Eagle in the fridge

Chapter 1

Zenta Brice

42 min.

I need to pee!’

‘Great!’ I definitely can’t let Karl back in the house by himself. He has a quite serious predilection for destruction. I can’t leave my spot here either, not right now. ‘Well, do it, then.’ I bend down and unzip his trousers. ‘Nobody will see you.’

We stand together on the derelict concrete steps of the porch – my husband John and I and both our boys. After the rain the city air is still misty, and full of the last lilac scent drifting over the puddles which cover the countless potholes on our neglected suburban blind alley.

‘Soon?’ Karl, who will be four this autumn, jumps up and down pulling on dad’s arm. He’s the hyperactive one while Rob, our youngest, is a much calmer child.

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘they called about an hour ago. They’re at the club, they’re leaving soon.’ Oh, I’m nearly as impatient as boys are. We spent all morning killing time together by sorting out the toys for the big event. The boys agreed that all the small ones or with tiny parts must be packed in the box and put away for a few months. We don’t want any accidents.

‘How big is he?’ Karl stretches his arms. ‘This?’

I have no idea. I really have no idea how big a five-weeks-old Saint Bernard puppy is.

I always wanted a dog. Especially a St. Bernard. I was about eight when I saw one for the first time and since then it has been my dream. I could never convince my parents to have one. My mum would have liked a dog, but dad was implacable. Later, when I was a teen, he explained to me that he simply couldn’t tolerate any dog nearby. That he was frightened of them and always would be. I understood. My dad was arrested by KGB when he was still in college and sent to one of the prison camps in Siberia where he was supposed to dig coal for the next twenty-five years or die. There he saw some of his close friends being torn apart by guard dogs. It left wounds that never healed so, yes, I understood. So when my children asked for a dog (and that was the first thing they started to ask for) I was determined. They would get the best dog in the world!

It wasn’t easy. In the Soviet universe Saint Bernards are still a rarity, not the usual lot like collies, German Shepherds or poodles. But now, after almost two years on the club’s waiting list, we are finally there. Waiting for our puppy to arrive.

‘What car did you said they have?’ John points to the end of the street where the dark green Lada is turning in. Our street is tiny, and few people have cars here. ‘It must be them,’ he says.

We watch the car approaching, trying to avoid the biggest potholes. Finally it stops right at our feet, splashing some water on our shoes. I step back to the grass.

‘Hello!’ The elderly lady calls, climbing out of the car. ‘Here he is, your boy!’

She opens the back door and lifts out a fluffy ball. ‘Carefully!’ she tells me. ‘One hand under the chest, other must always support the bum! Like with a baby.’ She puts the puppy into my arms. He is cream coloured, almost white, and looks more like a newborn seal than a pup.

I savour the moment in full. This is just perfect! I mean the whole thing! My life. A husband. Two children (so far, of course. We have bigger plans!). And a dream puppy. How could life get any better?

‘A cup of tea?’ I offer with a trembling voice, unwillingly dragging my face out of the fluffy bundle.

‘No, we must rush, two more to deliver.’ The breeder points to the back of the car. She passes me some papers. ‘This is the club card, this is for the pedigree, and you must sign on this one... and this one as well... And this is the current feeding schedule.’

While holding the puppy with one hand I fetch the envelope with money, sign the papers and scan the typewriter sheet with instructions.

‘Mum, can I hold him?’ Karl pulls my arm. ‘Mu-u-m!’

‘What’s his name?’ John quietly chuckles.

I look into the papers. Keg Kennel de Salto. Yes, he definitely looks like a keg.

‘And seems this keg has a lot of beer to offer!’ says my husband, carefully lifting the puppy out of the puddle he just created all over my blouse and placeing him in the dry spot next to Rob.

‘Ke-yy!’ Rob gently slides his hand through the fluff and then lies on the grass, putting thin arms around the puppy’s neck. ‘Ke-yyy!’ Yes, Rob has speech problems. He talks a lot but we can’t understand most of it.

‘Let’s go in! Dinner time!’

About an hour later with the boys tucked into bed and Keggy settled on his new blanket I can finally relax. The window to the garden is wide open and the fragrance of the first lilies drift around the room.

This is the nicest time of the day, the adult time, when I sit with John at our large desk, sipping evening tea, sharing thoughts and plans. We both are still quite young. John is twenty-eight, I’m twenty-five. Well, John’s real name is Janis, but everybody, even his mother, calls him John. And his nick for me is Mo. We both are quite merry artists. We have everything we want – each other, our children, enough money and enough freedom – especially freedom – is a big deal in our Soviet reality, but we manage to stay the lucky outsiders.

