This is the twenty-first part of a fiction serial, in 744 words.
“Well Martin, you don’t want a day to day account, I am sure. Bascially, life in that prison continued much the same for many years. Olga began to be able to have a conversation in English, albeit quite basic stuff. She also confided in me, telling me things about the prison, and occasional insights into her personal life. It transpired that I was the only inhabitant of a twenty-cell block. Regarded as a special prisoner, the guards assigned to me were the more experienced ones, and those considered to be less inclined to be interested in the temptations of life in the West. Olga had been a Young Communist, and was still a party member. She admired Krushchev, as he had been at Stalingrad during the war. She never really understood the Cold War, as we had been allies when the Nazis had been defeated. Like most of the others I met, she blamed America for maintaining the bad feeling against the Soviet Union, and told me she thought that Britain was just an ‘American Puppet’. I was left wondering why she even wanted to bother to learn English, but never asked her”.
Helen lit a cigarette, waiting for me to finish some written notes.
“I became accustomed to the routine. Between the guards and the nurse, I was well-supplied with cigarettes, occasional extra rations, and personal items like tampons, a hairbrush and comb, and small bottles of very strong-smelling shampoo that I used sparingly. But I never got any fruit, and fresh vegetables were rare, also usually overcooked to extinction. They told me they just didn’t have time to queue for the fruit, and in winter it was almost non-existent anyway. And despite the extra slices of bread now and again, I was always hungry, and continued to lose weight. After I had been there for five years, an anniversary confirmed by Alina, my teeth were giving me so much trouble I pulled one of them out with my own fingers, rather than ask to visit that butcher of a dentist. Brezhnev had taken over after Krushchev died, and I was coming up to my thirtieth birthday. I was so much a part of the furniture in that place, they only locked my door at night, just before lights out. After all, even if I escaped, how far would I get?”
She suddenly looked down at her shoes, and there was an awkward silence that dragged on for some time.
“One afternoon, Olga brought a mirror to my cell. She said I couldn’t keep it in case I broke the glass and cut my wrists, but I could look at it for a few minutes while she was with me. I had asked for a mirror for ages, but they had always told me it wasn’t possible. When I looked at myself in that mirror, I felt the tears start to stream down my face. Very soon, I was sobbing uncontrollably, and Olga must have felt uncomfortable, as she took the mirror out of my hand, and left the cell. If it’s okay with you, I think I will leave it there for today”.
That evening as I waited for my dinner in the bar of the pub, I read through my notes. The documents she had already shown me were completely authentic, I was sure of that. Soviet paperwork of the period was usually typed on cheap paper stock, and all the stamp-marks and phrases used were typical of that era. Helen’s sometimes detailed recollection of small details might be hard to believe after such a long time, but if I had spent that long in Soviet prisons with little else to think about, I was in no doubt I would have remembered such things too. The hardest thing to swallow was her naive faith that the British government and her spymaster colleagues would be in the least bit bothered about her, and would have been trying to secure her release in clandestine meetings. But placing that in the context of the times, I understood her thought process completely. Part of me was beginning to warm to her, but I had to try my best to remain detached from the emotions surrounding her life history.
The next morning, I decided to treat her to two real cream eclairs from the baker’s shop, and I even bought her a small bunch of flowers.
When she opened the door and saw the flowers, she wept.