The Distinguished Assassin, Second Extract

29th December ‘52

At Kirovskaya, Natasha stands on the escalator as it descends into the bowels of Moscow. She recalls how just over a week ago, on 21st December, she and a few other work colleagues had to celebrate Comrade Stalin’s birthday, there something obscene about this. For though the majority of people know that he is a tyrant, still they celebrate him, some out of coercion, others freedom. They were made to stand in front of the Institution and were instructed to sing happy birthday. “Enough of Koba!” Natasha remonstrates, and returns her attention to where she is, looking down the escalator and admiring the tall lanterns which illuminate this underworld. She gazes down, letting her eyes follow the parade of lights all the way to the bottom, their end marked by a small metal cabin in which sits, no doubt, a surly station attendant. She looks across at the other escalator, which ascends this great burrow and sees one other passenger, a lone man, some way off. The way he stands, hands in pockets, head cocked thoughtfully to one side, reminds her of Aleksei. She waits for him to come closer, and, as he does, as he nears her, Natasha looks at him intently. He doesn’t have Aleksei’s well-built frame and his face is obscured by a thick beard, yet it could still be him, she thinks. Natasha leans over, almost losing her footing, and as he comes up parallel with her she stares right at him, hoping to look into his eyes, but he doesn’t reciprocate her gaze, rather looks away awkwardly. Are his eyes green? She’s sure they are, yes. But not gentle, no, but then, how could they be, if it is indeed him, after what he’s been through. She’s instantly sure that it is him and so calls after him, “Aleksei, Aleksei!” But he doesn’t turn round, no, just looks straight ahead like he hasn’t heard her. “It’s you, isn’t it? Aleksei? Aleksei!” she screams.

The attendant … yes, there is one installed in the cabin at the bottom of the escalator, and as expected, she is surly too … is roused from her stupor of ennui, of civic duty, by Natasha’s frantic cries, and calls out, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” over and over.

At first, Natasha ignores her and continues to shout after the man. Only when he reaches the top of the escalator does he finally turn round, and though he’s too far away now, he seems to look at Natasha as if he does know her after all, is her lost husband, is Katya’s father, is Aleksei her true love … Aleksei Nikolayevich Klebnikov. But then he disappears out of sight.

“Have you gone mad?” the attendant bellows into her ear.

“It’s nothing to do with you, okay,” Natasha shouts back, stepping off the escalator.

“Yes it is, when you’re making a show of yourself and disturbing other comrades.”

“Look around you! There are no other comrades!”

“What am I then?”

“Oh, just get back in your bloody box, will you?” Natasha quips, and walking away, onto the platform, she worries that the attendant might follow her, report her, but she doesn’t, she leaves her be. Perhaps, for her, sisterhood precedes Soviethood.

Was it him? Natasha asks herself again. No, it can’t have been, he’s in a labour camp. Had he escaped, Vladimir would’ve told her. If it were him, he would have acknowledged her sooner, would’ve come to her. No, it wasn’t him, she concludes.

And yet she feels him here in her heart, and she touches her chest at this moment, senses he’s close by, that he is here in Moscow. Yes, she has always been able to feel him, to know when he’s near.

A train is coming; Natasha hears its murmur growing louder. God, she is talking of Aleksei like she’s with him again, like he never left her. But he didn’t leave her, he was taken from her. Why does she feel him again? There must be a reason. Yes, perhaps this intuition is right and she must accept that Vladimir is still lying to her and always will, that he isn’t a reformed character, hasn’t had a great change of heart.

The train pulls up alongside the platform. She gets on. However, is she not deluding herself with this feeling? Perhaps her heart has concocted it, and it represents one last desperate bid to bring Aleksei back even though he’s never coming back!

Natasha rubs her forehead with the tips of her fingers, vainly hoping that this physical gesture might relieve some of the pressure of her thoughts, lessen their power, their effect. The woman sitting opposite gazes at her with a worried look, as if observing someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and maybe she is near to mental collapse, Natasha wonders.

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