‘Hiya!’ A tousled dark head peaks in through the window. Gunnar! I must admit, I’m not ecstatic to see him right now. It’s past 10 pm already and the day was tiring enough. But - noblesse oblige - I drag myself to the kitchen to put the kettle on and heat up some food, leaving John to deal with the guest. There are still two pork chops left and plenty of boiled potato to roast.

When I return, they are really excited.

‘Will they go for it?’ John asks.

‘Definitely! Despite the fucking Tour de France he managed to set up.’ Gunnar bounces on his chair with all the eagerness of his eighteen years.

The Tour de France is the genius idea of our city mayor to block access to the Freedom Monument – the aim of tomorrow’s demonstration by the dissident group Helsinki, named after a civil rights conference in Finland. We have had hearing rumours of this group of suicidal oddballs we had been for a while now. One must be utterly mad to step out and openly poke into the Soviet eye even if there are some weird changes going on – perestroika and glasnost.

‘Two years ago we got Gorbachev...’ John chuckles, eyes sparkling. ‘Last year – Chernobyl. What’s the next disaster?’

‘Well, Gorbachev’s perestroika!’ Gunnar tosses back his curls. ‘All these attempts to vitalize the dead whale called Soviets seems like a bigger disaster than the nuclear accident!’

The door bursts open, letting in Charlie and Vil, Charlie’s little brother. Oh, more friends! Goodbye my early night!

‘Hi, folks! Having a great time, I see. Without us?’ Charlie is in his usual ‘I’m a bad boy’ mode which is only a well-polished performance. Charlie’s beard is always perfectly trimmed and his jeans have immaculate straight creases.

A minute later the door opens again and Raul drags in a shy young man. ‘This is my new friend Ulan, from Uzbekistan. Please, honour and love him!’

Charlie is the striving artist, mostly marine paintings. Raul, his best friend, is a very talented graphic artist with one little problem – he is a druggie. Vil... Vil is Vil, Charlie’s little brother. Who is Ulan I have no idea.

Ulan shakes hands, and smiling diligently hands me a box of sweets and a melon. Such melons grow only in Uzbekistan – huge, sweet and so aromatic that my mouth waters just thinking about it.

‘Tea or coffee?’ I ask suspecting that Ulan, being from Uzbekistan, might prefer tea, but I’m wrong.

‘Coffee, please, if you can.’

‘Sorry,’ Charlie tries to apologise. ‘We just walked past, and you know how these two are.’ He nods at Raul and Vil. ‘Complete brats!’

‘C’mon! Remember Brezhnev’s era!’

Raul is already into politics, gesturing like a madman. ‘At the end it did get as vibrant and progressive as the Egyptian pyramids!’

‘Then we got that era of posh state funerals when everyone managed to vanish before even noticing the current state of economy...’ John smirks over his beer bottle. Without beer he would probably manage as much as “yes” or “no” or will simply grunt under his breath. John is not a public speaker without a beer even when among friends.

Charlie pulls out a chair and collapses in it. ‘And now – our disastrous Misha.’

‘Misha?’ Confused, Ulan draws his eyebrows. ‘You mean Mikhail Gorbachev? You are so lucky! You can despise them while we.... We hate them!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘See, when they took over here, you had it all already – hospitals and schools, machinery and... just everything. Before the war you were like any Western country, right?’

We nod. Ulan has done his homework.

‘We, on other hand, with all our ancient culture, we were stuck somewhere in medieval times... So we are obliged to be grateful to the Soviets for many things. Reason to hate, isn’t it?’

‘Probably,’ I say. Who I am to judge. Hate is such a strong word. Do I have strong feelings for the Soviets? Nope. He is right. There is a mixture of amusement and derision, sorrow and mocking, but no hatred.

‘What’s going at your end then?’

‘About the same as here. “Nationalistic separation tendencies” as they say. It’s complicated.’

‘Yeah, I presume things are different everywhere.’

There are no more pork chops left. Gunnar ate tall. I put some potatoes on and make an omelette with some wild mushrooms. It’s not like a party when you invite someone and then serve your best food... This is just our usual ‘drop-in’ routine and nobody expects a grand meal. The melon will be a hit anyway.

‘Stop mocking Gorbachev! He tries his best.’ I point as I lay out the dishes. The talk is getting deeper, helped by more beer.

‘He has charmed you, hasn’t he?’ Raul teases, raising his bottle. ‘Admit that!’

‘Well, he’s the first of all the communist party mummies whose wife is fit to be seen in public', isn’t he? And she looks not one iota less than Nancy Reagan. Actually, they both look quite similar. How’s that for a change?’ It’s so much fun, all this mocking.

‘You think Misha’s wife will save the whole country? He needs radical reforms to save us from the Comparty’s senile bureaucracy!’

‘Don’t be silly!’ John slams his fist on the desk. ‘Socialism and communism look good on paper only. It’s so much against human nature that it can’t succeed!’

