Monday, 17 July 2023
The first chapter of the book...
FEBRUARY 1993. Moscow
One week, three phone calls. That’s all it takes for him to realise he’ll never see his boyfriend again.
Wait...His ‘boyfriend’? Nah, make that his would-be boyfriend...Truth be told, he’d wanted to end it with Kostya, hadn’t he? And as for even referring to Kostya as his ‘boyfriend’, he’d prefer to say they’ve just been ‘seeing each other’. Goofing around, that’s all. Like he told him, last time they met, ‘Kostya, we live in Russia. Men can’t have boyfriends here.’
But this one week changes everything. Ending it with Kostya is no longer in his hands, only words snatched from his mouth to evaporate like breath in the freezing air. Just one short week in this long, long winter...It’s been months since the first snowfall, yet still Moscow’s sidewalks lie armourplated with ice – ice now worn smooth by the feet of its shuffling, swaddled masses. And with no let up in the blizzards laying siege to the city, fresh snow is piling up outside the window of the bedroom he’s rented these past two years.
It’s a room he’s always shared with Oleg, his ‘partner in crime’ – that being an English expression they’d picked up from bootleg pop videos. This one’s from that early 1980s song by Wham! that Oleg keeps playing. Last night, as the pair of them were getting ready to go out, they danced to it on the painted floorboards between their two single beds, and argued over which one of them looked more like George Michael and which of the British pop duo they most fancied.
Tonight though, Oleg’s gone out cruising without him; he’s not in the mood to hang around that seedy metro station again, trying to catch strangers’ eyes in pursuit of yet another one-night stand. Besides, it’s bothering him (uncool as it would be to admit it to Oleg) that Kostya hasn’t phoned. It’s been a couple of weeks since their showdown outside McDonald’s. At first, he felt sure Kostya was just sulking. Let him sulk, he thought, he’ll be on the phone soon enough, wanting to kiss and make up – I mean, the boy can hardly keep away from me.
Ever since they met at the end of October, Kostya has phoned him nearly every goddamn day, and begged to come and sleep over at least twice a week. Look, he’d told Kostya, he needed to ‘cool it’, but now – now that the phone calls have stopped – it comes as an affront. I’m the one who decides when I’ve finished with a guy, he thinks, not the other way around.
Still no call from Kostya. After a few days, he catches himself jumping up whenever the phone rings. But the calls are usually for Valery Ivanovich, the elderly widower who’s rented out his spare room to him and Oleg: calls from Valery’s daughter, reminding the old man how he has to move out, now he’s no longer fit to look after himself.
Only one call that week is for him. For a second, as he recognises Yuri’s voice down the phone, he thinks: forget Kostya, I’ve got Yuri. Tough, sexy Yuri, muscly and smouldering. OK, so Yuri can be a little controlling, he thinks, but he does look after me...This call, however, isn’t one of Yuri’s more ‘intimate’ summonses – it’s simply to remind Dima of the shoot he’ll be in that week and what gear he should wear for it.
The waiting becomes unbearable. He decides to phone. It’s been a while since he called; last time, though they’d never even met, he got such a frosty reception from Tamara Borisovna – God knows what Kostya’s mother could have against him, but in all the photos Kostya’s shown him she looks such a sour-faced prude. Anyway, since Oleg’s out, he’ll ask Kostya round tonight. Or suggest they go ice-skating in Gorky Park again. A little flirting, he thinks, and I’ll have Kostya eating out of my hand – I can pull any guy I want, so it shouldn’t be difficult.
He gets the answering machine. ‘You’ve reached Konstantin Krolikov and Tamara Borisovna Krolikova in Moscow. We can’t come to the phone, so please leave a message.’
Try to sound casual, he tells himself. ‘Hi, Kostya. Good evening, Tamara Borisovna. Dima here. Hey, Kostya, it’s been a while. How about getting together? Tonight even? Or this weekend? Let’s go ice-skating again – you liked that. How about it? Call me. Bye.’
No one phones back.
Two days later, when he calls the second time, the same. We can’t come to the phone... What? Why can’t they just say, ‘We’re not at home’? Or wait...what if they are at home but deliberately not answering? Maybe Kostya and his mum have one of those number display gadgets, like the one Yuri uses to screen incoming calls? Is Kostya avoiding him? So much for the boy he thought he had eating out of his hand...
