Five Cards To Kiev
I turned the handle of the door to the bar, which was in as bad a state as everything else in Berlin. I pushed it open. It creaked but stayed on its hinges. Taking off my hat I looked around to see a ramshackle mess of broken tables and chairs with a homemade bar running along the right hand wall. Bottles of vodka and other alcoholic souvenirs the Russians had nabbed sat on broken wooden shelves, which were held up by bricks. There was a large Soviet flag decorating the room, covering the far wall. A Nazi flag was being used as a tablecloth over the makeshift bar, which was hideously soiled as the Soviet soldiers had spilt their drinks, guts and other bodily fluids over it.
A group of drunken Ruskies turned around to look at me as I stood motionless, taking in the extraordinary spectacle. Startled by my presence they stared at me, not knowing quite how to respond. They then yelled out, in mock German, “Est ist ein Englander,” noticing my British army uniform. Everyone in the room turned round and roared with approval. Then they abruptly stopped. They fell silent as they waited for me to say something. I thought this had to be some strange Soviet custom. I was still a little unsteady from my walk here and was trying to get my mental and physical bearings. I ventured, in English, “Hello chaps, any chance of a snifter?” while mimicking drinking a glass of something with my right hand, but clearly this universal signal for a drink was not appreciated by the Russians.
Thankfully the thought of a stiff drink brought me back to my senses, or at least enough sense to enable me to ask, “водки, пожалуйста, и два сломанной нацистов” or, as we say at home, “vodka please, and two broken Nazis.” At this, there was another eruption. All those present and upright sang a slurred and accented version of “Land of Hope and Glory”. I walked into the crowd and towards the bar. Slaps on the back were the order of the day, and by the time I’d reached the barman I was feeling a distinct stinging sensation radiating from my spine.
The kind chap already had a glass and a bottle waiting for me. “Here you are, our best vodka,” he warbled in Russian. His accent suggested an urban background, but not, I guessed from Moscow. “It has been brought along the supply lines for us to celebrate. It just shows you how good Soviet organisation is. So tell me, what are you doing in Berlin?”
“I should ask you the same question. I thought we were going to make it here before you lot.”
“Ah, remember Roosevelt said it was ours. We have taken it; we own it, and everything in it.”
“Well, anything that’s Nazi, You’d better not forget I’m English.” I had to make sure they weren’t thinking of repatriating me to Moscow.
“You speak with a Lithuanian accent. How do you speak Russian so well?”
“I’ve had an interesting war, my friend; I pick up languages like I pick up cards… or women.”
“Ha ha!” the barman roared. “Here, drink with me. It’s been a miserable few years and it’s time for us Soviets to take our rightful place in the world. We have crushed the tyranny of fascism.”
I wondered about the tyranny of communism, but decided that to embark on the topic in a room full of vodka-dowsed Stalinists was probably not a good idea. Even so, it took a great deal of self-restraint not to bring up the fact they had swapped sides, or that the British and other nations had also crushed the tyranny of fascism. But it was comforting to realise that my confidence in speaking Russian was already increasing and now I knew that I spoke in something resembling a Lithuanian twang. Having only spent a few weeks in Russia with my parents, I’d previously doubted that I’d any sort of accent at all.
My hand instinctively wrapped itself around the chipped wine glass in front of me. The barman had splashed what seemed to be triple rations of pure alcohol into it from a bottle that was adorned with Cyrillic lettering together with Stalin’s cheerfully manic face. I took an unadvisedly large swig of the clear, pungent liquor. It rushed down my throat taking half my taste buds with it; the ones that were left were seared to my tongue. It also cleared all the tubes in the top half of my body and I was sure it would do the same to the tubes in my bottom half as it made its way out of me at some future, probably inopportune, moment. I concluded that it was an extreme vodka, only meant for powering large engines and members of the Soviet Army. However, it did give me the courage to take in my new local watering hole.
The room’s walls seemed to be standing only by virtue of the weight of drunken Soviet manhood slumped against them. The plaster was holding on to the brickwork for dear life, but was losing the battle. Thankfully it was adept in its second incarnation as a ground-dwelling sponge as it was soaking up the various excretions that emanated from overflowing glasses, mouths and underwear. All the Ruskie soldiers had a garland of watches on each arm, stolen from their inert Nazi prey. I had no idea why they would want watches rather than anything else. They wore them up their arms and many of the watches didn’t fit, so they made a rattling noise. Maybe the rattling reminded them of their infancy?
I walked through an archway into a second, larger room, where there was a sudden commotion. A very unruly crowd was gathered around a table. As I sauntered over to see what the fuss was about, cash started to come out of pockets and was slammed down on the table. This was looking promising. I pushed my way through the throng to see a child standing on a box, thus making him almost the same height as us adults. He looked like a vaudeville act without the florid colours. His clothes were too big for him; he was swamped by a full-length leather jacket that looked as though it had probably been owned by an SS monster, while his trousers were well adorned with pockets and rips.
