Hell is other people.
There’s no denying it: Vanya’s a hero. Brave and fearless, he returned from the war with no legs and his chest spattered in medals. In Margarita’s family’s tiny flat her parents and friends cheer their neighbour, spilling their vodka as they clink glasses and flower him with salutes. Squatting on the corner stool his balding skull looks battered, over-used. His hairy ears stick out like horns, he has few teeth left. And the smell…Marga’s smelt it before on other soldiers, the stench of battle and fatigue. But Vanya cries and laughs and hugs the others, gulping from the bottle until he’s so drunk he vomits on Mama’s aged rug. No one’s vexed with him though. The night is as loud and long as their beloved Russia, and Marga hopes the drinking and merriment will never stop. It’s comforting to see her parents laughing.
Once or twice Vanya catches her eye. Marga finds his smile smudged, his eyes desolate – the same face she’s seen on prisoners released after years in the camps. She shifts uneasily, looks away – it isn’t right seeing all the world’s misery dwelling in a man.
‘It’s not a patriot’s face,’ she says to Misha at school the next morning.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Misha snaps. They argue. Misha tells her to grow up. ‘Vanya’s is the face of survival. How do you think you’d look if your legs were blown off?’
‘But…I think he sneered when we drank to our Leader,’ she whispers.
‘Who cares? Vanya’s a hero. And he was drunk. You were probably drunk, too.’
Marga shakes her head. ‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘But you know it’s not right to sneer at Comrade Stalin.’
Misha shrugs and walks off, lighting a cigarette.
Months pass; Vanya finally emerges from his room in the block’s basement. After the first night he’d shut himself away, allowing no visitors except his beleaguered wife. Marga is playing combat with her sister and a few other kids in the street, their voices tone-dead but passionate as they sing the Young Pioneer anthem while tossing stones at each other – she’d given Misha a bruise the size of a shellshot – but the singing halts when Vanya appears in their tower block’s crumbling doorway.
Seated in a wooden wheelchair – made for him by his brother from wood and car parts – he waves at the young teenagers, then grimaces as his hand gets caught in the rickety wheels he’s pushing. The wheelchair totters but shakily he takes control, stabilises it, and the kids run and praise him, careful to avoid touching the neatly folded-over pants covering his severed thighs. ‘Welcome back,’ cries Marga. ‘We were worried about you.’
‘Ah, I just needed some sleep,’ he grins, and gives them all a half-salute. ‘First one I’ve had in years.’
As the rain falls in needles they cover him with their coats and help him back inside on his misaligned wheels. It’s the last time he needs their strength. He soon becomes a dextrous driver and blithely manoeuvres his wheelchair around the city. No one gawks at what’s left of his legs; the metropolis is filled with the scarred, the dismembered, the disabled, and even Marga fails to notice missing limbs, injured flesh. Mutilation had surrounded her since birth. Sometimes her Mama gives Vanya pickled tomatoes, and he thanks her, weeps, and salutes the Leader.
He is constantly kind to Marga, and regales her with stories of his parents and their sacrifices. He never mentions her grandfather – unlike some neighbours who drop words, their lips twisting, about Grandpapa’s four years in the German POW camp. But Marga watches Vanya enviously – if only Grandpapa had been as brave as him, if only he’d resisted capture, or killed himself before being caught. At least he’d died soon after being released.
She’s taken flowers to his grave only once. After the interminable bus ride and the long trudge in soupy sleet she’d stumbled upon a family friend at Grandpapa’s grave. His fists clenched as he spat on the tombstone. ‘Traitor,’ he hissed. At home Grandpapa has been deleted from their lives – no one mentions his name. Marga’s parents have correctly destroyed all his photos; only once did Marga find her mother in her bedroom holding a photo – Grandpapa’s wedding picture – and his face had been blacked out. Her grandmother, in her beautiful bridal gown, still smiled gaily at his missing head. Mama had quickly wiped her eyes and tossed the photo in her drawer.
Marga thrives at Young Pioneer meetings. Every lesson the Pioneers salute the gold-embossed picture of the Leader on the wall, then spend time studying the art of battle. In the thick forest around the club Marga learns to parachute, to aim a rifle and kill, to question an informer. To listen carefully to everything uttered by everyone – streets, homes, bedrooms, all are full of suspects, her commander stresses. Trust no one is their mantra.
When she returns home in her starched green uniform her parents smile nervously, say little. She chatters on, only later realising that their replies are yet again a bit too perfunctory, lacking in passion; she tells herself they’re simply tired from long days at the factory.
Opening her gift on her fifteenth birthday she is stunned – her parents have given her a military greatcoat. She wears it proudly to her brigade meeting that week; the other kids touch it with jealous fingers. It’s secondhand, with odd-coloured patches, the long hem drags on the ground and the sleeves fall around her knuckles, but she is elated.