I won’t have him ignoring me, he thinks – I know, I’ll conceal the number I’m calling from...And out he heads to the payphone down by the vodka kiosk. It’s dark on the street, the concrete of apartment blocks tinted yellow in the glow of street lamps. He looks up at the hundreds of windows, blind black squares by day, but now blazing with warmth as people hunker down with tea or vodka at their kitchen tables. Give it an hour, he thinks, and that’ll be me and Kostya. He’ll be round here in a flash, soon as I’ve called.
He keeps his warm woolly cap pulled down tight over his ears, but once inside the phone box, as he removes his gloves to dial, his fingers shrivel in the cold. His breath mists up the inside of the booth, blurring his view of the line for vodka outside: men with red faces and missing teeth who swear and spit and stomp their boots in the snow. The queue lengthens, creeping towards the payphone. They look to him like bomzhy, homeless rough sleepers.
This time, the dialling tone gives way to the sound of a phone being picked up at the other end. His frozen fingers force a fifteen-kopeck coin into the slot.
The voice that answers is barely a whisper. ‘Doctor? Please? Doctor, is that you?’
‘Allo? Tamara Borisovna?’
Silence down the phone.
‘Allo?’ he persists. ‘Tamara Borisovna? Can you hear me?
It’s Konstantin’s friend Dmitry, I’m calling from—’
Still a whisper: ‘Who?’
‘Dmitry. A friend of Konstantin. We’ve spoken on the phone before—’
‘Dmitry?’ She sounds dazed. ‘Kakoy Dmitry?’ What Dmitry?
He glances at the lengthening line for vodka. The booze-addled bomzhy are shuffling closer, rowdier by the second. ‘We’ve never met, Tamara Borisovna, but me and Kostya—’
‘Kostya? Oh, Kostya, Kostya...my Kostya...’
Her voice caves in – like it’s fighting for breath or something – and all he can hear, crackling down the line, is a sort of heaving, distant and strangled. He covers his other ear, trying to block out the howling of the wind and the ruckus in the vodka queue.
‘Tamara Borisovna, I don’t understand. Is something wrong?’ He catches another voice in the background, in the same room – not Kostya’s voice but a woman’s voice – and before he knows it this other woman, whoever she is, has grabbed the phone.
‘Young man,’ she says, abruptly loud and clear, ‘this is no time to be calling. Leave Tamara Borisovna in peace and don’t phone here again.’
She hangs up. The dead tone drills into his ear. Slowly, disbelievingly, he lets his hand, now numb with cold and still clamped to the receiver, drop limp and frozen to his side.
They were told to be at Paveletsky Station two hours before their overnight train. That’s how long it could take, she seems to remember hearing, for them to go over all the paperwork and to be sure of an appropriate space in the baggage car. In the end, the inspection took a cursory twenty minutes, and for most of those two hours the inspector’s office remained closed. For ‘technical reasons’, it said.
So she and Galina simply had to wait, choked by the stench of damp and train fumes, perched on the trunk she’d never properly unpacked during her time in Moscow. She sits in a daze, numb and stupefied at the indifference of the comings and goings brushing past her, of the voices echoing across the public address system. Every half hour, Galina scuttles over to the station buffet, fetching cups of acrid black tea for her to warm her hands on.
Night has fallen by the time they’re ready for boarding. The platform is covered with patches of snow and ice. She forces herself to watch as two railway porters approach, wheeling what looks like a wooden crate. ‘Make way!’ the porters call in their quaint sing-song cry of ‘do-RO-gu! do-RO-gu!, a call that disperses the crowd of fur hats and padded winter coats huddled alongside the waiting train. People do make way, thankfully. They don’t stare, not too much. In the dark, that wooden box could pass for almost any other cargo.
She buries her face in Galina’s shoulder. Thank God for her dear old friend rushing up to Moscow to be with her. That old saying, It’s times like these you find out who your friends are, keeps circling round her head. She wishes she could stop thinking it. Not that she isn’t grateful, rather that her gratitude brings none of the solace offered by that circling homily. The sobs come. Quietly this time, not like earlier. Galina’s so strong now, she thinks, it’s years since she went through this herself. Another wretched adage comes to mind – Time’s a great healer. No one’s said that to her yet. But then she’s hardly spoken these past few days.
