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Svetlana Chesnokova frowned as she gazed out of the window. She was standing at the top of the stairs, looking out across the expanse of growing crops that dominated a wide valley. Below her the road between the wheat fields was no more than a dirt path, and the wheels of the advancing horse drawn cart skidded along well excavated ruts. “He’s here now. I can see him sitting with the driver. I wonder if he’s changed much.” Turning away from the window she glanced at her younger sister for a moment. “Will he remember us? What will he think of Mama’s house? His family are so rich, not just kulaks like we are.”
“We shouldn’t have to worry about what he thinks,” Katerina told her. “He’ll have to take us as he finds us. He should be grateful Mama is taking him in.”
Svetlana agreed. “It made me think how lucky we are, things don’t affect us here as they do in the cities. Poor cousin Konstantin’s life is ruined.” She turned to the stairs. “Let’s go and meet him. I do hope he keeps his temper when he discovers what Mama has decided.”
Katerina looked instantly contrite. More gently than previously, she said, “He must agree. It’s sensible and could save his life.”
Downstairs at the front of the house Madam Chesnokova stood in her navy wool dress, her hair hard and severely fastened back. She always dressed as if she were going to church. She never wore a pinafore or even an old skirt. But then of course she never did any work. She watched as the gnarled old carrier-cart driver came in with two suitcases, one in each hand, standing in his way and fussing to make sure he didn’t scrape them against the walls. It was a big thing she had taken on. To protect her sister’s son.
Behind the carter, Konstantin Golovina, a pale faced, slim young man, stood rooted to the spot in the doorway as he surveyed the aunt he hadn’t laid eyes on for the past five years. The woman’s face glowed affection.
“Konni darling, welcome to Sarocherkassk and welcome to my home. How you’ve grown. So different from when I last saw you. You will be eighteen now.”
“Yes, aunt. And although some time as past you seem not to have changed at all,” he replied with just a hint of haughtiness.
Svetlana and Katerina arrived bright-eyed and smiling, stunning raven-haired girls, two cousins whose ages ranged around his own. The younger one was smiling, a pretty face with a small nose, a full mouth, and eyes as black as cherries. Her sister was the exact opposite. Her beauty was cool, not warm. Dark hair, dark eyes and pale skin. Just as attractive in her own way, but with a straight nose and a rather serious expression. They were said to have had a Tartar grandfather.
“Some things have changed though,” the older girl assured him. “Mama has some grey hairs now if you look close, and of course dear Papa never returned from the war. He lays buried in the land to the west with two million others.”
While Madam Chesnokova was paying off the carrier she turned to the woman behind her who was as big as a barrel and whose well established double- chin gave her an amphibious look. “Put the raisin cake and lemonade in the parlour, Lyuba.”
It was a surprise, because the parlour was a seldom-used facility only ever used when the village priest came to call. “But it’s all laid out in the kitchen where you usually eat,” protested the woman loudly.
“Then you must move it. We’ll take supper in the kitchen, but I want the raisin cake in the parlour,” insisted Madam Chesnokova.
“Suit y’self,” mumbled Lyuba grudgingly. The big woman waddled away, which allowed the new arrival to lean towards Svetlana. “Who is that hippopotamus? Is she a servant?”
The girl laughed. “That’s Lyuba Ocheretka, mothers cook and do-all. She’s only been with us three years, so you won’t have seen her before. Just an empty-headed peasant with a taste for plum brandy really, but she bakes good raisin cake and when she’s sober she churns out excellent kisel and rather magnificent pies with rhubarb or liver. Unfortunately she as little reverence for anyone. Mama only keeps her on out of kindness.”
She led the way into a small parlour where a handsome plush couch and a potted plant were the enviable main furnishings.
Madam Chesnokova invited everyone to sit, but she herself went over to the mantelpiece. On top of it below the traditional religious icon on the wall stood a large framed studio photograph, now turned sepia; a family group, Madam Chesnokova and her husband, their parents and various brothers and sisters, and Svetlana, Katerina and Konstantin when they were much younger. She stared at it. What had everyone been thinking when it was taken? Had any of them guessed the misery that lay so close ahead? Everyone was posed quite rigid and formal. It had been the last time they had all been together, five years earlier in 1914, just before the whole of Europe had gone mad and entered into a crazy war. The European War had ended sometime ago, but the killing hadn’t ceased. In Russia there was now Civil War.
