Thursday, 10 November 2016

Walking the dog

Walking the Dog

This was a short story entered for Amnesty International's
annual competition. It did very well in the top ten but of course, it didn't win.
So what else is there to do but put it on line;
someone out there might even enjoy reading it.

It was late September and there was a distinct chill in the air. The last train to St. Petersburg had left. It was midnight and the traveller stood in the dim yellow light on the deserted station platform. He found a rickety bench, placed his rucksack on the ground and sat wearily down. He’d made a mental note to designate this ramshackle, lonely outpost surrounded by forest as ‘Fiddler on the roof’ country. It would make a good yarn in the pub when he got home. Why anyone would alight from a train here was a puzzle, yet he’d had no choice. Tired and deep in thought over the fact that he now had seven long hours to wait until the next train, he was taken aback when an old man wearing an astrakhan hat and a heavy, grubby military greatcoat emerged from the gloom.

The traveller spoke very little Russian, so he was surprised when the old man addressed him in English.

    “I see you are Britishki?” The traveller looked up and smiled.

    “Yes. How did you know?”

    “Oh, the boots. And your backpack. It was a guess. Long time before train, huh?”

    “Yes. Seven’o’clock. It’s very late. What are you doing out here?”

    “I walk my dog. It’s peaceful when everyone is asleep.”

The traveller looked around, but could see no dog.

    “Where is your dog?”

    “He died.” said the old man, seating himself alongside the traveller on the bench.

    “But … you say you’re walking with him?”

    “Ah, yes. Do not be confused. I am walking with his memory. Leo was a lovely golden Labrador, my good friend for many years, and when I think of him it gives me peace.”

The traveller was momentarily lost for words. He took out his cigarettes and offered one to the old man. He accepted and they lit up.

    “What caused you to miss your train?”

    “My visa was out of order. I wanted to go to Tallin but the guard said if I did I would need a new visa to return to St. Petersburg, so I left the train, but now I must wait all this time.”

    “Ah yes, of course, of course. Estonia is now another country. It used to be part of the USSR.”

The traveller peered into the darkness. Above, the sharp, bright stars twinkled through scattered clouds.

    “What place is this?”

The old man blew out smoke and gestured into the night, waving his hand.

    “The town is called Kingisepp. This station was built when the Tsar was on the throne. It could do with a coat of paint. The last time it was decorated was when Stalin passed through.”

    “What was it like?” asked the traveller.

    “What was what like?”

    “Well, do you remember those days, Stalin, Kruschev?”

    “Of course. I am 89 years old. I remember a lot of things. Stalin? Some idolised him. Others feared him. He killed my wife.” The traveller gave a sharp intake of breath.

    “Really? How did -”

    “Oh, you don’t want to know that. It’s a long time ago.”

    “Well, if you’d rather not talk about it …”

    “How old are you, son?”

    “I’m 50. Why?”

    “Ah, you look so much younger. Did you ever fight in a war?”

The traveller shook his head and faintly smiled.

    “Thankfully,  no. And I wouldn’t like to.”

    “Stalin killed my wife, Katya, because she spoke English fluently. It was a dangerous talent; speaking English got you suspected as a spy. Her parents were language teachers.”

    “So who took her from you? The KGB?”

    “No. We still had the Cheka in 1952. I was relieved when she died in prison.”

    Relieved? Weren’t you sad or angry?”

   “Yes, both of those, but relieved, because I knew then she was at peace. She was only nineteen when the siege of Leningrad ended. They gave her the Order of Lenin for outstanding services to the State. She had saved many comrades, and especially children. But that didn’t save her. She risked her life crossing Lake Ladoga bringing supplies over the ice, and at one time she manned the anti-aircraft guns outside St. Isaac’s Cathedral. And do you know what her favourite word was?”

    “Please tell me …”

    “My name. I was in the Red Army bringing the trucks over the lake when I met her. She was sat one night late in ’43 when the convoy stopped. She was cross-legged by a fire. She was meditating; you know, like one of those Tibetan or Indian monks. But I was impatient. It was a cold dark night and I said ‘let’s get a move on, girl!’ and she opened her eyes and said ‘What is your name, comrade?’ And I said ‘Vladimir’. She said ‘I will come now, but you must always set aside time for peace, comrade. War is an interruption, peace, if we choose it, is forever.’”

    “So why was your name her favourite word?”

The old man looked up at the sky.

    “May I have another cigarette?” The traveller lit two up and passed one over. The old man pointed at the stars.

    “You know about our space station up there?” The traveller nodded.

    “Yes … isn’t it called ‘Mir’?”

    “Yes. In the modern Russian language the word 'mir' has two different meanings. It can also mean either 'peace' or 'the world’. But before the Revolution it also meant ‘society’.”

The traveller took a long draw on his cigarette and turning to the old man, smiled.

    “Yes, but didn’t Tolstoy name his great work War and Peace?”

    “Yes,” replied the old man, ‘Voyná i mir’.”

    “But that was … what, decades before the Revolution …”

    “1869. So I think Tolstoy actually meant his book to be called ‘War and Society’.”

The traveller gently laughed. “That’s an intriguing thought. But what about your name?”

    “Ah, there you have it. Vladimir is a popular Russian name and it means ‘The one who owns the world’ It is made up from two Russian words: 'vladet' - which in English means 'to possess' and 'mir' - 'the world.' So when I married my peace-loving Katya, I told her she was my world and that I was proud to possess her.”

    “Why was she arrested?”

    “Oh, some jealous informer in Leningrad said she’d received some illegal literature from the west. Something Stalin’s blockheads couldn’t understand. Religion.”

    “I see, what Marx called the ‘opium of the people’?”

    “Oh, but it wasn’t anything Russian, you see. We married just after the war. She’d become a Buddhist. The Cheka’s illiterate goons had no idea what to do with this. The Orthodox Church was bad enough but this was something else. As far as they were concerned, she’d been using Buddhism as a cover for espionage. I was out of town when they came for her. When I got back to our apartment it had been ransacked. She was in prison for a few weeks then they moved her to a gulag. She died on her 31st birthday in 1956, but a fellow prisoner visited me in 1960 and gave me a letter Katya had written to me.”

The traveller felt as if he had walked into a nocturnal tragedy, an unexpected drama which felt unreal. Somewhere in the dark woods an owl hooted. He glanced up at the sky; the clouds had gone and the stars shone brightly. His curiosity was running riot now.

    “Am I being too inquisitive, but … what did she write?”

Vladimir stubbed out his cigarette on the arm of the bench and delved within his greatcoat, producing a yellowing, scruffy envelope held together with sellotape. From it he took the faded, flimsy pages and began to read aloud in a faltering voice.

    “We must always remember, Vladimir, that war and misunderstanding are like weeds in a cornfield. The corn is peace, and peace is the harvest. It is a gift which we give ourselves, even when the guns are firing. War and conflict comes from without; peace comes from within, and what happens outside cannot touch it. Remember this always; we fought and struggled in the darkness of those nights so that our comrades and their children could enjoy peace in the daylight.”

He folded the letter, replaced in in the envelope and returned it to his coat. The two men sat in silence for a while, then Vladimir stood and shook the traveller’s hand.

“I wish you peace, my British friend. Now I must walk my dog.”  At that, he shuffled off into the surrounding gloom.

The traveller lit another cigarette. He stared across the silent railway track and saw something moving. The weak light from the platform hardly stretched that far. Yet for a brief moment his heart raced as a golden Labrador vanished into the woods.

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