More fur hats and quilted coats bustle past, people dragging suitcases, some of them on sledges, people puffing out steam as if imitating the trains. In their hurry to board, they pay her no attention, she’s invisible. Lucky them, she thinks. Oh, to be one of them, to be anyone but her. By now the two porters are reversing out of the baggage car, their cart empty, the fragile cargo loaded, along with her trunk, inside that windowless space.
It would’ve cost a week’s wages to get a compartment to themselves, so she and Galina end up sharing with two young men in their twenties, about Kostya’s age. Mercifully, the boys – malchiki, Galina calls them, being all motherly and taking charge – cease their honking and sniggering as soon as she pokes her head in. Thank God they’ve quietened down, she thinks. Still, the boys show the proper respect, giving up the more comfortable lower berths and stepping into the corridor to let the women change out of their street clothes.
She doesn’t bother though: this custom of changing into pyjamas and slippers on night trains is all well and good for going on holiday or for visiting loved ones. But not this trip. As Galina hangs up their coats, she sits by the window, twisting her hat in her hands. The radio babbles away. Funny how the radio’s always on in these trains, turned down low, like the lighting. She feels Galina slide up beside her and touch her arm. She stares outside, confronted with her reflection staring back at her, eyes downcast, cheeks pale and lined under limp, dark hair that she was once proud to call ‘curly’; hair that now straggles past her face.
Snow is falling. It looks like ashes drifting earthwards, flutter-ing in the lights of the railway yard. From unseen loudspeakers, departures and destinations are barked out like orders in a prison camp – destinations far from Moscow, places that are dull and provincial but less intimidating. Places with ties, like her own hometown, twelve hours south of here. The train jolts into motion: another step on this unbearable journey, and another wave of sobbing brims up inside her. Not here, she thinks, not in public. But she can’t stop herself. Let it all out, she’d told Galina all those years ago.
The door slides open. She sees the two boys, about to come back in. They freeze at the sight of her, a woman old enough to be their mother, convulsed and sobbing. Let them see me, she thinks, what do I care? Apologising, the boys retreat back into the corridor.
There’s always some busybody telling him how his coat’s too thin for a Russian winter, and bloody hell, they wouldn’t be wrong – not today. Mind you, this was his own bright idea, so here he is, freezing his balls off, stood outside the Moscow Conservatory on a February afternoon. A few yards away, beneath the statue of Tchaikovsky, he sees bunches of flowers, frozen in the snow. That’d be a good sign, he thinks, folk still coming to leave flowers when it’s minus fifteen.
He’s chosen a day marking the centenary of Tchaikovsky’s death and can see by the pile of flowers spilling well beyond the base of the statue how much the Russians revere their beloved great composer. So it’s gonna take a hell of a nerve to go up to total strangers and ask them the kind of questions he has in mind...
His Russian is good, they tell him, good enough to turn on the charm. And he’s got his spiel worked out: ‘Excuse me, may I bother you a minute? – Izvinitye, vas mozhno na minutku?’ followed by: ‘I see you’re laying flowers in honour of Tchaikovsky...Ah, yes, of course, the centenary...So tragic, his early death...’
And then his killer question: ‘If Tchaikovsky were alive today, d’you think people would be more accepting of his homosexuality?’
He came up with it himself, this idea for a story (story, he reminds himself: don’t call it an ‘article’ if you wanna be a proper journalist) about Russians’ primitive attitudes towards homosexuality. There’s even a gay ‘scene’ of sorts in Moscow these days, but it’s tiny and underground, hidden away out of fear. Which makes him sometimes wonder why the hell he came back to Russia instead of staying put in England. Still, his pitch had gone down well with his editor: ‘Sounds like a great story,’ Bernie said, before sending Jamie out to canvass opinion on the street.
First up, a housewife: two shopping bags and a headscarf tied under her chin. He waits until she’s laid her bouquet and picked up her bags again. For a minute, his charm works, and she fairly gushes with pride: ‘Tchaikovsky? Oh, we worship Tchaikovsky!’