“You are lucky Konstantin, to be a member of a large strategically bursa escort placed family that is well disposed to looking after its own. Your mother, God Bless her soul, will never know the misery and turmoil of life today, but your father does, and he is determined to remain on his estates and preserve them from any Bolshevik gangsters that show a wish to ruin things. It is a dangerous business he undertakes and he believes, correctly I think, that you will be safer with us here.”
“Is that why I was pulled out of school so quickly and stuffed onto a train without any explanation?” enquired the new arrival.
She nodded slowly. “Kharkov is too near the fighting to be deemed safe, and it was important to ensure no one knew where you were going. Even good friends can be tricked into divulging secrets. Your father is a boyar, a wealthy land owner, and too many people these days believe that to have wealth is a crime. There are dark forces at work that would wish to track you down and punish you for just being his son.”
“I thought things were getting back to normal.”
“Far from it, that school you attended as shielded you too keenly. Peace was negotiated with the Germans two years ago, but Russians have been fighting each other ever since. You must have heard of the Whites and the Reds.”
“Yes of course, everyone speaks of the troubles. But it always sounds like a tabletop game to me.”
“It’s not a game, and the situation is often fluid. Mercifully, here we live in a region dominated by the Whites, and they seem content to allow us to carry on as we’ve always done, but things could change and I believe some subterfuge is called for.”
“I’m very grateful for all the trouble you’re taking, and of course I’ll oblige in any way I can.”
Two spots of pink appeared on the cheeks of Madam Chenokova, but she had thought long and hard about the best solution. The community in the valley of Sarocherkassk was close knit and gossip moved fast, and there were certain to be Bolshevik agents in the town awaiting the right time to denounce people. She could count on the claws of a chicken’s foot the number of people she could trust, and it wasn’t enough, so she had to begin immediately. “No one else knows you’re here yet, Konni.”
“The carrier who brought me here from the railway station, he knows.”
“Old Rubin is illiterate and he had his tongue cut out by the Bulgars years ago, so people don’t waste time asking him questions. It’s important that no one knows about you being here, because – well, the plan I have is to camouflage your true identity by dressing you as a girl.”
The young man’s face immediately fumed. “Aunt Nastasya, I protest. Such a thing isn’t dignified. Everyone will laugh at me.”
She smiled encouragement. “Don’t be upset, Konni. Nothing lasts forever in this chaotic world, and no one in this house will laugh at you. And no one outside is going to know.”
Later Konni carried an oil lamp up the creaking stairs to the room allotted to him. The home of Madam Chesnokova was a two storey dacha of riven timber beneath a big green roof. It was tucked into the bottom of a small hill, L-shaped with a paved yard behind where a water pump stood. The room that he had been given had no bedside table or even a bedspread. A small neat iron bed with a shabby well-washed coverlet had just one lumpy pillow. One of the girls must have vacated the room for him, because on a chest of drawers lay a jumble of necklaces and earrings, coloured stones, dry roses and black and white picture postcards of Odessa, a town on the Black Sea coast. There was a narrow, poky cupboard and a jug and basin as old as the hills, but they were bound to prove useful because there was no running water in the house.
His new home was small and simple – nicely decorated in an unsophisticated rural fashion, but his real home, his father’s home was that of a minor nobleman, a villa with a tower topped by a copula, dating from an ornate agricultural past and steeped in tradition, so it was hardly a fair exchange. He winced with embarrassment. His aunt and his cousins were full of good intentions, but how provincial and old fashioned they were compared with people in the city. He had nothing in common with any of them. Still, he thought as he glanced around, his accommodation was really little different to the shared room he had been given at the residential school he’d recently left behind, and at least it was dry and wind-proof.
Blowing out the lamp he settled slowly back on the pillow. He couldn’t judge the merits of what his aunt was asking him to do, or the assumptions she was making, but he was aware of the increasing hostility in some quarters to people born to privilege. School life had insulated him from much of what was happening in the world, but he had heard of the Bolshevik scourge and the danger it presented.