‘Welcome, my friend, to the show which never ends...’ Raul raises his arms, flapping them like wings. ‘Get on with it!’

‘We’re the unlucky ones to witness it dragging on its last legs!’ John reaches for a sweet in the box. ‘Listen to this... Brezhnev had brows, Misha has rows, If it all grows...’ Through the laughter John solemnly recites one of his cheeky verses.

‘Yeah, they lost the plot long ago,‘ Ulan nods knowingly, sipping coffee. ‘Maybe Gorby will succeed, who knows. His perestroika looks promising.‘

‘And what’s good about it? Every institution is so confused right now! They just juggle, trying to keep every decision in the air like a hot potato hoping it will cool off before it’s dished out. I can’t get even my studio lease agreement signed!’ Charlie is seriously annoyed.

Tomorrow’s demonstration is a prime example of the general confusion. A few years ago all dissidents would be neatly tucked in cells right after the first attempt to form any formal group. And their names would float around the gossip grapevines instead of being debated in front of the media by officials to allow or to ban this anti-Soviet demonstration.

With all the banter, Keggy wakes up, climbs out of his bed and before I manage to fetch him, makes an impressive puddle in the middle of the room.

‘What a cutie!’ Gunnar forgets about politics and food, and bends down. It takes quite a time of silly baby talk, a bowl of mince meat and another puddle until our minds can go back on track.

‘So, what have you decided about cycling?’ Charlie leans forward in his chair.

The current city mayor is into the economic side of perestroika, but at the same time a dedicated supporter of the old school communists – quite a schizophrenic combination. So instead of making a decision to allow the demonstration or to ban it, he organised a sport event for cyclists through the city and around the monument, thus denying access for “traffic safety”.

‘Are you coming?’ Gunnar waves with a gherkin, turning to John.

‘If I have time, I’ll pop out for a moment, but I doubt it.’ John plays undecided.

‘Don’t be such a wuss!’ Vil sounds as excited as Gunnar. ‘It’ll be fun!’

‘You know - kids and the new pup... I really do not know...’ I join in the cool game. Of course, we will be there tomorrow. That goes without saying... especially without saying it to Gunnar. We must be a bit careful. See, he’s gay. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t homophobic. Gunnar is a great guy, but you learn certain skills to survive in the Soviet system. One of them – keeping your mouth shut even among best friends, just in case. We do suspect some from our circle are reporting to the KGB, and Gunnar might be one of them, simply because he is gay.

There are not many who would volunteer to become KGB informers. Thus different hooks – like better career options or permission for a trip abroad – are used to get people involved. It’s nothing extraordinary; it’s simply the way KGB can keep an eye on the population with their limited resources. Gay people are an easy target because the Soviet Criminal Code awards serious imprisonment for gays. Since his mother died, Gunnar is a guardian of his younger sister and brother, so for him there is no choice. We really feel sorry for him but we have no choice either.

‘Listen, I just heard another bloody good joke.’ Raul announces. ‘You must tell it to somebody with weaker nerves over the phone. You start like that: ‘One tourist walks over the hill and notices a red city under the red sky in the distance. He walks into the city, and everything is red – the streets, the walls, the humans.... everything!’

‘So far sounds promising!’ John puts down his beer. ‘And?’

‘Tourist walks into a cafe and orders a coffee. A red waiter serves red coffee in a red cup. He drinks it and waves for the bill.” Then,’ Raul sniggers, ‘you tell it slowly, in a dramatic voice, building for the grand finale. The waiter brings the bill. But this waiter is green! ‘Why you are green?’ asks the tourist surprised.” Raul leans forward. ‘Now keep a pause... Let the person at the other end of the line dread for the worst...at least for a while, and then scream the answer for the waiter: “Because I’m from a different joke!” Raul leans back in the chair and bursts out laughing.

It’s way past midnight when this lot finally leaves. Even Fitzy, our cat, had slipped in through open window and settled in Karl’s bed.

‘Tomorrow, whatever will happen at the monument, definitely will make history.’ John mumbles, counting the film rolls. In the past few years John has become addicted to photography and never leaves home without a camera.

After some thought John takes his beloved Kiev out of the camera bag and replaces it with an old FED. ‘If there are clashes with the police, I won’t risk my best camera. The FED will have to do. Know why?’

‘Okay, why?’

‘This camera is named after the founder and the first boss of KGB, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky.’

I nod. Irony has always been John’s strong point. I collect empty bottles in the bin and carry dishes to the kitchen. ‘I’ll take the boys to Nana. And the pup. So if we won’t meet at the monument, you fetch us there.’

