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Short story

Egg and chips by Richard Hopgood

I’m not an adult but a boy, fifty years ago. I’m seated at the end of a long table with thirty boys either side of it in a vast dining hall overlooked by a sombre paintings of old headmasters and overseen by a master with a gavel who is reputed to be the most ferocious beater in the school. His job is to keep order over 800 boys at breakfast, lunch and supper, seven days a week. We fear but do not revere him.

It’s supper time, in winter, and we all know what is to come because the menus are displayed on the notice board outside. Egg and chips. The only time we will get chips all term. In my innocence, I tremble in pleasurable anticipation. At home, this is my favourite tea – so I’m going to feast myself on memories, a boy’s own version of Proust’s madeleine.

The table is arranged hierarchically. At the top sits Locke, the house captain, an Olympian being with his own study and fire. I know this because I am his swab and he regularly threatens me with the sack. And then, in descending order, the monitors and sixth formers and, year-by-year, down to the first years. The two monitors supervise the dishing out of food from huge metal containers.

The eggs arrive, in a flat tray, swimming in fat with highly coloured yolks already acquiring a thick yellow skin. These we will tolerate, as a fitting companion for the chips, which are borne aloft by the serving staff with an ironic smile. We all stare avidly. If we were dogs, we would be salivating on to the table. Two containers per house. Ours are deposited on a table only a few feet away from us underlings. The aroma of fried potato induces a kind of melancholy at the thought of the transient happiness we are all about to experience.

Of course we have to wait. A long wait. Boys are served in strict order of seniority, apart from the monitors at our end. They watch approvingly as chips are piled wantonly on the plates of the sixth formers and monitors. We wince but calculate that, if the rest are shared out equally, we will do well enough. Boys a little older than me scurry up the table, two plates in each hand, then scurry back again to be re-laden. Five minutes, tops, and it will be our turn. We watch as the first container is emptied and the next is begun.

Then the first set-back. A serving boy returns with two used plates.

“Locke and Etheridge want seconds of chips.”

The monitors at our end look at each other, and then at the container of chips.

“OK,” one of them says, laconically, and starts piling chips on the first plate. Before he is finished, the other monitor signals him to stop.

“Tell them we’re running low. If there’s any left, we’ll send them up.”

The serving boy looks doubtful, as the second plate is lightly loaded, then shrugs and departs.

“Greedy twats,” the second monitor says, and resumes ladling out the chips for the increasingly junior customers. I calculate that we can expect around nine chips each. Not a feast, but not a famine either.

The serving boys return once again to be replenished. One of those plates will be mine, I calculate with growing excitement. The eggs will be cold by now but the chips will be from the bottom of the pan, the warmest part. I look to see where the salt and pepper are, and fantasize about having tomato sauce.

Then something happens.

“Hang on a mo,” monitor one says. He takes a plate and begins to pile it high with chips.

“Don’t want to be left with the scraps,” he says. “We’re entitled to a proper share…”

We underlings look aghast as they put the finishing touches to a tall pyramid of chips.

“OK, that should be enough. Don’t let Locke see…”

They position tea cups and jam jars in front of their plates to shield them from prying eyes and resume ladling out the last few chips.

My plate arrives with four chips. One of them is a fine specimen, but the others look puny. The bile of injustice rises in my throat.

“We’re done,” the first monitor says, holding the container aloft so its empty interior can be seen from the other end of the table.

Then they tuck in. I toy listlessly with my supper, watching their forks spearing chips into their mouths. After the twentieth chip I give up counting.

Come the revolution, I say to myself, egg and chips will be served in inverse order. The most junior boys will have the biggest helpings.

And then I remember the Gospel of St Matthew: Whoever has will be given more and they will have an abundance; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them…

Poetry

Three phone poems by Richard Hopgood

Not Like My Dad

When I was still at primary school
I swore I’d never get angry like my Dad
When I grew to be a man
And dreamed of chairing
Family disputes
With the calming irrefutable
Reasonableness
of the bureaucrat
I would one day become.

When I was a teenager
I swore I’d never run to fat
Like my fourteen stone Dad
But would stay
Lissom and slim,
Turning lanky
In my middle years.