There were three white tin cups turned upside down on the table that had been heavily bashed about. The boy was doing the old ball-in-a-cup routine - except that the ball was a piece of rubble. He had a quick hand and it looked as though he was taking money from the crowd in fistfuls, judging by the notes poking out from his pockets. I felt sorry for him, this little angel of dirt. But after watching his sleight-of-hand for a few minutes, it was obvious he didn’t need my pity.
“Hey, kid, you’ve got a magic touch,” I ventured in Russian.
“I don’t believe in magic, Mister,” he replied in an accent I couldn’t place.
“Well, you should. Nothing amazing happens without a touch of magic,” I replied, sounding strangely parental.
“A lot has happened to me, but there has never been any magic. Now, are you placing a bet, or perhaps you don’t think you could beat someone my age?”
The practiced line riled me just enough to place a ten shilling note down on the table. I was feeling generous. “Here. Try and trick me, son.”
“Easy. Use your eyes, or lose your money,” the boy declared to the hardened army men gathered around him. He skilfully started to whip the cups around, as stealthily and as quick as a cat. Amazingly there wasn’t the faintest rattle to give away the whereabouts of the piece of rubble as it moved inside one of the tin cups. Then the lad lined them up in a row. A flurry of Russian notes immediately piled up in front of each cup.
“Hey, Englander, take your chance, make your choice.”
“This one,” I said as I placed my bet on the middle cup. My eyes had been following the cups as fast as the lad’s hands could move them; I was sure of my answer.
“This is the one, is it? Are you sure, old man?” asked the boy. Cheeky little blighter.
“I’m sure.” I smiled a confident smile.
“Let me have a look.” He lifted up the right-hand cup, the one that had the most money bet on it; it was empty.
“How about this one?” He lifted up the middle cup; it, too, was empty. I sighed a deep, defeated, sigh.
“Thank you for playing,” he announced to everyone who’d just lost their money. He lifted up the left hand cup to show the piece of rubble sitting there and started to dish out winnings to the few that had guessed correctly, and pocketed the rest.
“What’s this?” the boy said to me, looking at the piece of paper with “British Military Authority” written on it.
“That, my boy, is a British Army ten shilling note. It’s worth about a thousand of those useless Russian Stalinskis, or whatever they’re called.”
“Are you sure? I’ve never seen one of these before. This had better not be counterfeit.”
“Not at all. How dare you question a captain of the British Army!”
“All right; don’t fall over. I believe you.”
“Don’t spend it all at once.”
I looked at my watch and saw that I had fifteen minutes to get back for my first meeting with the British delegation. I drank the rest of my industrial vodka and got up to leave.
“Leaving while you are behind? You remind me of Dunkirk.” Damn it! This was clearly no ordinary child. He should go to bed without any supper, except that he could buy whatever food and drink he needed for the next month with all the roubles he had bulging out of his many trouser pockets.
“Tomorrow I’ll come to win my money back. Don’t go spending it.” I slipped a cigarette into my mouth trying to look like James Cagney. I walked out of the room and into the bar making my way through the stinking Russian soldiers and looked back at the insane scene. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and took my leave.
I walked out into the silence. After the debauchery of the bar it felt as though I was stepping through Alice’s looking-glass into a world of confusion, where everything was back-to-front. The heat of the sun felt like it had only succeeded in chilling the atmosphere, the laughter coming from the bar was depressing and the peace that had descended on Berlin seemed only to breed violence. I scurried through the rock-strewn streets back to my digs, just in time to wash my face and stop the city’s devastation seeping into my soul.
I came out of my room feeling a touch fresher and made my way to Roe’s office. At exactly 1600 hours I knocked on the door. Good breeding tends to make one reliably punctual. As my breeding is questionable, however, the fact that I’m always on time might well be deep-seated pedantry on my part.
“Jones? Is that you?” Roe called from inside his office.
I opened the door and was confronted with a roomful of men. Two were seated facing Roe’s desk and another two stood by their sides. Roe sat behind his desk, the very epitome of a modern major general, even though he was slightly craggy and insane. There was a reassuring haze hanging just above my head, supplied by three large cigars sitting on a makeshift ashtray. The two supporting gentlemen were simultaneously puffing on cigarettes with a great deal of intensity.
“Good timing, Captain; come in lad.” It was odd hearing “Captain” and “lad” in the same sentence. He beckoned me towards his desk.
I strode purposefully towards him and he proffered a cigar in my general direction, which I took with thanks. Annoyingly I strode too far, presenting only my back to the awaiting officials. On my way, I managed to catch a momentary glimpse of the seated gentlemen. I was pretty sure I recognised at least one of them, if not both. They had an air of authority about them, with the entire delegation projecting an atmosphere of calm, dignified agitation - an emotion unique to the English. Their disposition produced an undercurrent of apprehension in the room.
“Jones, I would like to introduce you to Geoffrey Melksham, Minister for Overseas Affairs, and his ministerial secretary, Charles Ludworth. On your left is the Minister for Industry and Production, Samuel Ogilvy and his ministerial secretary, Laurence Wilkinson,” said Roe.
He left the introduction there, as though it was a tea party with some of the better-spoken neighbours in Lower Upton, or Badgers Mount. But it wasn’t a tea party; it was a secret meeting of the key personnel who were going to thrash out the first real post-war negotiations with the defeated Nazis.