This is the twenty-eighth part of a fiction serial, in 897 words.
Helen was ready for me the next morning, reasonably well dressed, showered, and wearing some make-up. But she was clutching a glass of vodka as she opened the door, and I felt sure she had been drinking for some time before I arrived. She led me into the back room, obviously happier there than in her rarely-used small lounge. She had already smoked one cigarette by the time I set up, and lit another one before starting to relate her story.
“So, there was no contact from the Consulate. No visit from the never-seen Desmond, and only the parcels of food and luxuries denoted that they still knew I existed. Anna stuck by me, making sure I didn’t descend into a mental black hole, and treating me like I was an extra grandmother. On her days off, Olga was not so friendly. I got the feeling she had long ago tired of having to babysit me when my special guard was off duty. Nothing changed for me, nothing at all, though I was grateful for the reading glasses which enabled me to read the books sent in every month. The night before my seventieth birthday, Anna brought me a present. Ten years together, and she never forgot a birthday. It was a Matryoshka nesting doll, a very nice example in black laquer with different designs on each of the seven dolls. She told me that it showed love of family, respect for elders, and was traditional. I cried at her thoughtful gift, and she hugged me until I regained my composure”.
She poured more vodka, and as she hadn’t mentioned food, I was concerned that she might get drunk. But there was no sign of that as she carried on.
“It was two thousand and nine, Martin, six years ago this month. I had been shut away in Russia for almost fifty years. Even now that is hard for me to take in. I had never married, never had children, not even the chance of love with Desi. My parents were long dead, I had no living relatives, and any friends I had from the old days were either dead, or had forgotten me. I hope you never have to experience that feeling of complete loneliness, where your only friend in the world is a woman paid to guard you and keep you locked up. I contemplated suicide all the time, I really did. Do you want some toast? I’m having some”.
I shook my head as I made notes, and she came back later with four slices of toast smothered in what looked like strawberry jam. Two of them were eaten in seconds, before she started talking again.
“So I did something unusual, at least as far as their prison sytem was concerned. Obtaining some plain paper and a propelling pencil from Anna, I started to send notes to the Warden. Anna told me it was the same man, and I addressed them respectfully. With no envelopes, I wrote his name and designation on the outside of the folded paper. Each note was a variation on the previous one. Had he heard any more about my release papers? Would he possibly have a chance to contact the Consulate and ask them to expedite the necessary documents? That kind of thing. Anna said nobody ever did that, but she delivered them to his office for me. I never got a reply, and didn’t expect one, but I sent one every week, and nobody ever told me to stop. I did that for a year, Martin. My seventy-first birthday came and went, and still I sent those notes”.
Helen stopped to eat the other two slices of toast, then she lit a cigarette, and swallowed half a tumbler of vodka.
“Then one morning, Anna came through the open door of my cell. She appeared to have been crying, and she told me to smarten myself up as I was being taken to see the Warden. That time, there were no handcuffs, and on the way, Anna wouldn’t answer my questions about why we were being summoned. She only shook her head in reply to each one. Inside the office the Warden smiled at me. He applied a rubber stamp to a document, and handed me the top copy. I had to find my glasses in my uniform apron pocket to read it. But I didn’t get past the first line, which said ‘Prisoner release’, before the tears were flowing down my face. The Warden was grinning, Anna was standing by the door openly weeping, and he said this to me”. ‘Pack your personal belongings, prisoner Renton. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken by car to the British Consulate. We have heard nothing from them, but no longer wish to detain you in our custody. As of tomorrow, you are a British problem, no longer a Russian one. Just read and sign this form, and I wish you good luck’. The form was basically a statement that I had been treated well, never subjected to physical or psychological torture, and that I agreed to leave custody at nine the next morning”.
Before she spoke again, Helen looked up across at the small window, as if remembering something.
“The hardest thing was leaving Anna. On the way back to my cell, she broke down and told me she would miss me”.