The ladder creaked and little clouds of dust followed behind the boy as he climbed down through the trap.
“What are you doing up there, Sacha?”
He stopped and turned to see his grandfather standing at the foot of the ladder. Michail Ivanov reached up with a wrinkled old hand and took a firm grip.
“You should be careful. Everything is old and falling apart in this house.”
The boy continued his descent carrying a box in one hand, holding the rangs of the ladder with the other. Michail watched, he smiled to himself, knowing no matter what he said his grandson would likely not listen. Sacha was in many ways similar to him, full of the spirit of adventure, carefree, and imbued with a desire to discover.
“I found it!” Sacha held up the box as he stood at the bottom of the rickety old ladder.
His grandfather looked at him and smiled, then looked back up to the trap. “You forgot to shut the trap.”
Sacha laughed. “I’ve only one pair of hands!”
“I’ll give you ‘one pair of hands,’ you rascal.”
Michail slapped the boy’s behind as he clambered back up the ladder to close the trap. It made a loud thud amidst a halo of dust as it dropped shut.
“Yuck,” Sacha wiped his face with his arm as he arrived back down on the landing.
“I don’t know why you wanted to go searching for it. I told you no one’s been up there in donkeys years and it’s full of cobwebs and spiders.”
The boy looked at him as he picked the box up off the floor. “For this,” he said, triumphantly.
His grandfather nodded wearily as if conceding defeat.
“You said the box was somewhere in the attic.”
“I said that so you would not press an old man to continue telling you stories.”
“But granddad, you tell such good stories.”
Michail grinned and threw an arm over his grandson’s shoulder.
“Come on then, we better go downstairs and get comfortable.”
The old man and the child walked across the bare floorboards and descended the staircase. Sacha holding tightly to the treasure he had unearthed amongst all the years accumulated junk spread around the dark and dusty attic.
Roschino is a tiny village on the banks of the River Suda, lost in the countryside some eighty kilometers north of the capital. The house was unusual in having two stories, otherwise it resembled the few other houses scattered about. A wooden construction with a covered veranda it stood on it’s own surrounded by a vegetable garden and looking out across the greenery towards the river. Every house had its own vegetable patch, there were no shops nearby. Everyone here was somewhat self-sufficient, or else you brought your supplies with you. But Granddad Michail lived here all year round and he had Annika to tend his vegetables, and look after him.
At night the only sounds were those which emanated from the nature which surrounded them. Sacha adored curling up next to Michail on the old sofa in front of the little wood burner. They would often pass their evenings together like that, the youngster engrossed in the tales his granddad told.
Sacha pulled the little metal object from the box and held it out in the palm of his hand. Michail stared at the object dull with the passage of time. His mind roamed as memories resurged. The summer of nineteen seventy-two, he had just turned fourteen. It was a chance to be born in June, it meant he would spend a summer of adventure, his first time away from his family.
“Ah!” he sighed. “That… You recognize the figure, don’t you?”
Sacha recognized the head on the red and gold medal.
“We all received that little pin at the end of the summer. It was the year I went away to summer camp with the Komsomol. Ah! I had the chance to have reached the age to join.”
“What is the Komsomol?”
Michail looked at his grandson and patted the sofa. “Come and sit.”
Sacha joined his grandfather, curling his legs up on the sofa. The fire cracked and the flame flickered in the gloom. The only other light was the small oil lamp on the table.
“In those days everyone wanted to join the Komsomol. Everyone our age, but you had to be fourteen. The Komsomol was the youth division of the Communist Party founded after the revolution.”
Sacha listened attentively. “So, you went away on a summer camp?”
The old man reflected a moment as those memories flooded his mind and played with his emotions. He was not certain he wanted to go there. Back to those events in the summer of seventy-two. Sacha delved into the box once more, extracting the next item which he held up to get a good look at it. The colours of the old photo were a pale image from the past.
