nina burst out laughing. ‘Well you certainly managed to do that! How did he react?’

‘He went totally berserk, yelling and screaming right in my face. I’ve never seen a man so angry. I thought he was going to beat me up.’

‘But he didn’t?’

‘No, he never touched me. I got spittle all over my face, but he never touched me.’

‘You’re insane, do you know that?’

Ruslan blushed. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t told her.

‘Are you sure you weren’t trying to go down in a blaze of glory, like you wanted to first time you got into trouble?’

‘No, it wasn’t that.’

‘I bet you were. You’re a typical bloody Ksord, desperate to make a martyr of yourself.’

‘No, it had nothing to do with that. I was just trying to make sure he knew I meant it.’

‘I hope that’s true, Ruslan. You’d never have got away with it if it weren’t for those reporters.’

‘I don’t suppose I would.’

‘Funny thing is, in another way, you probably did the right thing. The KGB are hardly going to try and recruit you again, are they?’

Ruslan didn’t see Nina socially for some time after that, though he attended several of her lectures. On one occasion, he thought she didn’t look her usual self. He wanted to ask her if everything was all right but thought she might think it an inappropriate question, coming from one of her students.

Josep provided what may have been the answer. ‘Have you heard about Avdantil and Nina?’

‘No. What about them?’

‘They’ve split up.’

For an instant, Ruslan was relieved. He had half expected Josep to say that they had been arrested.

A few days later, Ruslan asked Nina to look at the assignment he had just completed for another instructor. His conclusions were very controversial, and he wanted to make sure he didn’t get into trouble.

Three days later she spotted him in the corridor. ‘Ruslan?’

‘Oh, hello Comrade Begishveli.’

Nina spoke in a whisper, ‘Are you free to come round to my place tonight? I’ll treat you to dinner.’

‘Yes, great.’ He had never been there alone before.

He felt surprisingly nervous as he ran up the stairs to Nina’s flat that evening. He wiped his feet on the torn old jacket she left outside as a doormat.

‘You’re late,’ she said as she opened the door.

‘Sorry.’ He handed her a bottle of Georgian wine.

‘You open it. I’ll get dinner.’

‘So?’ he asked as they sat down to eat. ‘What did you think of it?’

‘Ruslan, it’s absolutely brilliant. I showed it to the Dean yesterday, and he said it was the most astonishing Diploma assignment he’s ever seen. People have been awarded Candidate of Science for less. How long did it take you?’

‘The best part of four weeks.’

‘Four weeks? Is that all?’

‘Yes, but I was on the case pretty much all day every day when I wasn’t running. I even managed to get quite a lot done on the quiet during your lectures.’

Nina laughed. ‘But how did you find all this stuff?’

‘Well, I read everything on the reading list, and then I checked their sources, and then I checked their sources, right back until I got to the original documents.’

‘How did you get hold of the originals?’

‘You have to dig around the back rooms in the faculty library, but it’s amazing what you can find there.’

‘But undergraduates don’t have access to the back rooms.’

‘You can for a few sausages.’

Nina laughed. ‘You have time to queue for sausages?’

‘My sister-in-law gets them. I need extra protein for my running.’

’And for your assignments, obviously. Well, all I can say is this controversy’s been going for a hundred and sixty years and now you’ve settled it. You should get this published in Voprosy Istorii.’

Voprosy Istorii? You’re joking.’

‘No I’m not. You don’t realise how good this assignment is. It’s incredible. You’ll make your name with it, honestly. There are senior instructors who’ve never had anything this good published. I certainly haven’t.’

Ruslan’s assignment had been about the origins of the kingdom of Akhtaria. Some historians claimed that the first king of Akhtaria had been a Black Sea Goth, and Ruslan’s task had been to assemble the case against this ‘Gothic hypothesis’.

However, when he came across an article from 1912 that described Gothic influences in Akhtarian fortifications, Ruslan realised that the Gothic hypothesis might be correct. He decided to look for more evidence, so he analysed Akhtarian heraldry, finding striking parallels with Gothic heraldry in Western Europe. His coup de grace came on his last day of research, just before he started to write up his findings, when he came across a translation of an eighth-century Byzantine document that described Akhtaria’s capital as a Gothic city.

He knew he had assembled enough evidence to prove the Gothic hypothesis. But he also knew that Soviet historians poured scorn on it for a good reason: the wartime Akhtarian Rebels had claimed that the Akhtarian people as a whole were descended from the Goths, and he was worried that if he said that the first king had been a Gothic warlord, he might find himself in trouble again.

Nina calmed his fears: ‘Don’t worry about that. You’ve said that you’re only talking about the king, not the general population. In any case, people can hardly accuse you of being pro-Rebel, can they?’

The two of them spent the evening together, drinking wine and talking.

Shortly after midnight, Nina said she had something to show him. She went into her bedroom and came back with what looked like a bundle of old papers stapled together.

‘What’s that?’

‘Have a look.’

There were eighteen sheets of thin foolscap paper. The text was a light blue, faint and almost illegible. The heading on the front page read: Chronicle of Events in Ksordia-Akhtaria, January 1979.

