From the third floor window, the square lays before me, expansive, awesome and quiet, deserted almost, but for the clatter of the occasional pair of boots hitting cobbled stones. And yet at some other time, when filled with the thunder of armoured vehicles, it was equally awesome, but more powerful then and mighty. I gaze through the window now as if I were a child, standing there, my face pressed to the pane, watching. I am older now, much older. I’m visiting the house of my childhood for the last time. Reminiscing.
* * *
It is a different window that I peer through now as below me, at 80 Park Avenue, I watch the Commissionaire stand at the entrance under a canopied walkway opening and shutting doors for New York sophisticates – limousines doors and the door to the lobby entrance leading to upstairs apartments.
I sit at my desk musing over a past life; of what is long-distant, some memories faded over time, others, not so forgotten, when I once looked over a square from a government building. I stood then, in a warm and quite comfortable room, holding my father’s hand, watching a different scene below.
* * *
It is a grey autumn. People jostling by with somewhere to go. I remember little of this scene, as it is so common-place to a child, that is, except for the grandeur of government buildings. I had always found them beautiful. And there was St Basils, onion domed, multi-coloured, from another era. I had never been inside, but my father used to worship there, once. I wondered what that entailed.
Back at my desk on 80 Park Avenue, I ponder over the history that made that square so famous. My fingers linger instinctively over the fine accoutrements that define a ladies desk. But one item is out of place, incongruous with the setting. It’s a clear glass pin tray for a desktop, its design not unique in any way, but it would be admired by those who favoured antiques, perhaps. It is manly, big and chunky, with smooth contours and my manicured fingers lightly follow its lines as if it were precious metal. As a child I remembered seeing it, mostly on my father’s desk, his pen resting across the grooves at the top of the tray.
We lived on the third floor in one of the government buildings in the square, back then. We would sometimes stand together, my hand in his, watching the comings and goings in the square. The military celebrations, the parades, uniforms marching in a perfect line to a perfect beat. Warlike machines rattled over cobblestones. One day as we stood watching yet another parade, he told me how his father had acquired the pin tray he was holding, It always sat on his desk, he said, as a reminder of the sacrifices made and it sat on my desk now as a reminder of the freedom bestowed on me, that I so often took for granted. If this object could only talk, it would tell a dire history, of things past I knew little of and was protected from, but of which I was later to know and understand. Très noir. In contrast, I would want to tell a different history from that, one of eternal love for fellow mankind and a questionable trust. As I admire the pin tray, I contemplate the sacrifices made.
I drift from the past back to the present. From my New York apartment I see the commissionaire still there, tipping his cap to those who alight from various vehicles. I admire the brightness and contrasts; his face as black as his livery; his flashing white smile as bright as the brass that adorns his attire; his step as jaunty as the streaming parade of colourful people dashing here and there on pavements, a contrast to the traffic shuffling at a disjointed pace along the avenue. But I see no majestic square, just towers upon towers of windowed buildings and the bustle of myriads of people, gathered together and moving on, shaped into a kaleidoscope of colour. An American cityscape
So dissimilar to the place in my history that interrupts my reverie, breaking in and out of my present life, taking me back to a past grey world, a world I knew and once loved because of the people in it. Still do when nostalgic, but only with a sense of loss for the beauty and majesty of the buildings within the precinct and the memories of loved ones, cherished amidst the grey.
Again, I am drawn back through that window to another window to rediscover the world of the glass object I am holding. I sit transfixed by its power over me. I can hear my father’s voice as he tells me in that deep resonant timbre I so loved to hear, when he told me, as a child, the stories of great adventures.
‘This story,’ he tells me, ‘is one of intrigue in a dangerous world of espionage and deceit. A story where there was fear at the centre of all you said and did, in private or in public, where families were torn between moral values and obligation, where to survive you lived on a tenuous tight-rope high above a dark and demonic sea of mistrust leading to violence, where a misspoken word could be relayed to others and that alone could end in your demise.
