It wasn’t a day for dying. It was early spring and hope was in the air. Birdsong was reaching a crescendo and new growth was everywhere, above and below. Cloistered in a musty bedroom on the first floor of a north London care home, Marina was aware of creation in all its abundance beyond the window. But in the room with her, a life was now extinguished. Death is no respecter of sunshine or seasons. Aunt Ludmila lay in the bed, gaunt and still, while in the corridor outside voices were hushed as carers continued to go about their duties. Marina felt very alone in her vigil as she awaited the arrival of the undertakers. She hoped they would be able to restore Ludmila to something of her former beauty with their makeup and prosthetics. She wanted her aunt to look like the Russian aristocrat she had been as she went to meet her maker.
Marina glanced round the room. After paying fortnightly visits for the last three years it was as familiar as her own sitting room, although small and rather dingy. The staff had made an effort to brighten it with paintings which once hung in Ludmila’s apartment. There was the small watercolour of fur-robed skaters, two of whom looked very like Romanovs. And there was the much bigger oil painting of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, on a winter’s morning, dwarfed by an ornately heavy gold frame. St Petersburg – Ludmila’s home, though one she had fled as a small child, secreted away by her parents as the Bolsheviks closed in on the city. They had arrived in London via Scandinavia with little more than the clothes on their backs, leaving their daughter’s inheritance for the mob to plunder.
The only other ornament was a large cross on the chest of drawers. It was a Russian Orthodox design, with large and small cross pieces and an angled footplate lower on the vertical. Richly decorated in vibrant colour and gold leaf, it exuded the wealth and opulence of the Russian elite and seemed out of place in the stark little bedroom.
In an effort to distract herself from the her aunt’s remains, Marina rose and went over to have a closer look at the cross. It was heavy, made from a dense, blackened wood, with a box-like base.
She turned it upside down to see if there was any hint as to its age on the base and noticed a small, deliberately carved groove along one edge. Marina hesitated for a moment – but, after all, everything in this room was now hers, she supposed, and the compartment was crying out to be opened. In the end, she had to use the edge of her key as a lever. A piece of folded paper fell to the floor. Instinctively, she bent to retrieve it, unfolding it carefully as it was brown and tattered with age. The writing on it was faint and spidery, written in haste, and Marina moved to the window to see it more clearly. The script was Cyrillic, so it took her several minutes to decipher. She silently thanked her mother for the early lessons she had so resented at the time. Ludmila’s sister had been determined her daughter should never forget her heritage.
Raking her memory, she found it helpful to read the words aloud as she had to her mother forty years before. “The Bolsheviks are very close now. We have to leave tonight but we can’t take it all with us. Too . . . dangerous. Pyotr has hidden Catherine’s gift. We will return when the dust has settled. I have read Andersen’s work and I have left a trail of breadcrumbs, for I cannot let those murderers touch her legacy. Here is the start of the trail – Christ’s blood redeems us. His saints smile upon us. We are not worthy to gather the crumbs from beneath their table. We are crushed beneath their heels.”
“I’m so sorry to disturb you, Mrs Jordan. The undertakers are here.” Marina jumped as the carer put her head round the door. She thrust the paper, guiltily, in to her pocket as she dragged her imagination back from St Petersburg on the eve of the Bolshevik onslaught. Her grandmother must have written that note, and her terror was palpable. But the practicalities of the moment intervened. She would think about it later.
“Thank you, Eva,” she replied. “We are ready.”