This is the fifteenth part of a fiction serial, in 846 words.
With Helen’s revelation that she had been captured and taken to Odessa, then part of the Soviet Union, I called it a day on the interview. I wanted to get back to my room, then go and get a decent meal. I told her I would be back the next day, but before I left, she produced another document. It was all in Russian, and dated in nineteen sixty-two. Years of carrying it around tightly folded had made it very fragile, but the typewritten form was easy enough to read. When I handed it back, Helen smiled.
“My transfer papers from Odessa to Moscow. They gave me a copy when I was moved. One thing the Soviets were very good at, record keeping and bureaucracy”.
I told her I would be back the next day at eleven, and took my leave.
The next morning I made the mistake of arriving fifteen minutes early, and was greeted by her answering the door wearing only some large white knickers, and with one arm across her bare breasts. “You caught me still getting dressed, Martin. Come in and set up while I go and finish getting ready, then I will make you some tea”.
She came back with my tea, and a tumbler of vodka for her. Her supposed ‘getting ready’ had consisted of putting a dressing gown on, and she hadn’t even bothered to secure it correctly. But I was used to her by then, and ignored the unwanted view as she carried on.
“The man with the rimless glasses took me to a prison in Odessa. It looked very forbidding with barbed wire on the walls, and searchlights sweeping the whole area. Inside, he handed me over to some female guards who looked at me as if they wanted to kill me. He smiled as he left, talking to me in English. ‘See you tomorrow, Miss Renton. Sleep well’. The guards frog-marched me along a corridor and into a shower and toilet block at the end. One ripped off my dress and bra, and the other told me to get under one of the showers. She handed me a bar of greasy soap that felt like a lump of lard, then turned on the shower, which was freezing cold. They kept telling me I had to wash harder, and they didn’t turn off the water until they were satisfied. Then I was given a skimpy towel, and about one minute to get dry. After that they pushed me along another corridor to a small room where they gave me a pullover dress that felt like it was made of sacking, some big felt slippers two sizes too big, and some knickers that almost came up to my armpits”.
Helen stopped to light a cigarette, then downed two large gulps of vodka.
“The older guard checked a clipboard and said ‘Solitary’ to the other one, who nodded. She told me to follow her, and led me to a cell with a narrow metal door which she opened with a key from a bunch hanging from a chain on her wrist. She jerked her head, shouting ‘Yours, bitch’. Inside was a bucket with a lid, and a new packet of toilet paper. They didn’t have rolls much then, just crinkly stuff in packets that felt like thin wallpaper. There was a blanket on the small bed, and one pillow covered in hessian material. On the window ledge below the high opaque window was a water jug and metal cup. The second guard appeared carrying a bowl containing a watery soup with bits of cabbage and some pork fat floating in it. She put that on the window ledge with a thin slice of black bread, then they both walked out and the door slammed shut. I had to drink the soup from the bowl, no spoon or anything. It didn’t actually taste that bad, except for being very salty. Which reminds me, I must get myself some breakfast”.
There was the noise of the microwave operating in the kitchen, followed by the ping as it finished. She came back carrying a large bowl full of scrambled eggs, and a fork. The bowl was obviously hot, as she had it wrapped in a hand towel. I asked if she had been afraid that first night.
“Not really. During training, we are told that torture or execution rarely happens to foreign spies, only their own ones. It is better to keep us alive, and to use us in spy exchanges later, when one of theirs is captured. I knew they would ask me lots of questions of course, and they might attempt to turn me, get them to spy for them. But if I kept my head and stayed focused, it should only be a matter of time before I was released during some negotiation or other. It was different for Desi. She was one of theirs, looking to defect. Once they found that out, her fate was sealed”.
Chewing a big mouthful of eggs, Helen seemed to be remembering Desi.