‘My life changed one night with the agitated knock at the door.’ My father began his story. ‘It was Sunday. I remember it well. I was only a young man, living with my father in a government apartment. Your grandmother had died. My father never spoke of her or her death. I was quite young when it happened, and that seemed to be all I needed to know. I learnt later she was distantly related to the Romanovs, not a family to have connections to at that time. I was working in one of the minor government departments. It was such a terrible time. The march of the revolution and its purges continued. Suddenly the door burst open and a child rushed in, one we knew from an apartment some streets away. He was tearful, but he hurriedly told my father and me, that we must guard the package he was carrying; that we must put it somewhere safe, that it must not get into unsafe hands. It was important, he said. He went on to say that someone was trying to steal it from him, but my father and I guessed that was not so. It was dangerous on the street, and the imposed curfew was meant to keep people in doors. Most likely it was a soldier or a revolutionary chasing him, as he defied those perilous hours. More likely though, it was someone looking for a package that might contain food.
‘You have to understand,’ my father implored me as he told me the story, ‘these were truly dangerous times. Only the desperate ventured outside and at that, only to steal food, but never to deliver a small, insignificant package to someone hardly known. The desperate times fuelled desperate acts and if you were one of the desperate, you were vulnerable. I knew this lad was in danger. I knew this package was important to him.’
‘I had met the boy’s father once, and I knew his views on the revolution. I supposed his father had taken the chance on me, on hiding something of value if ever the time came, as I had once listened to him sympathetically over a drink or two. I knew this parcel held something either personal or important and was therefore reluctant to discover its contents.
‘The young lad watched us fearfully, through red, tear strained eyes, then handed me the package he carried. He asked me to hide it until he could return someday soon to pick it up. “It is my father’s”, he stressed. “He would want you to look after it. You must open it if I don’t return.” I thought it rather odd thing to say, at the time, but in hindsight I suppose it was the only thing he could do, a tentative trust, nothing at all linked to the trust his father and I had shared over a few drinks, some time back. I offered the boy food, which he hurriedly grabbed and then he was gone.
‘I heard there were more purges the next day. Later that week, I saw the boy roaming the streets a couple of times, dazed and filthy. I followed him, once, trying to catch up with him, to help him, his plight so obviously desperate, but he skipped out of my sight, possibly knowing the implication of our public association, should we be caught talking together.
‘I was horrified I could not help him, and it stirred me into opening the package in my care. But once I returned home from work, I forget the parcel and it wasn’t until two weeks later, when I were storing things in the attic, I came across the parcel again. This time I opened it.
‘Immediately, the image of a gaunt boy I saw some weeks back appeared at my side, peering over my shoulder, prodding me to examine the contents. The packing paper protected a rather insignificant pin tray. I looked at it askance and wondered why anyone would even want to keep such an object. But as I was about to toss it and the box aside, I noticed hand-written sheets of paper in which the pin tray had been wrapped. I thought I heard the boy draw breath as I examined the sheets. Lists and lists of names, some crossed off, others ticked, some numbered – names of people, ones my father had told me in the quiet of our living room, had disappeared from his department, some from mine. I heard about them. Picked up from their workplace, plucked from streets, arrested in restaurants, dragged from apartments. The boy’s father was on the list, at the bottom of one sheet, ticked. I knelt down and cried, because in an instant I realised why I had been chosen, not to guard the package but to take responsibility for it. The message was clear. Warn these people before it is too late. A warning this boy’s father did not grasp even though he had probably written the list and in the name of mercy, had refused to heed.
‘I rummaged through each sheet. It would have taken hours of furtive and painstaking copying; and I saw names of other people I knew, of acquaintances. I looked for my name, my father’s. They were not there. My mission was urgent. It had cost this man his life I guessed. For some, the risk he had taken to get this list, would have been too great. I could only think his purpose had been to warn these people of their fate, to protect those on it. It was more than I had been prepared to do. Up until now. The message was clear. I had to pursue his cause. A dangerous resolve.
‘The boy would help, I knew, if I could find him. When I did locate him, he was afraid to talk to me at first, but through signs and cryptic messages from some distance, we finally arrived at a meeting place. When we met, he was half-crazed, no doubt hungry and he smelled feral. I was grateful that I had remembered my last glimpse of him as I’d thought to secret some food in my pocket, taken from the apartment. He savaged the food. When he had finished I told him of my plan. Warily, he agreed to help. It was what his father would want, he said.