When I was middle-aged
I swore I’d never
Wear stained jerseys
And sit mesmerised
In front of the TV
Watching the snooker,
Chuckling at John Virgo’s
Jokes and chucking
Handfuls of nuts
Into my insatiable gob.

So now, with the odd trace
Of food on my otherwise
Immaculate sweater,
Seething indignantly
At the idiots around me
Pacified only
By the bags of nuts
Which nestle
In my shopping bag;
Shifting my seventeen stone
On the heavy cafe chair
And scanning tonight’s
TV schedules on my phone,

I thank the Lord
I’m still my own man,
As my Dad was
In his time
And all the fat, angry
Nut eating
Sedentary
Old Dads
Before him
Down the
Long ancestral line.

Each one of us
Happily
Unique.

 

Spring

A fresh April morning
The grass grows lank and silky
The first wood anemones appear
White with a faint hint
Of darkness.
Middle aged men
Amble the supermarket aisles
In shorts and sandals,
A faint sexual energy
Percolates through the air.

We should be journeying
Across the seas
Harried by sea gulls
And the soaring spray.

We should be
Stretched out in deck chairs
Dozing to the whisper
Of the midday tide.

We should be young
Like all this unfurled new life
But we are old and unserene
And energy for us
Is insomnia
And restiveness
Like a wind
Scuffing the dry dunes.

 

In Waitrose

Amongst the local bourgeoisie
In a Waitrose cafe
Assertive voices
Women in quilted jackets
An elderly man
In smart leather shoes
And a checked shirt
Carefully browsing
The Daily Mail
Until his even smarter wife
Says it is time to go.

On the wall
A giant mural
Of teapots and plates
And flagons of lemonade
A Famous Five feast
Drawn freehand and homemade.

Contentment
Comfort
Wholesomeness
Qualities not to be sniffed at
Which is maybe
Why I want to snort derisively
At my other self.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 10 by Emma Dark

It had been a long day and Marina was tired. Her head ached with all the information she was trying to process. She decided to go back to the hotel, to try to get a good night’s sleep, and to recharge her own batteries and that of her phone which had also run down. Deciding that a taxi would be the best option, she went to the rank outside Kirov’s apartment.

When she gave the hotel address to the first driver she was astonished when he asked ‘English?’ She smiled and said ‘Yes’. He simply spat on the ground and drove off. She stood for a moment, numbed and shocked at his behaviour, then gathered herself together and approached the next taxi. Although he took her, this driver was surly and ignored her attempts at conversation. ‘What on earth has happened?’ she thought.

When she reached her hotel, the usually friendly receptionist was stony-faced and, as Marina asked for her key, said in an abrupt tone, ‘Mrs Jordan, you have two messages.’

Two pieces of paper were slapped down in front of Marina and, before she could say ‘Thank you’, the receptionist turned her back. By the time she reached her room she had convinced herself that it was all due to her overtired imagination. Russians were not really known for their customer service skills anyway.

She sat on her bed and read the first message. It was from Mark and it said ‘For God’s sake, keep your phone on. Come home now – Salisbury.’

‘What on earth is he talking about?’ she wondered. ‘What has Salisbury got to do with anything? I’ll give him a call in the morning.’ She then turned to the second message, which was from Ivan and contained just one word: ‘Genuine’.

Next morning Marina realised she had fallen asleep in her clothes, still holding the two messages. She showered and dressed quickly. She felt a sense of urgency, but was not sure why. ‘A good breakfast will help,’ she thought.

As she passed the reception desk on her way to the dining room, the stony-faced receptionist pushed another message at her without saying a word. Despite that, she ate a very hearty breakfast before reading the message. It was from Ivan: ‘Mrs Jordan, you CANNOT leave St Petersburg without visiting the Hermitage Museum. I insist. Please allow me to be your guide again. 11am outside the main entrance. Please come.’

As Marina made her way back to her room, the receptionist beckoned her and said that, unfortunately, she had to leave today.

‘But I booked for another night.’

‘I am sorry. There must have been a mistake. The hotel is full tonight so you must leave.’

‘I am most unhappy about this and I will complain. You cannot just throw people out.’