Suddenly Karl raises his head from the pillow. His sleepy voice drifts across the room. ‘By the way, since we got the dog now, it’s time to start thinking about a horse. You know, if we clear the junk out of the garage, he’ll have plenty of space there...’

Chapter 2

Breakfast takes me by surprise – after the new pup finished his bowl, the fridge is empty. Neither meat nor cottage cheese, and only two eggs left – shopping time!

The rewards of communism are not yet in sight here, and right now we are at the stage of “advanced socialism” which means shopping is an unpredictable adventure. One day you might return with a load of eggs, another – a string of toilet paper. Or – with nothing. When there is something in the shop, queues are enormous and people have learned to grab the place in the queue first and ask what for later. Simple logic – if there is a queue, there must be something. Often people form long queues just in expectation for a delivery van to arrive in hope that something desirable will be put out on the shelves. Actually the word “shopping” has disappeared from daily conversations – now it’s all about “getting” and “bartering” .

‘Where did I leave the leash?’ Gosh! This will be hard – pup is too young to walk on a leash so I have no choice, I must go Baldrick. I need a cunning plan!

To survive, a secret economy has been created under the government’s nose. The survival instinct is stronger than any politics – if we can’t buy the damn thing, we’ll find ways to get it. Everybody learns to make so called “friendships of influence”. If you aren’t a vegan, the butcher is your most useful friend. If you have a car, keeping the car mechanic happy is more important than your mother-in-law. More importantly – your mother-in-law knows it. You still have your own teeth? Then become the best friend of a dentist! Only then do you hope to have a roast for your Christmas dinner, the car not stuck for months in the garage and your teeth attended to before dentures are your only option left.

Of course, butchers are no fools, so they expect a reward for their friendship. There is always more money floating around than goods, so simply offering extra money is never good enough. If you are a car mechanic, you make an equal friendship with the butcher, but, for example, the hairdresser has less to offer – maybe an unseen bottle of some coveted shampoo from the West or fitting your wife in for a hairdo on New Year’s Eve. As a result of this economy, if there is an Opera premiere completely sold out or our ice-hockey team has an important game, you know the best seats are taken by butchers, car mechanics and their best friends.

This underground economy works well – the shops are empty while the fridges of the nation are full. As artists we are at the bottom end of this food-chain, so I need to be creative to meet the family’s needs which have doubled overnight – Keggy is still a puppy but he definitely knows how to eat.

What choices do I have? With two children and a leaky puppy only two nearby shops are an option. The lady in the meat section always makes a fuss over my boys, but I have no idea whether she likes dogs or not. The butcher in the second shop is a big, mean guy, without a hint of a smile on his flat face. But... I once saw him walking a dog – huge black Russian terrier, looking as mean as his owner. Maybe this is a chance to pull the strings of the dog owner’s heart. One can always check.

The shop is empty, as I expected. The meat counter looks as deserted as the rest of the shop. All I can see on the shelves are brown bottles of muddy sunflower oil. Well, there's lard in packages at the one end of the counter, and a big lump of the same lard at the other end to make cuts. I’ll ask for a cut. Perhaps while he's working I might have an opening.

‘Hello!’ I try out my best cheerful voice.

The unwelcoming grin on butcher’s face doesn’t need further explanations. I humbly ask for the lard shifting the puppy from one arm to another. And the miracle happens - butcher spots Keggy. The change of his facial expression tells me I have hit the jackpot!

‘Hey! What we have here? Such a cute baby! How old is he? Two months?’ The butcher forgets about lard, runs out of the stand and slobbers all over Keggy. I patiently feed him with all the information I have – yes, a St. Bernard, pedigreed, just five weeks old, we live nearby and of course, I had seen the butcher’s wonderful dog. I even manage to ask about his dog’s show record. And then a few deliberately stupid questions about its feeding regime, like how much pork he gives to his dog.

‘No, you can’t feed this fella with pork at all,’ the butcher bursts out in horror, ‘It’s no good for the dogs, especially for large breeds like ours!’

Got ya! Now we are talking about our breeds! In few minutes, without asking, he offers to supply my baby with minced beef on a regular basis so he can keep an eye on Keggy’s development. He disappears through the door behind the counter and I hear the roar of the mincing machine. A few moments later he’s back and, cautiously looking around, with some conspiracy passes me a package, wrapped in several layers of waxed-paper. ‘Three twenty, please; it will keep him happy until the next delivery on Thursday. I’ll put aside something special for him!’ The butcher strokes Keggy’s chin. ‘What a pleasure to have such an addition to our neighbourhood!’

Ten minutes later I make my escape with the excuse that puppy’s getting restless and a puddle on the floor might not be welcome.

At home I check out my prize. Beef is perfect – until Thursday there will be plenty and not only for the dog!

