This is the twenty-third part of a fiction serial, in 795 words.
I had received a message as I ate breakfast that morning. Helen had telephoned the pub and told them to tell me not to go to her house that day, but to come as normal the next day. The manager’s wife brought the message, and she was polite enough not to ask who Helen was. To say the least, I was curious. She had never asked for a day off from being interviewed before, but the fact she had said to go back tomorrow as normal implied it was nothing serious.
With a lot of unexpected free time, I took the opportunity to collate my notes into some order, then got into the town centre before the shops closed to buy some more memory cards and notebooks. I was back at the pub in time to receive my laundry delivery, and to reserve a table for one at six-thirty for dinner.
At eleven sharp the next morning, Helen opened the door, smiling. I could hardly recognise the woman infront of me. Her hair was dyed light blonde, she had flawless make-up on her face, her nails were painted, and she smelled fresh and perfumed, dressed in a smart two-piece with some pearls around her neck. She saw my surprise.
“I smartened myself up, as you can see. About time too. Come in, I have just made you some tea”.
The beauty treatment had taken years off her, as least ten years. She looked more like a sixty-five year old recent retiree, than a woman of seventy-six. But some things had not changed. She brought her tumbler of vodka through with my tea, and lit a cigarette as I set up for recording.
“So, Martin. Today, we are about to do some time-travelling. We are going forward into an uncertain future, and leaving Moscow behind. Get your notebook ready, as I am raring to go. As you know, and so do I now, in nineteen ninety-one the Soviet Union ceased to exist. At the time I had no idea. I had celebrated my fortieth birthday in prison, then my fiftieth. I had been almost insane, then recovered my wits. I was fifty-two years old, and had gone through the menopause while incarcerated. Olga had retired from being a prison guard, and Alina only had a few years left to do. Governor Makarova had been replaced by a younger model, and I had been a prisoner for almost thirty years. I had started to think in Russian, as it was so long since I had spoken English, except for the short spell of teaching Olga. Then one cold December morning, two guards I had never seen before came into my cell. They told me to pack up my stuff, and gave me a canvas bag to carry it in. I asked them what was going on, but they refused to reply”.
Helen seemed to be in a good mood that morning. Her voice was lighter than usual, and she was very keen, speaking quickly. She downed most of the vodka, lit another cigarette, and continued.
“Alina was at the back gate when they took me out. She handed me a transfer document, then gave me a gentle hug. No tears, but there was something genuine in her farewell. The female guards handed me over to two soldiers who walked me to a black car. No handcuffs, a seat in the back next to one soldier, the other driving. I looked at the document on the way, having to hold it at arm’s length as my eyesight was failing for reading. I could make out the main headings, and saw Penal Colony 4 written there. Also Sankt Peterburg, which surpised me. I had only ever known that city as Leningrad. Back then, I presumed it was some kind of administrative error. We were going by train, and I was pleased to have my coat and Valenki, as it was so cold. At the station, the soldiers handed me over to two female soldiers. Again, no handcuffs, though we did have a private compartment on the train. The two young women chatted during the journey, though not to me. But they did let me smoke, and one of them brought me hot tea with sugar already in it. It was less than four hours on the train, and when I asked to use the toilet, one woman just nodded. She didn’t even walk there with me and stand outside. As I sat there peeing, I realised that I was no longer considered to be anyone worth bothering about. And that made me cry”.
Refilling the vodka in the tumbler, Helen shook her head as she reflected.
“From that moment, I just presumed that I was going to die in prison”.