The receptionist seemed to soften a little and said, in a whisper, ‘Personally I am sorry, Mrs Jordan, but it is better if you leave Russia as soon as you can. I’m sorry.’ Marina had no choice but to return to her room and pack.

After paying, she left the hotel in a huff. She still had ninety minutes to kill before meeting Ivan. She made her way on foot to the Hermitage Museum, walking slowly and trailing her case behind her, taking in the sights as she went. Even so, she reached the main entrance half an hour early. She could either sit on her suitcase or have a look around. She decided to give Mark a call. He answered on the first ring and before even saying ‘Hello,’ said ‘Haven’t you heard about Salis-’ then the line went dead.

‘Bad reception,’ thought Marina. ‘I can’t cope with any more mysteries today so I’ll call him later. In the meantime I’ll have a quick look round before Ivan arrives.’

She bought her ticket but, as she entered, she saw that Ivan was already there. He did not appear to have seen her. He was with a woman who was obviously distressed. Not wanting to be seen Marina ducked into the nearest hiding place, the Hermitage Museum Gift Shop.

‘What’s going on?’ she thought. ‘I’ve had enough of all this. Sod it! I might as well be a real tourist and just enjoy the rest of my visit.’ She was hiding behind some displays and her eye was caught by replicas of jewellery in the museum. ‘Well, if I can’t have the real thing I’ll get some fakes.’ She had to stick to the cheaper end of the range because some of the Fabergé replicas cost nearly £3,000 but, wanting something typically Russian as a keepsake, she impulsively bought three replica Fabergé eggs costing about £30 each. She put the receipts in her bag.

On her way out of the shop Marina bumped into Ivan. ‘Mrs Jordan. May I introduce my sister Anastasia.’ Another Anastasia. Anastasia nodded but stayed silent. She had obviously been crying.

Ivan continued. ‘Anastasia will wait outside for us as she has seen the Hermitage many times.’

Ivan bought his ticket and took Marina by the arm, almost frog-marching her through the Hermitage. He whispered as they walked. ‘The pearls are real and I must show you a portrait, if it is here. I must show so you will know I am telling the truth. If we cannot find the portrait, it is on my phone.’

‘What are you talking about? Just show me your phone.’ Ivan bought up a portrait of Catherine the Great. It was in profile and, as Marina looked, she could see that, strung through Catherine’s hair, was a rope of pearls. ‘Why do we have to see the original if you have a photo?’

‘Because I want you to trust and believe me as I must trust you. When we are outside, Anastasia will give you the pearls to take out of Russia. She is not sure she can trust you. That is why she is crying. We have found what is ours after so long, but it is not good for us to have it here in Russia. I have told Anastasia that, like the last Tsarina, we must trust someone.’

Marina did not know what to say. She felt ashamed that she had not trusted Ivan before and swore to him that she would do whatever she could to help before asking, ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Sell the pearls so we can have some kind of life. Siberia is awful, and my sister is living in a terrible hovel.’

Marina remembered the horrible flats she had seen and immediately understood. ‘I will, Ivan. You can trust me, I promise.’

‘Another thing. You should leave Russia now because there is some kind of trouble between our two countries. I am not sure what it is but there is some anti-British propaganda going on.’

‘I think I have felt it. I have been kicked out of my hotel.’

‘You must come and stay with us for your last night. But we should go now. We do not want to walk around carrying the pearls.’

When Ivan and Marina met Anastasia outside, she seemed to have resigned herself to the situation. Seeing Marina’s carrier bag she asked, in halting English, ‘What have you bought in the shop?’

‘Just some Fabergé eggs as a memento of my visit.’

‘Of course!’ said Ivan. He rushed back into the gift shop and emerged a few minutes later with a carrier bag containing a string of replica pearls.

***

They spent the evening in Anastasia’s tiny flat. It was cold and sparsely furnished. After warming themselves up with some excellent vodka, they learned about each other’s lives, relatives and possible family relationships. Ivan suggested that the pearls originally belonged to Catherine the Great but could have been handed down to Alexandra. Most royal families would pass jewels on to the next generation.

‘Talking of royalty, have you heard of a Prince Ouroussoff?’ Marina asked, remembering what she had been told in Kirov’s apartment.

‘The name sounds familiar, but I can’t remember. I don’t think my family liked him,’ said Ivan.