’Is it samizdat?’

‘Yes.’

Ruslan was thrilled. Semi-clandestine samizdat journals were the mouthpiece of opponents of the Communist regime. Nina could lose her job just for showing it to him.

‘Wow! Where did you get it?’

Nina shook her head.

‘Oh, sorry. I didn’t think.’

She sat right next to him as he looked through it.

‘Why’s it so illegible?’

‘Well, they type seven or eight in one go, through carbon paper.’

There were articles about the deteriorating economy and about the persecution of anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould: Baptists, avant-garde artists, Jewish refuseniks and Tatar nationalists. Everything was very dry and factual: none of the articles expressed any kind of opinion.

But it was the final article that gave Ruslan a jolt. It analysed newspaper reports to show how the authorities made sure that each of the three main communities in multi-ethnic Central Kubania received no more and no less than their ‘fair share’ of repression. If two Tatars were imprisoned for political offences, two Ksords and an Akhtarian would find themselves banged up before too long. And not only were the numbers arrested in strict proportion, so were they sentences they received.

It was obvious who had written the article.

‘Nina, I’ve got a confession to make.’

‘What?’

‘That time I washed up, after your party, I was looking for a tea towel, and I found your newspaper cuttings in the drawer.’

‘So it was you? I knew someone had been looking in that file.’

‘Sorry. I wasn’t meaning to pry.’

‘Did you tell anyone what you saw?’

‘Nobody, I promise.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘You wrote this article, didn’t you?’

She gave a slight nod of her head.

‘That’s so amazing, Nina.’

She smiled.

‘But there’s one thing I don’t get,’ he said, his voice still low. ’When I got into trouble, you made me recant. When I told you what I said to that KGB officer, you told me I was a lunatic. But there you were all the time, writing samizdat. I don’t get it?’

She thought for a moment. ‘What’s your ambition, Ruslan? What do you want to be?’

‘I’ve told you: a brilliant historian or a brilliant athlete.’

‘And you’ve got it in you. I’ve always known it, and this assignment proves it. But if you get kicked out of university, you’ll never be anything. You’ll just end up a washed-out street sweeper with broken dreams.’

‘But what about you? What if you get caught?’

Samizdat isn’t actually illegal, you know, as long as we just chronicle facts.’

‘Yes, but you could still get sacked.’

‘I’m not so worried about that. I’ve got no plans to be a brilliant historian.’

‘You could be one if you wanted.’

‘No I couldn’t: I’m too impatient. I get bored when I do research. And anyway, it’s not what I want to do with my life.’

‘So what do you want to do?’

’I want to undermine them.’

‘But you don’t seriously think you can overthrow them?’

‘No government lasts forever.’

‘Maybe, but some last a very long time.’

‘I’m happy just to keep chipping away.’

‘I wish I had your nerve.’

‘You’re not exactly short of nerve, are you?’

By now it was too late for Ruslan to go back home. Nina put a blanket on the sofa for him, and when they said goodnight, she suddenly embraced him and kissed his cheek. For a moment he thought she was making a pass at him, but then she stood back and said, ‘See you in the morning.’

He would spend much of the next few days thinking about that kiss. Was it just platonic affection, a reward for her cleverest student? Or was there more to it than that? For the first time in months, he found himself daydreaming about another woman, not about Tamara.

Ruslan had always liked and admired Nina. She was the most intelligent and sophisticated woman he had ever met. She was attractive too, not striking like Tamara, but good looking in a quiet way that crept up on you almost unnoticed, and she had a poise and an elegance that he had always appreciated.

But more than that, she was a real dissident. That was so mind-blowing. And she had trusted him with her secret. That must mean she thought highly of him, too.

But then he told himself not to be stupid. She was his instructor. She was a Candidate of Science. Her last lover had been a respected playwright, and even he hadn’t been good enough for her. What could she possibly want with one of her undergraduates?

Not long afterwards, Ruslan, Nina and a large group of friends met at the first evening promenade of spring. Ruslan and Nina spent most of the evening talking only to each other.

At eleven he said, ‘I’m going to have to leave soon. I have to go for a run first thing.’

‘Will you walk me home?’

He said yes, even though his hostel was in the opposite direction.

When they got to Nina’s apartment block, she took his hand. ‘Are you coming up?’

‘I shouldn’t.’

‘Oh, come on.’

He nodded, scarcely able to believe what was happening. Did she really mean to have him?

They took the lift together. Once inside, Nina prepared some tea and they drank it, standing in the kitchen, talking about who knows what. She was obviously waiting for him to make the first move, but Ruslan didn’t know how to go about it. She was his instructor for God’s sake.

She finished her tea and took his half-empty glass from his hands and put it out of reach. She stood right in front of him, her blue eyes looking into his.

He knew there were so many reasons why this was a mistake. What if Aleksander Mingrelsky and the KGB were watching his every move? What if they were just waiting for him to slip up? And what if he alerted them to Nina?

But there was no way back now.

He reached forward and took her hands. His heart was beating so fast he could almost hear it. He pulled her closer and they kissed. Her mouth was open and hot. He felt the intensity of her passion and then he let it consume him.

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