While the pup collapses exhausted on his bed, Karl appears with an urgent question. ‘Mum, show me how to bang the nail at the end of the stick!’ In one hand he holds a ten inch nail, in other a wooden bar, dismantled from his bed.

‘Well, just take the hammer and bang the nail in. Easy! Have you lost your hammer?’

‘No, Mo, you don’t understand! That way the sharp end will be in; I need it sticking out!’ My three year old stamps his foot impatiently.

‘Why do you want the sharp end out?’

‘Mum, you’re silly! You said there might be clashes with the police!’

‘What are you talking about? We’re taking Keggy to Nana’s today!’

‘The demonstration, Mo!’ Karl is deeply upset. ‘I heard all about it last night! I’m stronger than Rob! I can help!’

‘You’ll never use a weapon against anybody! Now put the nail back in the box and get ready. Quick!’

***

Today is June the 14th, remembrance day of the great deportation to Siberia. On this day in 1941 Soviet armed forces stacked thousands of innocent people in cattle trucks without even formal charges. Whole families, young and old, even babies, were shipped away from the newly created Soviet border, to keep the area safer for the coming war with Nazi Germany. Or at least that was the excuse for it.

The Soviets mostly picked up intellectuals – teachers, doctors, army and police officers. Those who might oppose Communist rule. Many died on the way without proper food or water, and were buried along the railway line. John’s grandmother, whose only crime was being a successful farmer, was among these who perished on the way to Siberia, and we have no idea where her grave might be. Many died later, when they were kicked out on frozen tundra in summer clothes without tools or food.

A second big deportation happened right after the war, when the well-greased Soviet court system sentenced people for whatever crime was needed. My dad was one of these – his crime was publishing a school newspaper. Major crime. Twenty-five years in prison.

Estimates differ but we believe a quarter of our citizens were annihilated by Soviet repressions one way or another. In the Soviet official history books such events are never mentioned, but those who survive remember these in reverent silence.

The Freedom Monument, where today’s demonstration is planned, also has a special place in our hearts. It was built to honour our country’s independence from the Russian Empire on November 18, 1918 and the heroes who fought for it. Built on our entire nation’s efforts in the thirties, it has miraculously survived the Soviet era. Thus even the mere idea of laying flowers at this monument is a very brave poke with both fingers into the Soviet eye.

Will they really let it happen? I don’t think so, even with all this new perestroika spirit around. But anyway, whatever happens today I must see it. I suspect I’ll not be the only nosy one there.

‘Karl, do not rush, Keggy’s legs are much shorter than yours.’ I push Rob in his pram through the park, enjoying the lovely afternoon while Karl tugs on Keggy’s leash. ‘Don’t pull!’

Even the most devoted communists have lost hope to see the benefits of communism. So perestroika bought fresh hope for them. But little changes were in the air even before that. It’s impossible to define the beginning of the changes, but for me it was during the latest years of the Brezhnev era that I noticed more and more anti-Soviet jokes floating around. Of course, there still was the joke about Brezhnev’s meeting with Nixon who announced he likes to collect jokes about him and now he has three volumes full. ‘Me too, me too!’ responded Brezhnev. “I have five prison camps full of them!’ But at least it was a joke. The overwhelming fear from Stalin’s era has turned into ridicule. Now we are laughing even about the fear itself. Of course, the KGB “boys in grey” are still around and newspapers are full of typical Soviet crap about latest Comparty’s decisions and heroic efforts to save the crops, but changes are afoot.

John’s parents live in a posh apartment block in the centre of the city between two parks, built in the 1930s with only one minor disadvantage – no lift. So I carry Rob, puppy and pram up to the third floor.

‘Oh, such a cutie!’ Nana is all over the pup when I finally open her door, quite breathless. ‘What’s his name? Can he eat some meatballs for lunch? What time does he need to be walked?’

Nana has been my saviour every time I need a baby sitter. Nana is always at home, always available, and always keen to look after them. After all she is a retired primary school teacher. ‘Do you understand,’ I remember her worried voice few years ago, ‘that Karl is eighteen months old now and still can’t recite a simplest poem? John knew at least ten by that age!’ Worrying, isn’t it? Well, I must admit that now, at nearly four, Karl still hates poems and hasn’t learned a single one. On the other hand, he can do at least half of primary school math, just for fun. So I’m not particularly worried.

‘Right.’ After the mandatory cup of tea I cut Nana’s monologue. ‘I must go.’

Nana’s verbal abilities are inexhaustible and if not cut abruptly, she will carry on nonstop about yesterday’s newspaper, yoga, sunspots, Mayan calendar... You name it. The only problem – she makes such a mess of it all that after ten minutes all you want to do is plug your ears and run in despair.