But when he poses his ‘killer question’, her smile vanishes. ‘A gomoseksualist? Why must you soil his name with that filth? You foreigners! No respect for our culture.’ And with that, she’s off, stupid cow, shouting back over her shoulder how ‘shameless’ he is.
Next, some old codger in an overcoat and wolfskin hat. The same questions and a similar response – ‘Homosexuals? Perverts! Ought to be castrated’ – only this time, the old git actually spits in the snow near his feet before storming off.
Then there’s that kind-looking couple in mittens and fur hats who remind him of Mum and Dad back home. But they frown and shake their heads: ‘We’d probably disown our son if he was gay.’ Even the culture vultures emerging from the Conservatory’s lunchtime recitals tell him that they think gomoseksualisty are ‘sick’ or ‘in need of help’.
A whole hour he’s been stood on this street corner and that’s the most sympathetic comment he’s heard. Honestly, he thinks, I despair of the Russians. So bloody backward – like peasants, some of them. So much for the hopes of change and enlightenment dawning across Russia, along with glasnost and foreign travel and McDonald’s and the rest of it.
Giving it up as a bad job, he sets off on the long trudge through the snow back to the office, his hands now numb and buried in his pockets. All this talk of Tchaikovsky has turned his thoughts to Kostya, the first Russian he’d truly made a friend of – now there’s a proper Tchaikovsky fan for you. All that drama – right up Kostya’s street. He really should get in touch...Back in the days when they hung out together all the time, Kostya had once made him sit through the finale of the Pathétique Symphony. He can still picture Kostya’s faraway gaze and his eyes welling up with tears.
I know, he thinks, I’ll phone this evening from work. Maybe Kostik can help me with my story. It’d flatter him to be interviewed – it’d be an excuse for getting back in touch too. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll call him tonight.
That rancid whiff of boiled cabbage, infiltrating the office as it does of an evening. A smell that makes him gag in every block of flats he’s been to in this bloody country; the smell of suppers being cooked in the apartments downstairs. Means he’s working late again.
The Moscow Herald’s office is on the top floor of a squat five-storey block built in the 1950s. It’s a far cry from the swanky business centre where the Moscow Times has set up shop – now that’s where he should be working, a reporter for a respected English-language newspaper. Then he could work his way up, become a correspondent for one of the British broadsheets.
His eyes wander around the converted Soviet apartment, all wood-effect lino and faded flowery wallpaper. The smaller room serves as an office for Bernie, the forty-something American who co-founded this expat weekly and runs it on a shoestring; crammed into the larger room are the desks of three more reporters, piled high with paper, and that of the Herald’s secretary Larisa. The others have gone, and the lamp on his desk casts a solitary pool of light. Even the teletype machines that churn out endless news from Tass and Reuters have fallen quiet.
He picks up the phone and dials Kostya’s number. It’s been so long since they spoke that he feels his heart rate quicken. Deep breath now as he prepares to put on his matey, chatty voice. But there’s no reply. Not even the answering machine. That’s odd, he thinks, thought they had an answering machine, Kostya and his mum...He lets it continue ringing, then hangs up. He can always try again tomorrow.
He turns back to his computer. All he’s written so far is his byline. By James Goodier. The cursor blinks, bright green against the dark, blank monitor. He slurps his tea, a good strong English brew, not that weak crap the Russians drink – though he’ll need more than one cuppa to keep him going if he works late trying to get something written.
But what, Bernie would ask, is the angle of his story? The news that Moscow, a city of nigh on ten million people, now has one poxy gay disco a week? That’s up from none at all just a year ago, mind. Or is it the homophobia spouted by most Russians, like those people on the street? No, that’s just the tip of the iceberg; they were only a random bunch of passers-by. What he should focus on is the hardcore hate brigade, the gangs of gay-bashing thugs. Now that’s the story he should be writing.
It’s almost a month since he last went to the ‘Discotheque for Sexual Minorities’. ‘What a name!’ he recalls saying to Artyom, his boyfriend for the past year. ‘It’s like calling it the “Discotheque for Deviants”.’ The venue had been the canteen of the Red Hammer Cement Works, a tram ride beyond the last metro stop – the point being that these discos were ‘underground’; they were meant to be hard to find. They even changed venue from one week to the next, with the location kept secret until the big night.