‘We agreed to meet at a different place and time each day. At least, I thought he would get one scant meal. I asked him where he lived and why he was so filthy. He told me he had nowhere to live now, that his apartment had been watched, that his father had been taken. He thought he’d be dead by now. Someone in the building where they lived had told the Cheka and that someone now lived in his apartment. I did not ask any more questions. It was best I didn’t know.
‘I did not want to involve my father in this escapade. He would often be seen in the company of commissars or people I knew were the secret police. I was unsure how he would react to my folly. I felt I could not quite trust him but in the same instance I could not believe he would inform on me. He died years later without my ever knowing what he said to those people. I remembered him only as someone gentle. The kindest memory.
‘Each day, the boy and I worked through the list of people, finding ways to warn them of their fate. Late one afternoon, at the assigned meeting place and time, the boy did not show up. Next day I went to another planned rendezvous. He was not there, either. Now, I was in jeopardy and I became angry, afraid for my own life. Even though I held a government card, no sanctuary was assured.
‘The following day, by chance I saw him near my office. I followed him closely, determined not to lose him. He led me through a labyrinth of streets and lanes. When he finally stopped I spoke angrily to him. He simply replied that he failed to show because he was sure he was being watched. I knew then, I too must be on guard. I was no match for Cheka informants and all the revolutionaries waiting to catch the unwary.
‘I don’t know how many of those on the list escaped the purge. They simply got a note by a grubby hand and told to follow instructions. They would have known they were in danger. I knew people they could contact, places where they could go, but I could not warn them. It was the boy and his underground friends who had to do that.
‘I was not privy to how they survived, and I never enquired nor wanted to know. It was safer not to know that sort of information. I was simply a link leading to various destinations, nothing more. But I knew he knew. He’d learned the rules of survival. I suspected he was part of an underground network which got messages to all these people or as many as they could and were instrumental in numerous arduous journeys to freedom. He never told me how they got people from place to place, to escape. Somehow I don’t think he ever trusted me. I was still a government man. It was better that way.’
* * *
‘My father told me this story in the grey still light of that late Autumn Moscow evening. There was that still chill in the air that comes just before the first specs of snow sprinkle their multi-faceted shapes on the ancient cobbled square. In the dim light I saw a small group of people wearing durable well cut boots noisily clutter by, huddled together, jackets wrapped about them closely, rushing in the direction of some doorway nearby, to escape the inclement freeze. I had learnt it was best not to be on the streets, late in the evening. Much nicer in doors, listening to my father tell me stories of bravery.
‘He’d died in that square,’ my father continued, ‘Shot down like an animal, in cold blood, mutilated by shots from butchers in uniform. I’d become fond of him you see, in a strange sort of way. In those last few days of his life it was as if I might have joined his underground brotherhood, as an outsider, never quite let in. There was a tenuous trust. We did share something special. A knowledge that what we were doing was right. And now you must leave me too. Go from here. Now. Turn your back on this square. Fly free while you can. Fly free, little girl of mine. Some day you may be able to come back to me.’
* * *
Like lot’s wife, I did turn back, to return to that autumn evening where I had stood with my father as a child. As I stand here now, I shudder as I peer through the fading light to the spot where the boy had died. Then I look up to see the shape of St. Basils and I smile. Unlike Lot’s wife, I am at peace with my move to another land. Towering above the grey, my eyes sweep a landscape from the rich, warm magnificence of the colourful, multi-onion domes, to the white cathedrals, domes bedecked with gold, beyond the Kremlin walls. I cherish this culture, an atavistic culture, rich and potent and beauteous.
A bell peals from the belfry in St Basils high above the clamour reverberating around the square. This Red Square is so different to its revolutionary past. My father knew I would return, one day, but in those past revolutionary times, he also understood when I faltered, not wanting to leave.
He had given me the pin tray then. It lay heavy in my hands, still warm to his touch, but it had soft moulded lines and my fingers gently traced its contours. ‘Remember how this was given, in the name of freedom, ‘he continued. ‘Remember this, when you go to America’.
The Australian Literature Review