This is the sixteenth part of a fiction serial, in 797 words.
Helen was subdued the next day, but she was dressed and ready when I got there, and wearing make-up too. I had extended my stay at the pub indefinitely, settling the bill up to that date as requested. They considered me to be one of their regulars now, as I sometimes ate in the bar in the evening. Despite considering more comfortable accommodation, I stayed there because it was so close to Helen’s house. There was no tea offered that morning, and it seemed she had already been hitting the vodka hard before I got there. As soon as I was set up, she lit a cigarette and started talking.
“The next morning I was taken from my cell. No breakfast, no hot drink, just marched up a flight of stairs, and into a room. Seated behind a large desk was the man with rimless glasses, and a stern-faced woman who turned out to be the prison governor. Both speaking in Russian, they read out charges against me of spying for Britain against the Soviet Union. Then they added spying for Bulgaria against the Soviet Union. I said it was all nonsense. I was an interpreter, a Foreign Office employee. I demanded to see someone from the British Embassy, or at least be allowed to speak to them on the phone. Glasses man opened an envelope and laid out some photos on the desk. Me at Sozopol, with the Soviet warship in the background. Desi in the same spot, photographed by me. He said Desi was a double-agent, working for the KGB and also the Bulgarians. He accused me of trying to arrange her defection, put the photos back in the envelope, and shook his head. He said there would be no trial, and the British Government would not even be informed of my capture. For the first time since I had left England, I was really scared”.
Helen poured the last dregs of a bottle of vodka into her tumbler, and downed it in one.
“He went on to say that I was small fry, but as things were getting very dangerous over the Cuban issue, I might have my uses later, if exchanges took place. I was to be detained in Odessa until arrangements could be made for my transfer to Moscow. That was about it, Martin. No interrogation, no torture. But in many ways, that felt worse to me. I had vanished from Sozopol. My colleagues in Burgas, maybe even those from London, would guess what had happened. But what of my parents? The government would never tell them the truth, and as far as they knew, I had gone missing in Bulgaria for my own reasons. Whatever else happened, nobody would be looking for me in Odessa or Moscow. Sorry, I forgot to offer tea, I will get you some”.
She wandered off into the kitchen, looking all of her seventy-six years. Slightly stooped, and her skin pallid and wrinkled. I almost felt sorry for her at that moment. When she came back with my tea, she was carrying a bottle of vodka in the other hand. It was the first time I hadn’t seen her eating anything.
“They established a routine with me in that prison in Odessa. I was segregated from the Russian prisoners because I was fluent in Russian and they didn’t want me talking to them. For fifteen minutes a day, I was allowed to walk around the yard, but with no coat provided, that was awful once the weather turned. Once a day, they brought me a bowl of the cabbage and pork fat soup with one slice of black bread. Before I was allowed to eat it, I had to take my bucket to the shower room and empty it into the toilet, then wash it out in a big sink. By the time I got back it was lukewarm, but I devoured it out of hunger. I had a shower once a week, on my own once the other prisoners had left. No shampoo for my hair, just the greasy soap. No razors allowed for shaving my legs or under my arms, and when I had my period, they gave me a huge swathe of beige cloth and some strings to tie it on with. I was not allowed to read any books, or associate with anyone else. It was the complete definition of solitary confinement, Martin”.
She paused there, appearing to be upset as she remembered.
“After three months I was so depressed, I was contemplating suicide. I was always hungry, desperate for a cigarette, and I had lost so much weight I had stopped wearing my knickers as they fell down all the time”.
The tears came after that, and I sat there feeling awkward.