One kid smirks that it had been her grandfather’s. She knows it isn’t so – Grandpapa’s was dragged from him and burnt to ashes in the street by outraged Party members. As he deserved. She pinches the boy’s arm savagely. He wails, but the commander ignores him – the boy is known to be a milksop, a crybaby.
Regardless, the evening is magnificent. After singing the national anthem and recalling stories about the Leader they march to the Eternal Flame in the square. The night is frosty but the indigo sky twinkles, no doubt with the medals of the country’s countless heroes. The Young Pioneers link elbows around the Flame and their singing echoes again – Marga is rosy and secure in the arms of her comrades.
Traipsing home from school one afternoon Marga sees Vanya chatting in earnest with a man from another block. He holds a pair of shoes with broken heels and keeps pointing a toe up at the man. ‘I can fix these, you know, for less than the greedy cobbler up the road,’ he laughs. They shake hands. As the man hurries toward the underground Vanya smiles at Marga. ‘I can fix those too,’ he says, pointing at her torn felt boots.
‘I’ve no money,’ she says.
‘Just some of your Mama’s baked bread will do fine.’ She knows this is how he survives: the locals help him when they can, and in return he repairs their boots, belts, bags, even baby baskets.
After finishing her homework, Magda helps her mother peel the potatoes then sweeps the stairwell. Later she’s finally dozing when she hears shouting in the next door flat. Her father quietly unlatches their apartment door and opens it a shade, and she sees Misha’s father, Pavlik, trying to calm his wife as he is led away by MGB men; one, in his black suit and hat, turns.
Papa quickly shuts the door. Putting a hand over Marga’s mouth, he breathes, ‘Say nothing.’ His palm is sweaty. The family sits rigidly at the kitchen table in silence. Eventually she leans against her father and he hugs her tightly. Except for a small candle the room is dim – a moth twirls in its feeble glare, getting close, pulling back.
From the next flat Misha’s mother’s howls like a captured wolf. Mama puts her hands over Marga’s little sister’s ears and softly hums a lullaby and Marga buries her face deeper into her father’s chest; it fails to block the woman’s moans. Not until someone bangs on her door near dawn does she fall silent.
At school and the Pioneer meetings Marga tries to talk to Misha, but he cuts her off sharply. After gossip reveals that his father has been executed she nervously whispers how sorry she is. ‘What do you care?’ Misha sneers, and pokes his chin at the flag. ‘They can do no wrong, right?’ With stormy eyes he runs away.
Later the rumours swell that Misha’s father was a victim of revenge, that he’d been falsely accused of treason by a floor-level neighbour who wanted his apartment with its own bathroom. She refuses to believe the Leader, her Leader, would allow that. But is uneasy when Misha and his mother move away and the floor-level neighbour takes the apartment.
Marga awakes to a sky constipated violet. As she drags her feet into the kitchen she’s bombarded with shouting from outside. Through the window she sees people running, hugging each other, falling on their knees.
Her mother holds her tightly, then in a choking voice tells her the news: the Leader is dead.
Marga wails, pulls at her hair.
‘Shh, baby, shh,’ her mother murmurs. ‘You’ve got me and Papa.’
But Marga can’t concentrate on school, on anything really, except for the bleak future she now faces. She yearns to crawl back into bed, to mourn her country being orphaned. Finally one afternoon her mother asks her to help prepare dinner. ‘Enough is enough,’ she says, her voice slurred. ‘Go buy some bread from the store.’
‘Why aren’t you crying?’ Marga screams.
Mama is leaning against the kitchen table, staring glassily at the wall. She picks up a glass of vodka, waves it at Marga, her head weaving. ‘Perhaps I have other things to care about than an old dead dictator.’
Marga gasps, puts her hand over her mouth. ‘Mama!’
Her mother’s eyes clear for an instant, round with horror. She drops the vodka and the glass hits the floor. ‘No, poppet, no, that’s not what I meant…I didn’t mean… Of course I care!’ On her knees she wipes at the puddle with her apron. ‘Don’t listen to me,’ she peers up at Marga beseechingly. ‘I’m an old woman not making sense. You know that, yes?’
At the bread shop Marga stands in the queue, her mind drenched with her mother’s face, the fear in her eyes. But soon the queue’s voices invade; the women are different today. From some the grief is still palpable, but many whisper and fidget uneasily. The faces around her – all women with family members who had died in camps, been tortured, shot or hanged, had frozen in the tundra or in enemies’ barrels of water, or had just disappeared – their faces aren’t as veiled as usual. Dark-circled eyes flit at each other, and Marga hears none of the customary chit-chat. She knows they’re waiting to hear what the Party has planned for a Leaderless country; the radio has been playing nothing but the anthem repeatedly. The nation’s air is wired with uncertainty and dread.
As the queue slowly moves towards the store the clouds above thicken and she finds it difficult to breathe. From around a corner Vanya appears. His wheelchair is broken, and he wheels toward them on a shaky board balanced on ball-bearings, his hands pushing it along the hard cobblestones. He wobbles like a fragile scarecrow.