Marina Googled the name on her phone and found that there was a Prince Jules Ouroussoff who was Master of Ceremonies to Tsar Nicholas II. Although no connection was mentioned, there was also a Prince Nicolas Ouroussoff who lived in an openly gay relationship in Paris with the famous Russian Romain de Tirtoff, more commonly known by his nickname of Erte, who was famous for practically inventing the Art Deco movement. Erte was a set and costume designer for the Folies Bergère in Paris. He and the Prince were lured to Hollywood in the 1930 by Louis B Mayer of MGM and Erte was responsible for most of the fabulous sets seen in films of the time. However, what stopped Ivan and Marina in their tracks was that Erte was also a renowned jeweller who particularly liked Fabergé.

‘I’m not going back to London. I’m going to Paris,’ Marina announced. Ivan and Anastasia simply nodded.

***

The next day Ivan and Anastasia went to the station with Marina. She had booked a seat on the 18:23 service to Paris via Minsk, the first available train. It was going to be a long trip, almost 3,000 miles, so she had booked a sleeper. They had decided that train travel was better than flying as there were fewer security checks.

During the day Ivan had carefully removed the sales tag from the replica pearls he had bought and put it on the real ones. He told Marina to put the pearls in her Hermitage Museum Gift Shop bag with her ‘Fabergé’ eggs, and to put her receipts in the bag as well.

Before they left the flat, and to her great surprise, Ivan gave her three bottles of the best vodka and four packs of 200 cigarettes. ‘Thank you Ivan, but I am not much of a drinker and I don’t smoke.’

‘They are not for you. They are so the guards have something to find and will not look further.’

As they said their goodbyes at the station, Marina tried to reassure Ivan and Anastasia that she would do her best for them. They both hugged her before she boarded the train.

***

Under normal circumstances Marina would have loved this trip. When she was abroad, she always felt as if she was living in the present, more alive and alert. But this was no ordinary trip – this was to reclaim what was hers. She eventually managed to sleep but was abruptly awoken at the Latvian border. She was glad she had the vodka and cigarettes as the Russian guards rifled through her suitcase before she entered the EU. They wordlessly took the vodka and cigarettes from her, giving the contents of the Hermitage bag a cursory glance before shoving it to one side.

Marina spent the rest of the journey planning what she would do. During the trip she had read everything she could find online about Erte and the Prince. The only place mentioned was the Folies Bergère, so that would be her first point of call in Paris.

It was morning when the train arrived at Gare du Nord. ‘Paris is beautiful in the spring,’ she thought. ‘No wonder those Russian exiles chose to live in Paris!’ She took a taxi to her destination, but it was closed of course. ‘What on earth am I doing standing outside the Folies Bergère with my suitcase?’ she wondered. Then, as if someone was saying her thoughts out loud, she heard someone say, ‘Madamoiselle, que faites-vous ici?’

Marina looked in to the face of a very made-up lady in her sixties. She was holding a bunch of keys which obviously opened the doors of the Folies Bergère. Too tired to remember her schoolgirl French, she answered in English. ‘I am trying to find out everything about Erte and Prince Nicolas Ouroussoff.’

‘Madamoiselle! I know everything. Come with me and I will tell you. First I must open up and get some things ready for the show tonight, but I will tell you all I know as I work. I am a dresser here. Not many people are interested in Erte now but I adore his work. My grandfather was a dresser here as well and he told me so many stories about the fabulous Russian, Erte. Oh the parties! They were so very naughty. As their personal dresser, my grandfather lived with Erte and Nicolas. You should have seen the costumes! You should have seen them in their prime . . . We still live in the same building – my mother was the concierge – and we have many of their cast-off costumes in the attic. They are rotting away now, old rubbish my mother said, but we were not allowed to throw them out. My grandfather told her that was the special instruction from the Prince, in case the rightful owners ever came looking for him. Erte made all that stuff so I am not sure who he meant – maybe the girls who wore them? I don’t know.’ She paused for breath before adding, ‘I am Sabine. What is your name?’

As Marina told her, she realised she had not said a word up to then. ‘Thank God this lady loves to talk,’ she thought. But then a thought entered her mind: maybe they had all misjudged Prince Ouroussoff?