“And who is this?” he asked, handing the photo to his grandfather.
“Ah! You don’t recognize me?”
“It’s you!” Sacha took back the photo and held it at different angles to better see the boy who was his grandfather.
“It was taken before the camp, in the government building in Nametkina Street, the old Cheryomushki district. Pavel was standing behind the man taking pictures. He had asked who wanted to be in his group.”
“And you raised your hand.”
“Yes. The elderly photographer was not pleased because it was exactly at the moment he took the shot. I remember he shouted, ‘I don’t have film to waste!'”
“Who was Pavel?”
“I didn’t know him at all at the time, but we all were in groups, each with a leader. For some reason I chose Pavel. I saw him laugh when the old photographer got angry and I knew I had made the right choice. Afterwards he was stern and reprimanded me in front of everyone for spoiling the photo.”
“Well yes, he had to. In those days you had to keep a proper face. But later he took me aside, when we were alone, and he told me he was happy I had been so excited to choose him as my leader. From then on we were not only cadet and leader, but firm friends.”
The fire leant a flickering glow which warmed the room. Both man and boy were relaxed and contented, but Sacha wanted to hear more of the story.
“And what happened at the summer camp?”
“Ah! Well we were twenty boys of varying ages in four groups. All good little Soviet cadets. You wouldn’t know, because life here has changed, but I believed what they said. Everything they taught us.”
“The Party.” Michail stared into space. His eyes wandered over the room and his thoughts drifted.
He was there standing in line with the other cadets and their leaders. The windows were half open, those old metal framed windows which opened only at the top, held there by a bar. He remembered clearly, could even feel the warm summer breeze on his cheeks. The uniformed camp director was addressing the assembly.
“Work and discipline are the order of the day,” he was saying.
For an instant a doubt resurged. Where had he heard that slogan before? It was in his German class. Michail was good at languages, near the top of his class, and excellent at German. ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ work makes one free, the words adorned the Nazi concentration camp. How different were the Communists? Perhaps all totalitarian regimes were identical. It was not a good idea to think this way and those thoughts he quickly shuffled to the back of his mind. Only years later would he question himself. Standing with the crowds as he watched the concrete slab fall to the ground leaving in its wake a giant hole. Nineteen eighty-nine Michail was in Berlin on the Soviet side when communism crumbled.
It is often difficult to change and adapt, especially when for a large part of your life you have lived apart in a different world. Michail, however, had always felt apart, even from the Soviet reality which was his home. Why? Because of that one summer when he turned fourteen. Because of Pavel. The man was a model and a hero for young Michail. He wore so cleverly the skin of a chameleon. As he once told Michail, “You must change, and weave your way through life. Never reveal who you really are, but be true to yourself. Grasp the opportunities, live the lie.”
All those years ago Michail thought that Pavel was talking about making the most of life in Soviet Russia. But he wasn’t. Or not simply that. Michail was young and inexperienced, he never understood what happened between them. Not until now, as an old man, did those words change colour in his mind and reveal another animal entirely.
They set off together, the two of them. Pavel was the oldest person there, apart from the camp director. At twenty-eight it was his final year. Michail never took account of their difference in age. He respected, admired, and looked up to the man. Maybe more than simply that, there was an emotional tie.
“It was our mission,” he told Sacha. “The two of us. Pavel and myself. We had to repair the light on the signal tower so as to illuminate the peak. It was like a lighthouse for ships and alerted approaching aircraft to the steep craggy ridge they should clear before descending to land.
“Only there were no aircraft and the runway was pitted with holes, tall grass and weeds growing through the cracked tarmac. The buildings were mostly in ruin, the glass broken on the windows. Only two small huts were in use, where they slept, and the old hangar where they assembled and ate. Conditions were spartan, but that was, I think, part of the idea. A way to build comradeship and promote a team spirit. There was no other reason to be there working on the restoration project. Perhaps it was also a cheap solution for a summer camp.”