Many times she’d seen him at the queue, asking for bread in exchange for shoe-mending; one glacially cold day he’d even offered his medal for some rations.
He halts when he sees Marga, then trundles towards the queue. He stinks of vodka and piss, and his trousers are soaked a worrying rust-brown. Waving a broken belt at Marga he yells, ‘Can you believe it Margaritka? That bastard finally croaked!’
She stares at him, baffled. But the gasp of the queue clarifies his meaning, as do the murmurings of ‘Careful, Vanya!’, ‘He doesn’t mean it, he’s drunk,’ ‘Don’t listen to him!’ surrounding her.
Marga rips the belt from his filth-encrusted hand.
‘How dare you?’ she yells. ‘How dare you? How can you say such a…such a treacherous thing? You – you’re a hero! With medals from him, from the Leader, from the man who made you!’
‘Made me?’ he snorts. His eyes are huge groggy circles. ‘You’re right, kid, he made me. Look at me! I am the beautiful Vanya!’
One hand waving like a ballerina, he tries to spin his board around with the other, parading his ruined body. Quickly the ballbearings snag on the cracked road, the board totters and he tumbles onto his face. Two women run to help him onto the board as he mumbles incoherently. The only words Marga hears from him as he trundles away are, ‘He’s dead! Oh god, god, at last he’s dead.’
That night Marga sleeps feverishly. She dreams again of the Pioneer hero Morozov informing on his own father for illegally burying sacks of grain in the forest. The Pioneers sing so many songs about Morozov, all idolise him, and it’s a dream she’s had many times – she herself has always ached to be as loyal as that boy. In her sleep she sees Morozov killed by his brothers in retribution, then those murderers being rightly shot by firing squad. She sees them thanking the Leader for their punishment as they die. ‘Trust no one,’ they say. But tonight Morozov is grinning, his fingers crossed behind his back, and she awakes hot and flustered and thinking of Misha. She didn’t realise she’d be this lonely without him.
The next morning she tells her mother of Vanya’s treachery. A chilly breeze blows through the window as Mama makes her bed without meeting her daughter’s eyes. Marga has never felt this tired, this aged, this uncertain. She knows reporting Vanya is the right thing to do, yet a frisson of confusion niggles at her. Her mother tucks a clean sheet under the mattress, then stands and glances at Marga. Marga waits for her mother’s clean, comforting advice. But Mama sighs, shrugs her shoulders. ‘You do what you think is right, poppet. Just…’ She pauses.
‘Just what, Mama?’
But her mother simply squeezes her lips, and turns away.
Her head is heavy as she treads slowly along the chalky sidewalk. The sky is bright and brittle, the ice on the cobbles shifty. Everything is magnified, even the lark’s tinkling. She hugs her body and avoids meeting eyes – she fears her face is an open window, revealing all. As he begins to cross the street she’s hit with a smell she instantly recognises – the stench of squalor, unclean and tainted with stale alcohol. In the entrance of a building Vanya lies on the ground, moaning. His torso is twisted, his hips wedged between the toppled board and the doorway’s damaged step. He swears and snarls, his hands bloody as he tries to dislodge himself. He’s cut his wrist on his broken bottle.
‘Vanya!’ she cries. She carefully extracts him, drags him away from the door and clumsily helps him onto his board. His eyes are midnight black, rounded wide with wretchedness. She’s seen many bleak faces over the years, but none so desolate as Vanya’s this morning.
‘Thank you, Margaritka, thank you,’ he mumbles. He is weeping; he buries his face into her arm and clings to her so tightly she fears they’ll fall again. Her shirt is soon sodden, but she whispers calming words to him until he draws back, wiping his face on his grimy sleeve.
She helps him push his board onto the street. ‘Where were you off to?’ he asks, trying to smile. She looks away and is struck with the blank enormity of the police bureau. Only a huge billboard with Stalin’s benevolent face adorns it. Vanya follows her eyes.
He jerks his chin at the billboard. ‘I was his, you know,’ he splutters. ‘I loved him. When I was young. Reported all slights against him. Denounced many. Thought it would make me shine. Then, like many a good angel, I fell.’ He nods at the bureau. ‘Feel free to tell those shadows about my fall if you have to.’ He wheels himself around with his torn knuckles and heads down the road, then yells over his shoulder. ‘It’s your duty, right?’ The wheels clatter so deeply they batter her aching skull.
A boy she recognises runs past rolling a hoop; ‘Misha!’ she calls, but it’s not him; she has no idea where he is. Vanya is disappearing too. Her heart swells with loneliness.
Marga stares at the billboard for a moment, then darts after Vanya. ‘Wait up,’ she calls, then squeezes his shoulder. ‘I hear they might have pirozhki buns at the bakery today. I’ll share mine with you.’