In the morning he found a fresh set of clothes draped over a chair by his bed. They were female clothes. He sighed and let himself flop back onto the pillow behind him, his lower arm over his eyes. bursa escort bayan Oh why had he allowed himself to be persuaded to participate in this ridiculous farce of dressing up like a girl? What he had agreed to out of politeness the evening before was anathema to him in the light of day. His father was a proud man and would go wild if he knew about it.
Reluctantly he dressed. First the underwear, a camisole and a pair of long draws that reached halfway to his knees and which almost met the black woollen stockings pulled up over his legs. The white blouse was fine, it wasn’t too different from a shirt, but then came the biggest dislike; the voluminous petticoats and the long black skirt that swished about the calves of his legs. He sighed in dismay, but finishing by slipping his feet into a pair of box-calf leather boots with pointed toes that needed to be laboriously fastened with buttons.
He went down to breakfast in the kitchen only when he knew the others were awake, and he went with great trepidation. There he was at once greeted by Katerina’s criticism. “The skirt is on back to front.”
Konni brushed past and gave her a look of haughty superiority. “I prefer it this way round,” he replied defiantly.
Katerina cranked up her voice. “BUT IT’S BACK TO FRONT.” Her mother was also there, and the girl gazed at her in helplessness. “Mama, do tell him.”
Nastasya Chenokova smiled. “There is a small handkerchief pocket in the front, Konni dear. People will notice the oddity if it clings to your backside. Best if you swivel everything round.”
Konni felt annoyed as well as embarrassed now, but when Svetlana entered the room she came towards him with a broad smile. “Incredible! she exclaimed. “What an astonishing metamorphosis. No one will ever challenge the fact that…”
“I don’t intend to stay dressed like this forever. It’s just temporary until…until…” Konni snapped back without waiting for her to finish.
The girl assumed a detached tone. “We all understand that,” she replied. “Unfortunately, none of us can know how long temporary may be.”
Lyuba, the big bodied servant, grumbled about people getting in the way whilst she was trying to prepare food, but everyone ignored her. “Your hair,” put in Svetlana. “Sit on a chair and let me see what I can do with it.” Konni was still not in the best of moods. “Do I have to?”
“You didn’t mind me doing things with your hair when you last came here,” she said.
Irritation sparked in her cousin’s eyes. “I was young and foolish then.”
“And you’re old and smart now, eh?”
“What I am is nothing to do with you,” the youth quipped petulantly.
“No?” When she reached out and cupped his face with her hands he was too surprised to react. “Do you want to grow up? Mama is trying her best to preserve you, you silly thing, but she can’t do it without your co- operation.”
He capitulated, and once he was seated Svetlana stroked his scalp, deliberating for a moment before drawing her fingers through his neatly combed locks. Her fingers held firm and she glared at him until he settled, then raked his hair with a brush of stiff bristles. “You have plenty of hair, but it will be ages before it grows long enough to be adventurous with style.”
Katerina’s eyes sparkled suddenly. “I have an idea,” she said. “When you chopped off your plaits at Christmas Mama cried and then kept them in her dresser. Konni has your colour, so we could pin them up under his own hair.”
Soon it was done, the girls congratulating themselves on the skill they’d shown in being able to make everything seem so genuine. Konni smiled nervously, his dark eyes tensely drawn, but when they offered up a hand mirror and he looked to the side, he showed the perfect profile of a young girl framed with two plaits of hair the colour of jet, tied- off with scarlet bows of ribbon.
“You look fine, Konni,” Svetlana appraised, “But there is more to being convincing than mere appearance. There’s attitude.” She took hold of his chin. “Repeat after me…say, ‘I’m a girl.'”
Konni spluttered. “I’ll never agree to say that.”
“Don’t be so stuffy. This is important. You must get over blushing and grinding your teeth at such things or it will never work. Say it. Say, ‘my name is Konstantina and I’m a girl.'”
Svetlana threw up her hands and studied her mother. “This idea is doomed.”
“School!” he cried, stricken. His aunt had told Konni of her plan on his second day in her house.
“Of course,” she replied. “After some difficulty during the past year Madam Kormilov has started classes again. Only three days in the week to start with, but attending will give the girls a chance to learn basic arithmetic and yourself some occupation in the day time. It will also be of benefit for you to mix with others.”
He pulled himself together. “This is too much. It’s ridiculous; I’m due to take up a place at the university in Minsk after the summer. Attending a peasant school is out of the question, and anyway I can’t go into town dressed like escort bursa this, wearing a skirt.”