Somehow though, a gang of thugs had got word and lain in wait outside, armed with baseball bats. He didn’t witness the attacks himself – he and Artyom were safely inside – but he did see two of the guys who got beaten up. One of them staggered in, his face bloodied, his shirt ripped, and collapsed, clutching his sides, howling in pain. Cracked ribs, he heard later. The other, that ginger- haired boy he recognised from a party at Artyom’s, had to be carried in by the hired security guards, unconscious. Both were driven away in an ambulance.
After that, the security guys had locked everyone inside, where they’d hunkered down until daybreak, sipping vodka at the canteen tables, under siege and in no mood for dancing. He eventually fell asleep on Artyom’s shoulder, and it was almost light when they woke and left for Artyom’s place.
He recalls spotting Kostya at the disco that same night, a while before the attack. Not that they spoke...Kostya – his ‘Russian best mate’ in happier times – had instead skulked past, pretending not to see him and Artyom as they smooched on the dance floor. Was Kostya still there when those guys got beaten up? Did he know anything about it? And had he been safe there on his own? There’d been no Dima at his side that time, nor the time before. Come to think of it, he’s not seen Kostya together with Dima since the disco before New Year . . . On that occasion, Kostya’s mood had been nauseatingly bubbly; he’d made a point of swanning up to them, hanging off Dima’s arm, batting his eyelids, all chatty. Dima had barely nodded at them. What a knob. He doesn’t half fancy himself, that Dima, with his fake leather biker jacket and his black-market Levi’s. Jeez, Kostik, what’re you doing with a tosser like that?
Things haven’t been right between them since he – followed by Kostya – relocated to Moscow. Down in Kostya’s hometown of Voronezh, where they’d met back in the autumn of 1989, things had been so different. That had been on his year abroad, he and two dozen other Brits on a language course at the local university. Most of the Russian he learnt wasn’t in those stuffy Soviet tutorials though – no, it was at student dormitory parties, great pile-ins of debauchery and vodka, of pirated pop music and empty bottles rattling down corridors of peeling lino.
Look at me, he used to think. Me, a lad from Manchester, and one of only a handful of Westerners in this provincial hole, twelve hours by night train from Moscow. It made him feel intrepid: a foreign correspondent in the making. Every indignity, every privation, had been a tale to tell. And although his phone calls home needed to be booked in advance at the telegraph office (booked – like, how primitive was that?), once he got through to his mum, how he loved to regale her with his stories of food rationing, the lack of hot water in the dorm, the cockroaches, the toilets you had to squat over.
But he’d had a regular bolthole too, a haven of sanity where he’d flee all that noise and filth, the cockroaches and squatty toilets. And that was Kostya’s family home, a modest fifth-storey flat on the other side of Voronezh. One night a week he used to sleep over there, having wolfed down a huge dinner conjured up by Kostya’s mother. God knows how she did it, ’cause there was bugger all in the shops. And at every meal, she’d insist on giving him and Kostya the same lecture: ‘You’ll both have to find wives to cook for you one day...’
Meanwhile Kostya’s father Gennady would crack open his Crimean wine and bombard Jamie with questions about the West. Later, he and Kostya would stay up, talking in Kostya’s room until the small hours, sharing his bed sleeping top-to-tail, though – discussing politics, glasnost and the changes sweeping across Russia. They never discussed future wives or girlfriends. They didn’t discuss boyfriends either. And then, eventually, they would fall asleep, barely touching one another.
Her head is squashed against the mothball-smelling pillow, and her pillow is squashed against the lowered window blind. Cl-clunk, cl-clunk, goes the train, rumbling into the night. Opposite her, Galina is asleep. One of the young men in the top berths is snoring. She sits in the dark, upright, having not bothered with the bed Galina made up for her, the starchy sheets and itchy blankets stretched across her bunk.
She can’t believe she’s slept at all, having barely managed to sleep a wink these past few nights. Not since the call from the hospital, since hearing the news that no mother should ever hear. There’s another of the phrases echoing round her head: No mother should ever have to...Stop, stop, she thinks. It’s true, though: no mother should ever have to bury her child. So why her? If only, please, God, she could turn back time, even these few wretched weeks.