Sacha shuffled around changing position. “Why were you and Pavel chosen to repair the light?”
“Ah! A good question. I don’t know why Pavel, but it would have to be a task for a leader, and he chose me.”
“But why, grandpa? You were the youngest.”
“Yes indeed, although there were a couple of other boys around my age. At the time I didn’t think about it. Now I know why, but let’s not spoil the story.”
“We set off with our supplies the next morning. Pavel had a Jawa 250 motorbike. A big red beast. It was so exciting.
“I had a large hiking sack on my shoulders and there was a tent slung across the tank. The idea was to spend the day working and the night under the stars. Everyone had different tasks, in various groups. But for me, ours was the best adventure.
“We sped off on the dirt track, the dust whipped up behind us and I held tight, leaning into Pavel’s back. He’d told me to wrap my arms around his waist and not to let go.
“Every so often I tried to peek over his shoulders to see where we were heading, but I only saw the countryside spread out to one side or the other. Pavel had broad shoulders and his back was like a wall.
“We spent most of the day at the top of the hill. It was a long climb up, but the view was worth it. Looking back across the plain I could see the old airfield, the huts and the hangar, obscured by a haze. The sun was blazing down and a wind was whipping up the dry earth. Pavel had taken his shirt off and the sweat glistened on his body. He was like a god for me. The emblem of Soviet Russia, strength and force.
“In another time and culture you might say a Greek God, an Adonis. If he was aware of his masculine good looks he gave no sign. Perhaps he reserved himself for the ladies? We stopped frequently to take breaks and a drink, yet still, by early afternoon the job was finished.
“We both admired our work before he told me he had a surprise for me. Delving into our pack he pulled out the box with our lunch. ‘There is a beautiful spot on the other side of the next hill,’ he told me. ‘If you’re up for it, we will hike over there and take our lunch.’
“Of course I was up for it. I was tired and hot, but would follow Pavel wherever he led. We made the trek in the heat. I covered my head with a cloth and Pavel wore a cap. When we arrived, I have to tell you, it was worth the effort. Water trickled down over craggy rocks and through hanging plants, dropping into a clear pool which we were standing looking at. At least I was standing there staring, but Pavel had other ideas. Putting aside the lunch box he grabbed me and wrestled me into the water. We crash landed with a huge splash as I lost the struggle.
“We were soaked but also cooled. Pavel extended his arm to pull me out. ‘We better strip off and let these dry,’ he said, pulling off his shirt. I was a little embarrassed to remove all my clothes, but he insisted, and said we should spread them out over the smooth boulders. ‘You have nothing I don’t have,’ I remember him joking.
“We ate our lunch naked. I could not stop myself from looking at him, at his body. Of course he noticed. He said it was normal that I was inquisitive.
“That afternoon we talked a lot. Pavel told me about himself and more particularly about his family. He was the youngest of five brothers and a sister. Their mother had left when he was young, leaving them as an almost entirely male household. Their father had been injured during the war and as a hero of the Soviet army received a small pension. Viktor was twelve years older than Pavel and it was he who was effectively in charge.
“His sister had a little room to herself, next to their father’s bedroom. It was in effect a bedroom they had partitioned in two. His three brothers shared another bedroom and he slept with Viktor. He told me that Viktor was not someone you could reason with, he never listened to what you might have to say. So, he was raised very strictly and any minor misdemeanour led to a swift and inescapable physical punishment.”
“That sounds like a very harsh upbringing,” I told him and he nodded a little distracted.
I had noticed more and more often, how my grandfather would drift away in the middle of things. It used to be he would tell his stories all the way through, or until I had fallen asleep. These days there would be pauses, which might be long if I didn’t prompt him.
When he didn’t reply I asked, “Was that normal in those times?”
He seemed to consider the question.