The cycling match around the Freedom Monument looks a complete mess, but cheering crowds have gathered. Only a few look like actual sport fans: the rest impatiently pace around the park with happy but shy smiles as if they can’t believe they’re being so silly, waiting to witness an impossible celebration.

So far perestroika has only been a lot of talk: but this one might be the first sign that something will really change. Or not. It depends. The density of uniformed police and KGB “boys in gray” is very high, so it looks more likely the ‘not’ bit. But they also appear confused and concerned. What they are waiting for? Orders from Moscow haven’t arrived yet?

Suddenly, at half past six, the crowd parts like the Red Sea for Moses. And there they come. The group. Just a few people. Six? Seven? Some young, some with grey hair, but all very focussed. Step by step, with a mission in their hearts. A murmur spreads through the crowd – some of the group members have already been detained today.

Eva at the front is wearing our national Latvian costume. The roses they carry - they represent our red-white-red national flag, banned since the Soviets took over. We are so desperate that we watch The Sound of Music repeatedly just to see that huge Austrian flag the Baron von Trapp hangs out, because it so looks like our own. Now I am witness to something much greater than a Hollywood film – something that my parents never dreamed to see.

The crowd is emotional, tears blurr our sight. The brave approach the monument and solemnly lay the flowers under the words engraved at the bottom of the monument – ‘for Freedom and Fatherland’. When two youngsters at the front unroll a long poster “For the victims of 14th June”, people burst into applause.

After my dim and hopeless twenty-five years under the Soviet rule I feel high, really high! I have seen a miracle. It seems everyone around me has similar feelings. The inert crowd turns into one unit, tuned on the same wavelength. We have all seen the miracle. One after another more and more people step out of the crowd to lay flowers at the base of the monument. More flowers. More people...

How many are here? A thousand? Two? Three? I have no idea. The crowd is overwhelming. It is incredible. Fantastic!

Suddenly somebody taps on my shoulder. It’s John, putting his camera down. ‘Look there!’

Oh, shit! There with absolute innocence all over her face, comes Nana, pushing Rob with one hand and holding Karl with the other. Thank God, at least the puppy is left at home.

‘I just wanted to see what this is all about,’ says Nana.

Yes, okay, but ... ‘Nana, what if something happened? With two small children? Why do you think we left them at home?’

‘With me? Nothing will happen with me!’ Nana bangs on her chest. ‘Who would dare upset the survivor of the siege of Leningrad?’

I look at her lapel. Indeed, she has attached a bunch of her war medals there.

‘It took me some time to dig them out.’ She giggles. ‘I didn’t find them all, but these will do. Do not mess with a heroic grandmother taking her two precious grandchildren to watch the cycling match!’ Nana snorts with contempt. ‘At least I speak proper Russian! Not like these... mongrels!’ She refers to the fact that her Russian, spoken in Leningrad over fifty years ago, is top-notch in comparison with the usual Soviet misuse of the Russian language.

Despite Nana’s confidence I’m furious and so is John. Nana has weak legs thanks to the siege of Leningrad, when a beam from a collapsing house crashed on her feet. Soviet wartime medicine during the Second World War was quite simple for civilians – heal yourself or die. If authorities take an action now, there will be no escape with a stroller in this crowd.

‘Promise, you’ll not do it again, will you?’ John’s voice sounds grave.

Rob is sitting in his pram, happily clapping hands, and then with his little finger points at the nearest police uniform. ‘Oo-ok, the-s a chekist!’ he cries out. ‘And ano-e’ un!’

The only word he manages to pronounce clearly, of course, is “chekist”. So tonight, instead of a chapter from Winnie the Pooh my sons will have a lecture about the difference between ordinary police and chekists, the infamous KGB “boys in grey”. If they started using this word, I must ensure they at least use it right.

Chapter 3

The next day I can’t stop myself checking out the Freedom Monument again. The steps of the monument are still covered in flowers. The police haven’t removed them. More importantly – new people, very cautious, are still approaching with flowers. The miracle continues.

‘Hi!’ Of course, Gunnar is here with a few of his mates from the theatre where Gunnar does something with lights. ‘You know, the police whisked away the last crowd after midnight!’ He proudly shows bruises on his arms. ‘Can you believe this? It’s like a crazy festival!’

No, of course, I can’t believe it. Today the park is full of people strolling around, and they all look somehow... nobler than just a few days ago.

We sit on a park bench and watch people approaching the monument, one after another, while Keggy entertains himself in the lawn. Karl keeps pushing Rob around and they both are busy spotting chekists. According to their happy cries, there are plenty.

‘Like they give up pretending?’ Gunnar watches as two elderly ladies hurry past, carrying impressive bouquets.