‘Natural causes,’ was all the hospital would say. They told her not to blame herself, said she could have counselling. Counselling? What good would that do? That won’t bring him back. ‘Oh, Kostya, my Kostya...’ She hears herself repeating a name she’s whispered down the years – at his bedside while he slept, the times he came home from school close to tears, when she’d opened his letters from the army, and that day she’d got him out...
The news had hit her like a body blow, disbelief taking the form of actual physical pain. She was winded, unable to scream, scarcely able to breathe. She had collapsed against the display cabinet, breaking several plates, and slid slowly to the floor. There she had stayed, whimpering, curled up in a ball. It took her hours to drag herself back to the phone, to call Galina, to find the words. Who was she now – a bereaved mother, an ex-mother? There were words, she thought, for orphans and for widows, but not for her, not for a parent robbed of a child.
She fumbles in the dark and quietly slides open the door. The half-lit corridor is empty; the whole carriage must be asleep. The train trundles through a clearing in a forest: cl-lunk, cl-clunk...clclunk, cl-clunk, a sound she once found so comforting. Outside, the railway banking slopes down towards a field of white icy blue in the moonlight and flurries of falling snow blur the blackness of the trees. The train arcs round a bend and a chain of lighted windows curves into view, reflections rippling on the snow. A trail of footprints crosses the field. She thinks of children’s stories of wooden houses, of bears and wolves, of hunters brewing tea from a samovar. Stories she used to tell Kostya.
Someone’s edging along the corridor towards her, from the toilets, a young man in a red tracksuit with the word ‘Sport’ across his chest. Not ‘Nike’, not ‘Adidas’, just ‘Sport’. He has floppy hair, and dark eyebrows that rise in greeting. He stops to enter his compartment – the same compartment as hers. It’s one of the two boys.
He turns to her, gesturing at the door. ‘Sorry...were you waiting to go back in?’
She stiffens, shaking her head. In the silence, she again hears cl-clunk, cl-clunk...
‘Oh,’ the boy says, ‘I just thought—’
‘I can’t sleep, that’s all.’ Leave me alone, she thinks, please don’t ask questions.
‘I see . . .’ The boy hesitates, but presses on. ‘I’m sure you’ll sleep better when you get home, eh?’ A pause. ‘That is where you’re going, right? Home?’
Home, she thinks. Where’s home now? Not Moscow – Moscow was never home. She looks at him – he seems a nice boy, a bit like Kostya, only more sure of himself.
‘Yes,’ she manages. ‘Voronezh.’
‘Oh, me too,’ he says.
She doesn’t answer, looking down at the carpet and letting the silence hang.
The boy shrugs, taking the hint. ‘Well...err, goodnight then.’
He smiles awkwardly and slides open the door to their compartment. She turns back to the window and presses her nose against the glass. Peering into the night outside, she scans the length of the curving train, looking for the one carriage that casts no light on the snow, the windowless baggage car carrying the coffin that contains her son.
He hears one of the teletype machines chatter into life and glances at the roll of paper inching out of the Tass feed. In the past hour, there have been three short news bulletins in Russian, one of them barely four lines long. The shortest ones can be the worst though, like the ones announcing the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Just his luck to be stuck in the office as some big news breaks.
Cup of tea in hand, he gets up from his desk to check what Tass is reporting. The first bulletin simply announces a press conference, the second is a statement from some junior trade minister, and the third—
He feels his grip slacken, feels the cup slip from his hand...Yet even as it shatters on the lino, he stays frozen on the spot, not stooping to clear it up. Instead, he stays standing as he reads the bulletin a second time, a third time, then a fourth. No, it can’t be, he can’t have read it right – it’s this Russian text, he must’ve misunderstood it. Perhaps, if he keeps rereading it, he hopes, some different meaning might surface from the Cyrillic type swimming before his eyes...
A 24-year-old man who recently died in the Moscow suburb of Khimki has been named as an employee of an American trade organi-sation in Moscow. A hospital statement blames ‘natural causes’ for the death of Konstantin Krolikov – a diagnosis confirmed by both police and medical authorities, who insist that post-mortem procedures were followed to the letter.