“Normal, I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps there was more discipline. Perhaps it was harder for Pavel given their circumstances. He had confided in me which was something no one had ever done before. I mean, I had friends with whom we shared little secrets, but this… this was different. I felt him telling me about himself brought us closer together, cemented our friendship. But what I didn’t realize. At the time, that is, was that Pavel wanted something from me.”
“What did he want? Why didn’t he just ask you?”
“I believe he needed to try to explain who he was. That he needed my understanding. At the time I was a very naive fourteen year old, but I think even had I been a bit more worldly, it would not have made any difference. It may have cut things short quicker, that’s all.”
I moved position on the sofa and stared at the flames licking the logs. “Cut things short? What happened?”
“Yes, our story. That afternoon lying side by side in the sunshine he told me how he had always felt different to his brothers, but that he didn’t understand why. Except he recounted his relationship with Viktor. They shared a bedroom and they shared a bed, which was not uncommon, large, poor families, often had little choice.
“He never explained in detail about Viktor, other than I’ve already told you. His elder brother ruled with an iron fist, but I think there was more to their relationship.”
“Shall I put another log on the fire?”
Grandfather nodded. I got up and went over to open the wood burner. I was relieved to have the break because it seemed that grandfather’s story was touching on something about myself. There were things I had been thinking about a lot recently, but they were personal and not stuff I wanted to share with anyone. I don’t know how Pavel could have shared things about his home life with grandfather, I didn’t feel capable of doing the same. Not with grandfather, nor with my friends, and definitely not with my parents.
If I told grandfather he might tell my mum and dad, my friends, I wasn’t sure of their reaction and where that would leave me if things went bad. Yet it seemed to me grandfather was recounting a tale that might be mirroring my own feelings. I didn’t know if this was simply coincidence or intentional.
“Where were we?” Grandfather smiled, as I sat back down next to him.
“You had spent all afternoon with Pavel telling you about himself.”
“We played about in the pool some more before we decided we should get dressed and make the short trek back to the signal lamp where we would camp for the night.
“That night the sky was clear and we studied the stars twinkling their light against the black depths. I can honestly say I have never felt anything quite like those emotions that night. It is like an image indelibly printed on my mind and it has stayed with me over the years. As clear today as it was at the time, if just a tiny bit altered by the knowledge that age brings.
“We snuggled up together that night and in the isolated darkness, in the middle of the vastness of space that surrounded us, something happened between us. It is not something I have ever talked about with anyone, but I’m sharing it with you now.”
I was starting to feel a little nervous, my heart was beating faster and my lips felt dry. I was almost ready to ask why. Why did he want to share this with me? Of course, I was hiding, running away, I knew why. Inside me I knew and I loved grandfather for his stories and… And for being my grandfather.
“Like you and your friend Nicholai, Pavel and I became a little more than good friends that night.”
I blushed, both embarrassed and surprised. Grandfather looked at me.
“It is not as huge an affair as I think you are frightened about. It only seems like that to you, Sacha. Let me tell you this, I could not be that person I believe Pavel was searching for, but I regret nothing. It was a part of life’s rich experience. I know, I grew older and married your grandmother, that’s a whole other story. That’s my life. Had I been more like Pavel, who knows where life would have led us.
“I don’t want to embarrass you, Sacha. I want you to understand you are my grandson and I love you. I love you with my whole heart and if you and Nicholai are more than simply friends, I still love you and always will.”
I couldn’t look at him, because my eyes filled with tears. Gently he turned my face towards him and he kissed my forehead. The tears fell freely over my cheeks. They were tears of love and an immense relief. I felt as if a great weight had been thrown off of me. It had been crushing me, but now I was floating in the air, light as a feather.
I don’t know how my grandfather knew about me, perhaps he had seen me with Nicholai, but when, how, I had know idea. But inside myself I thanked him with my whole heart. We sat together and watched the flames flickering until only the dying embers remained. I will never forget my grandfather Mikhail or the Komsomol.