‘Exactly. The life of a schizophrenic is hard, you know. Tiring.’ I flick the ash from the tip of my cigarette. All these years had been tiring, indeed. You go to kindergarten, then to school and lately to your workplace, spouting the required Soviet clichés day by day. Then you return home, close your door and only then think what you really want to think and be who you really are. If you still can remember who you are. ‘Many just give up, accepting the Soviet phrases as their own and the Soviet way of thinking as the right way to maintain personal integrity. Many others drown themselves in a bottle.’

‘Yes, like my dad.’ Gunnar pushes both hands into pockets. ‘He drank himself to death because all these lies about the brightest communistic future and our incredible achievements...’

‘ Majority just kept dancing this schizophrenic tango.’

Until yesterday.

It feels silly just to sit and watch, but I simply can’t go back home. After another cigarette I wave goodbye to Gunnar. I’ve decided who I want to share the moment with. ‘Boys, let’s go to grandpa’s!’

My mother still works full time at her design lab, but dad will be home. He’s retired. The boys are happy. It’s a rare treat because my parents live at the other end of the city so it’s a long trip, especially with Rob still in the pram. It took nearly six months to convince our lousy paediatrician that something is wrong with Rob. Now it’s obvious. He is nearly three but still can’t run like others his age and it’s hard for him to keep his balance. At first the doctors talked about it being hip dysplasia but now they’ve referred us to a neurologist. The appointment is next month. Until then...

Well, I can cope. Nothing is too tough for me today.

‘You have to behave, right?’ My parents, who have been great as parents, are a total failure as grandparents. They spoil their precious grandchildren senseless.

At the apartment when the first rush of excitement is over and boys are safe in the kitchen with raspberry cake, I settle down with my dad in his studio where the walls are covered with jammed bookshelves. The sun shines in through large windows. It’s a beautiful afternoon. Blue and breezy when everything seems washed clean.

‘I sense something fishy here.’ Dad says after I report on yesterday’s developments. ‘It reminds me the period right after the war. KGB was setting up one resistance group after another to weed out the anti-soviet elements.’

‘Do you really suspect the KGB is behind all this?’

‘The economy might be crap and so is the Army, but the KGB is as sharp as ever. Do you really believe they would not have stopped the demonstration yesterday if they’d wanted to?’

We both know they were able to, of course. The Hungarian bloodbath happened before my time, but I clearly remember the summer of 1968, sitting in the beach with my parents, listening to the small radio bringing the news about Soviet tanks putting an end to The Prague Spring, while my little cousin enthusiastically built a sandcastle on the shoreline. I remember the contrast of the sunny day, the pink flowers on her frilly swimsuit, and the freezing fear delivered by radio. Some people, walking past us, spotted our faces and stopped to listen. Then more joined, and soon a silent group of strangers in swimsuits stood around our transistor radio. They stood and listened and then left – in silence. It felt as though all the warmth of the day was sucked out in those moments.

‘Yeah, I agree but the question is – why didn’t they stop it yesterday? We can’t just write it off because of the confusion... Stop!’ I scream, and jump up as I spot Karl rushing in and excitedly diving into Dad’s latest acquisition – a 17th century edition of the Latvian Bible lying on the dining table. ‘Not with your dirty hands!’

‘Let him look. I’m glad he is interested.’ Dad opens the thick disjointed book without a cover. ‘It needs some serious restoration anyway.’

‘No! He’s old enough to show respect. He’ll ruin the book with his little ruthless fingers and twenty years from now he’ll blame you for letting him do it.’

‘Who cares!’ Dad smiles. ‘I won’t be here that long anyway.’ He strokes the fragile yellow paper and then looks at our disappointed Karl. ‘In fact, I think I have something better for you,’ he says. ‘I got these with birthdays in mind, but you can have it now.’ He takes two large wrapped boxes from the shelf, ‘Can you fetch Rob, please?’

I send Karl to the bathroom and get Rob from the kitchen. He looks quite happy, covered in cream and raspberry bits. When both – children and kitchen – are presentable again, we return to the studio.

Dad gives each boy a box. ‘Hope you enjoy this.’ He sounds unsure. ‘There was a long queue at the shop for these, so I got two.’

‘You went outside?’ I’m impressed, because after the gulag my father became agoraphobic, and since retirement he leaves house for funerals only. It’s always my mum who does the shopping. A picture of him strolling through overcrowded shops, “just in case”, somehow shocks me.

Dad dreamily looks out the window. ‘We had a meeting for the Artists Union last week. About certain candidates from our sector for the elections and such.’

The winds of change! My father attended – voluntarily – an official meeting!

‘And?’

‘On the way back I decided to look into the “Children’s World”. I hadn’t been in that mall for years. Everyone was buying these so did I. Are they any good?’

The excited murmur from the corner proves that purchase is good, very good. I lift the lid, already thrown on the floor in the middle of the studio. Lego! Standard size Lego cubes, produced in East Germany.