The woman clearly had more faith in his transformation than either of her daughters. “We live in dangerous times, so university will have to wait. You need to be seen in the town in order to be accepted without suspicion. But don’t worry, you look so gorgeous no one will ever suspect you’re anything other than a girl.” His aunt’s words were presented as a dictat not a request, and Konni felt he had run out of options as well as energy.
After they had breakfasted and while the day was still Konni and his two cousins set off as a group along the track that led towards the small community of Sarocherkassk three miles away. The path was narrow, little more than the width of a cart. It tilted down for a while before burrowing horizontally through the crops of wheat. His father had told him of the immense steppes of land further to the east that stretched from horizon to horizon, and for a little money a man could own large amounts of it. But the soil there was poor, he’d said; mud in wet weather and dust in the dry seasons, good for growing only coarse grass. The soil of the Ukraine was the very best. The Ukraine was renowned as the bread basket of Russia.
The morning had burst gloriously, filled with birdsong and the aroma of ripened wheat on the breeze, and that day the field’s glowed golden under on each side beneath a shimmering sky. The day was awash with sunlight, and the heavens seemed high flung, like an upturned bowl of powder blue.
“August and September are the best growing times,” Svetlana said as they trod the path. “We’ve had lots of sunshine lately, which as made up for all the rain we had earlier in the year. The wheat is ripe now, perfect for harvesting.”
It was harvest time, and in the fields along the valley scores of people, arms and faces blackened by the sun, were involved in reaping. While the menfolk cut, a task still done with long handled scythes, the women followed behind to gather and tie the felled wheat into sheaves, while behind them the young children carried the sheaves to carts waiting to take a cargo to the threshing sheds.
Some youngsters would be employed in the sheds to rake out the chaff and bag it up, a dirty and tiresome task. Everything about harvest involved backbreaking labour that went on relentlessly from dawn until sunset every day until the crops were gathered in, and in a place such as Sarocherkassk it could take a fortnight.
As the son of an affluent landowner who had never been involved with manual labour himself Konni still perceived it as an element of rural living that was traditional and picturesque. “Ah, the peasant-people toiling in the sunshine. They’re the backbone of Russia, what a charming picture they make. They remind me of my father’s home, he employs scores of them.”
Svetlana raised her eyebrows. “Dearest Konni, you’ve spent so much time in that stuffy school in Kharkov that you’ve become aloof and blinkered to the social structure your father tries so hard to maintain. In the countryside almost everyone is a peasant. Isn’t it the same everywhere?”
He smiled. “Your Mama once had the name of Golovina and only lost her status by marrying your Papa. But you and Katerina aren’t peasants. You don’t work in the fields.”
The girl tossed her head. “Fancy that. All your expensive learning and yet you know so little of real life. There are three types of peasant. Poor, middle and kulak. The poor have the minds of docile cattle and own nothing. They have to work for others in order to fill their bellies. Middle class peasants own some land and produce enough for their own needs, but no more, while kulaks like ourselves have plenty and can afford to employ others to do work.”
The people who owned houses in the small town were closely bound to the rural structure around them, and at harvest time, hay and husks of grain blown from the fields lay everywhere in the streets. Peasants and townspeople traded goods in an odd kind of classless harmony. Cattle and lumber found their buyers and the craftsmen and shopowners of Sarocherkassk found their customers in the peasants.
The schoolroom was in a building on the edge of the town square, directly opposite to the Orthodox church with its onion-shaped cupolas. There was no classroom as such, the pupils — a mix of young people between ten and twenty years old – merely sat on a row of chairs in front of Madam Kormilov and her chalkboard.
Madam Kormilov, the schoolmistress was a stiffly corseted, anorexic- looking individual of undoubted discernment, taste and talent, but one who rarely smiled or displayed a sense of humour in public. She was around fifty with a thin, elegant face and dark hair trimmed severely at the neck. She had probably done it herself.
She was obviously strong and self-reliant as a widow-woman needed to be. Originally the school, a place of education for the children of local families who could afford the fees, had been run by her husband Nikolai, but he had died during the October Revolution two years previously. To her credit she showed a talent for organisation and ran things as well as her husband had ever done, but his sad fate had coloured her view on many things not connected with teaching the young.
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