Nikolai cursed under his breath as he angled his body forward against the howling wind, his coat wrapped tightly around him to fend off the arctic blizzard that swirled around his body. His feet, damp despite the heavy shoes, trudged step by step through the thick snow, occasionally tripping on unseen potholes and discarded bottles.
The revolver hanging from his belt felt weighty, banging against his leg with each step. The uniform he wore beneath his coat itched with every step, chafing his thighs as he walked. It was several sizes too large, and the leather belt that held his trousers up felt tight against his stomach. The sleeves were rolled back on his wrists, which at least had the advantage of preventing the wind from whistling up his arms.
At his side a woman twice – no, three times – his age clutched his hand tightly, her scarf all but obscuring her face, bent towards the ground in an attempt to minimise the effect of the gale.
“This wind, Nikolai,” she said, “it blows straight in from Siberia. You can feel it pressing right through your bones.”
“I’m sorry to drag you out in this,” he said. “Maybe we should turn around and go back. You could be sitting at home in front of a nice warm fire.”
“Hush,” she replied. “The Party needs you to be there. This is a big day. Come, Nikolai, things won’t go well for you if you don’t show up.”
They battled through the falling snow, pausing to look in the window of the last remaining shop in the village. The shop was closed, of course. Its window displayed a paltry array of sun-bleached packaging, all the reds faded away, leaving just the blue-green ghosts of logos and slogans. A single fluorescent tube flickered weakly over the display, each flash of light illuminating the dusty selection of goods that sparsely occupied the window space. A family of mice had nested in one corner, their droppings forming a morse code of scattered sentences.
“I remember when this was a real shop,” she said. “You could buy bread, milk, bacon and eggs, a tin of beans, everything you needed. And next door was a butcher, Nikolai. They sold the best sausages I have ever eaten. Oh, how your father used to love those sausages, after a hard day’s work in the factory. You won’t remember that, of course. The butcher closed his doors before you were even born.”
They passed a dilapidated concrete bus shelter, seemingly mocking them with its long out-of-date timetable and list of exotic destinations: but there would be no bus today. It had been years since the last bus rumbled through the village, offering its passengers the opportunity – for those who could afford the fare – to visit the next village, and the next, and on to the outlying towns and, eventually, the city itself.
“We used to catch the bus from here, Nikolai, your father and I. We would go into the city. The fun we had. But then the authorities cancelled the bus. They spoil everything.”
Behind the low brick houses on the left of the street there loomed the hulking, rusting remains of the factory that had once provided the village with its income, its centre of gossip, speculation and philosophy, its very life. Now vines forced their way through the shattered windows, and wild foxes mated, defecated, scavenged and brought up their young in the disused chimneys and outbuildings. A huge crane teetered in front of an open access hatch, threatening to collapse at any moment into the tangle of distorted metal that lay all around.
They crossed the road to avoid the bar with its steamed-up windows, the only sign of life in the village. From within came the sound of men arguing, debating, teasing each other with jokes and the odd snatch of song. But there was no laughter at the jokes. The men in this village had not laughed since the factory closed, years earlier, taking with it their sense of manliness and their pride. The bar had once been a source of refuge and relaxation after a hard day in the factory: now it was the only place they could go, outside their own homes, where they could forget their dreams and their responsibilities.
“Are you sure you’ve brought it?”
Nikolai already had his other hand in the large pocket of his coat pocket, but he wrapped his numb fingers around the small parcel to make sure.
“Yes, I have it.”
“Good. It wouldn’t do to turn up empty handed, would it. And I would hate to have to go all the way back and start again.”
Eventually, after what seemed like hours, they found themselves struggling up the slippery steps to the village hall. The sound of music came from within, and the glazed doors cast a sickly yellow light over the snow-covered stone steps.
Nikolai pulled the door open, and warm air hit them in the face. A woman appeared, smiling, and welcomed them inside.
“Nikolai!” she said, beaming. “So glad you could make it. This weather! Honestly, it’s a miracle everyone managed to get here today. Here, let me take your coat.”
As she slipped the heavy coat from Nikolai’s shoulders, she stood back to admire his costume.
“Oh, my gallant soldier! What a picture you are! I do so love a man in uniform.”
“I’ve brought a present,” said Nikolai, handing over the soggy parcel.
“Oh, how kind of you! Come in, come in, go and join the other children. So kind of mummy to bring you here in all this snow. But we can’t control the weather, eh? That’s Northumberland for you, it’s a constant battle with the elements. Pick him up at around five, Kathy? Or you’re welcome to stay and have a cup of tea.”
“Thank you,” said Nikolai’s mother, glancing over her shoulder at the blizzard outside. “I rather think I will.”