‘Dad, you’re a genius. Plus so lucky. To leave house once a year and find such a treasure.’

Soviet toy shops are very like our grocery shops. There are certain basic items always available, and the rest is blind luck. Among the usual are quite scary dolls with overoptimistic smiles, a few plastic Kalashnikov replicas, a few trucks and rubber balls. The soft toys on the shelves (if there are any at all) usually are ugly.

The best toys for me were the different versions of the metal construction game sets like Meccano sets. For more advanced projects you could even find small electric engines that run on batteries. I loved them as a child, and now these sets kept my boys busy. Of course, nuts and bolts turning up where you least expected them was an annoying addition to the process. But Lego, even if it is an East German replica - that is something special!

When the boys are back to Lego, dad continues. ‘I know, we all feel overexcited and very impatient right now, but please, be careful! I really don’t want you in trouble.’

‘Well, you ended up in coal with Polar bears... Why do you think I can’t stand the same destiny?’ I know, it’s a silly answer. I have boys to rise, but if Dad thinks I’ll be hibernating under the duvet out of fear, he is very mistaken.

‘My gut feeling says – stay away from the Helsinki group - seriously! Sure, there might be genuine people, ready to burn bridges, but, trust me, some of them must be KGB agents. Not informers, I mean full agents, pushing others down to hell.’

Maybe Dad has a point. ‘Some of them seem too weird for my taste anyway, to be honest. So no, I haven’t considered joining them.’

‘I don’t know what all this is about, I can’t put my finger on it, but something big is going on. I understand that Poland with its Solidarity getting out of hand. But all this movement breaking out now - in all three Baltic republics - simultaneously? Remember, just two months ago they kicked the Kazakhs right in the guts. Think about that. There must be one conductor, leading this new orchestra, and I suspect it’s seated in Moscow.’

Indeed, it’s a bit crazy to imagine Moscow has signed a self-destruction plan. Which means there must be some serious backlash coming, and pretty soon. ‘Let me enjoy the momentum, Dad! It will change, sure... one way or another.’

As far as I know, at the top of the Communist party a battle is raging between supporters of perestroika and the old guard. You can easily spot it in the newspapers, reading between lines.’ Dad slowly straightens the serviette under his coffee mug. ‘Even the economic reforms of perestroika are strangled down in the sectors despite orders from Moscow. With so-called glasnost, political liberalisation, things are even worse, because nobody actually knows where it all goes and any outcome is impossible to predict.’

‘You know Dad, the demonstration of yesterday is still there, it hasn’t gone! If you could see all the faces in the town today.’

‘I see yours, and that troubles me enough.’

I understand why Dad is worried. He had been trying to shake off the dust of the coal pits all his life. It didn’t clear after Stalin’s death, it wasn’t washed away with his amnesty and release. The political prisoner is a badge Soviets do not remove. It cursed my dad during his university days, it cursed him at each job, and it cursed him every time he tried to travel abroad. It is still here, now.

‘I know, Dad, but still... I’m glad I was there yesterday! It was well worth it.’

‘Just think about them.’ Dad nods towards the boys.

I do. Right now I think how I will get all the scattered Lego cubes back in the boxes, boxes into the stroller, and then the entourage in the tram.

‘I do, Dad. My only problem – the more I think, more impatient I get. Just imagine – wouldn’t it be great – the boys growing up in a free country?’

Back at home John has different news to share while I mop the enormous puddle in the middle of the room, so generously provided by our beloved puppy.

‘Charlie is leaving his job,’ John says. ‘Offered it to me, if I fancy.’

‘What’s that? Anything will be better than that sinkhole of yours.’

‘Well, it has been poorly paid – all these posters for the builder’s union club, but you can’t underestimate the time factor.’

That’s true. None of this Soviet nine to five slavery, even if the salary is minuscule. ‘I’ve noticed Charlie can take out-of-office hours as well, especially lately, but what exactly does his job entail?’

‘Painting mannequins. Mostly spraying. Easy. The salary’s the best part – like five times my current work. What do you think?’ John looks excited.

‘Five times more? With the butcher our new best friend and your new salary, Keggy will thrive!’

‘Aren’t we lucky?’ John reaches out and grabs me in a bear hug. ‘It’s the perfect time for a celebration.’ He whispers, nuzzling my neck.

We’re lucky, indeed. In more ways than one. The boys are fast asleep and won’t wake up.


(The rest of the story https://www.amazon.com/Eagle-F...

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Books by Zenta Brice

Photo of Zenta Brice

About Zenta Brice

Zenta, a Soviet born journalist and author, usually is plotting her next book in the vegetable patch in the South of France. When not fighting with weeds and words, she can be found watching the news in awe as the world goes to ratshit.