She Might Have Been
The cattle train from Mervetz Zhdet had lumbered into Nadezda with peeling walls, the wood flaking like flesh from a carcass onto the platform below. The humans stared up at the white open sky and felt the first traces of civilisation in the lingering coffee and tobacco from the waiting room.
Byl Chelovek had been dead for twelve years. But now, the Party had willed him back to purgatory. A heavenly purgatory, a purgatory he had longed for in the dark silent snippets of dreaming spent on an iron bunk bed in Mervetz Zhdet. To feel the heaviness of stale bread in your palm, the discontent at the harsh slimness of your mistresses' hips, the irritation at the party slogans sung over and over by the children in the street. But more than anything, Byl had longed for her.
It was strange, how she looked to him in the moments where her name clouded his mind. She was sitting at a dinner table, late in 1923, hands folded over the napkin on her lap, carmine lipstick red on her mouth. She was turning to him, her eyes dark and ripe, gums rising as she grinned at him over her left shoulder. He couldn’t remember what he had said to her, that night in his own home, drunk on his own wine. Only that her dress was covered in a thousand dark dots that gleamed in the low light, and that she reminded him of some great proletariat moth, impossibly brazen in the gleam of that dining room.
Pravda. Even her name sounded like a bite on his lower lip, a sharp palm on the table.
Of course, it was all gone now. He could have wept as he walked into the train carriage at Nadezda, with its fitted red seats and turmeric coloured lighting. It was the first time in twelve years that anyone had acknowledged that he was human. Byl clung to his ticket as the other end was punched and felt the pink thickness of the card beneath his thumb. Passazhir. A passenger. A person. He was a person. He was Byl Chelovek.
But where was Pravda?
He had expected to find her in the kitchen, older but still beautiful with those round staring eyes, bent over some pot or pan to boil down wax or oil to coat shoelaces or canvas with. She was practical like that, inventive, smart. Revolutions came and went and Pravda stayed on, resolutely finding the next problem to fix, the next mouth to feed. She was worth poverty, no inheritance and no ticket out west. She made the most ringing fever and burning hunger bearable with that wit that could slice bread and glance that could soften granite.
But when he pushed against Number 27B on Odnazhdy Street, Byl found nothing but the empty room, the bed made up with white sheets and the table bare apart from a newspaper. April 8th 1937.
Perhaps she had gone away to see her parents near the Black Sea. Yes. That was it. She’d gone away for a month, now that it was Spring. She’d be sitting with her father at their home by the rocks, wrapping her fists in the lengths of her jumper as she dug her feet into the sand. Her hair would sting her face and she would think of the time they came here, as newlyweds, and he had lost his glasses in the tide. But those thoughts seemed little more than a childish fantasy in a moment of fear.
He remembered a shop they used to visit, often, a bakery at the end of Odnazhdy Street, where the woman and her husband baked hard loaves with salt. If you toasted them, they were almost edible with mulberry jam or condensed milk. Was it still there? They’d remember her. They’d know. He ran out of the house, scarcely bothering to shut the apartment door.
The Davno bakery was the sort the Party approved of; bland, blank, cheerful in its mediocrity. It made no show of prettiness or appeal in its wares, merely the slow, plodding pragmatism behind calorific consumption for the comrades. The Davno woman had barely changed, a little thinner perhaps around the face, but still smiling, red and dressed in creased florals.
“Comrade!” She said warmly, and wiped the flour from her hands. “Chelovek, wasn’t it? I remember you liked the softer bread.” She went over to the counter, running her hands over the ration guides. “Of course, you won’t get much of that now.”
“You remember me?” he said, breathlessly. “Do you remember my wife? Pravda?”
She blinked, the smile smaller on her face. “I don’t know about that, dear.”
“Yes you do!” he pleaded, moving into her eye line. “Pravda Chelovek. Dark hair, cut to the clavicle. Smiled with her gums showing. Clever, clever Pravda. She cured your Saymon’s colic, back in ’24. Come on, Lili.” She said nothing, her body stiffening.
“I’m sure I don’t remember you ever having a wife, sir.”
“Lili, I beg you,” he said, watching her for any sign that she knew. “Tell me what happened to my girl.”
Just then, the bell to the shop rang. Mr Davno, a tall, blonde man with very grey eyes stood there, uneasy at the sight of the panicked man so close to his wife. “Can I help, old chap?” He said gingerly. “Chelovek, isn’t it? You must have had quite the time of it.”
“My Nik works for the Party now,” his wife quipped, pride edged in her voice. Her husband waved his hand dismissively. He put his hand on Byl’s shoulder, straightening him up.
“Don’t bother with all that. A job’s a job, isn’t that right, Byl?” There weren’t enemies here, or friends. Only people you could trust and people you couldn’t. Comrade Davno made his allegiance clear by asking his wife to get coffee on the stove for their guest. “Bygones are bygones, old chap. You did your twelve years, I did mine,” he said, winking back to his wife. “So, why are you here? To find Pravda?”
“You know where she is?” Byl asked, hearing his voice crack. “Please, Nik. If the Party has her, there must be something you can do.” Nik’s lips thinned at the insinuation that the Party was not on their side, but he recovered with an easy, empathetic smile.
“I can certainly check the records.” He said, musing over his notebook. “Of course, I’d need to know what you thought she’d have been picked up for. They use numbers instead of names you see for treason trials. Less-” he paused. “Less room for panic in the reports, you see.”
Byl thought hard, his pulse racing. “Well, she never liked the Party, but that’s not unusual,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “It’s not enough to get you caught. Is it?”
Nik laughed. “No. Unless she was vocal. Was she?”
Byl shrugged. “Not when I was with her. But that was 12 years ago.”
“What, then?” Nik asked. “Anything. Anything that could help us find her?”
Byl shut his eyes, then snapped them wide open. “The box.”
“There’s a box under her bed. Under the boards. She kept letters in there. Letters from Moscow. Said they were for safekeeping, I think. For when -if- she needed to get out.” He paled. “They’ve found the box. That’s it. My god. God help her.”
Nik smiled, folding his notebook back in his pocket. “Is it cold on the train, from Mervetz Zhdet?” He asked, suddenly.
Byl looked up at him, bemused. “What? No. I suppose not.”
“Good,” Nik said, standing up. “Well, I hope it is just as pleasant on your return.” Byl was aware of the hard stare of Lili over the counter, the saucers rattling with fear on the cups.
She had tried to warn him
“And thanks for the information we needed for that shlyukha to swing, old chap. The Party has been looking for those letters for years.”