‘After I have finished here you must come back with me. If you are studying Erte, I will show you our attic.’

Marina waited in Sabine’s office. She felt rather stunned by how much her new acquaintance liked to share and, when Sabine took Marina home on the Metro at four o’clock, she still didn’t stop talking. ‘She must be lonely,’ thought Marina. When they reached the building, Sabine led Marina up six flights of stairs to the attic. ‘Typical French building, with no lifts,’ Marina thought.

‘Go in there and have a good look. Take what you want. It is a shame to let it all go to waste. There is nothing of value, just old costumes and fake jewellery. I will make coffee, come down when you are finished.’

Marina looked around. She saw a lot of very dusty, old ostrich feathers on glamorous head dresses, faded shoes and moth-eaten stockings. She had just decided that Sabine was right, that there was nothing of value, and had turned to go when she caught sight of a spitting image of Aunt Ludmila’s cross sitting on top of an old cardboard box. She picked it up and immediately realised that it was too light to be an original. There was no groove in the bottom and she decided it was just another fake. Then, on impulse, she opened the cardboard box beneath the cross. It almost fell apart with age and out tumbled costume jewellery and a linen bag. The bag’s material felt familiar and she literally tore it open – the fabric was very old and gave way easily. Out rolled three eggs and Marina knew immediately what they were – Fabergé.

At that moment Marina’s phone rang. It was Mark.

‘Where the hell are you? Don’t you know what has been going on? I’ve been so worried.’

‘Mark stop there. I’m fine. I’m safe in Paris. All I can say is that due to luck, coincidence, and a family guardian angel I have been on the most incredible Easter Egg Hunt of my life. I am coming home soon and I will explain everything when I get back.’ She rang off.

Each of the real Fabergé eggs bore a small label and, using her phone, she took close-up photos of them in situ. She placed the treasure to one side and took the carrier bag with the Hermitage Museum Gift Shop replicas out of her case. She carefully removed the labels from the replicas and put those now-unlabelled fakes in what was left of the box. After checking that the original labels were perfectly legible in her photos, she gently removed them from the Fabergé eggs and attached them to the fakes in the heap of cardboard. She then attached the fake eggs’ sales labels to the real eggs and placed them in her Hermitage Museum Gift Shop bag before putting it back in her suitcase. Turning back to her phone, she read the labels. They were written in French and were addressed to Irina Yusupor, Anastasia Hendrikova and Ludmila Vyrubova. They all had the same message and she read the one addressed to Ludmila. Although it was in French she understood and tears came to her eyes as she translated the words.

Pour ma cherie peu Ludmila. Souviens-toi de moi. Alexandra Feodorovna.
(To my darling little Ludmila. Remember me. Alexandra Feodorovna.)

***

Epilogue

Six months later Sabine received a banker’s draft for 50,000 Euros, with a note thanking her for taking care of the Prince’s possessions.

Ivan and Anastasia received enough money to last several lifetimes.

The search goes on for the descendants of Irina Yusupor.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 9 by Richard Hopgood

For once, Ivan seemed in more of a hurry to get away than Marina.

‘I need to take this to a jeweller’s,’ he said, stuffing the necklace into his back pocket. ‘I have a feeling it belonged to Anastasia.’

With that he turned and left the room and, when Marina exited the Palace, there was no sign of him. She hailed a taxi back to St Petersburg but, rather than return to the hotel, she stopped off at the Dom Knigi in Nevsky Prospect where there was a cafe which served drinkable coffee.

She stared at the photo and the inscription on the back. She knew the story of Tatiana’s French Bulldog puppy. It had been given to her by a patient she nursed, a dashing young cavalry officer to whom she had taken a shine. When the puppy died, he gave her another one. That animal accompanied the Romanovs all the way to Ekaterinberg where it too had died, bayoneted to death. Tatiana looked serious, even melancholy, in the photo but nursing would have brought her face-to-face with a great deal of suffering. Maybe, even then, she had a premonition of the dark days ahead.

The photo seemed different to the other clues. If it was one of the ‘crumbs’ which would eventually lead to Catherine’s gift, it was very hard to decipher. Could the numerals of the date mean something? Or the dog’s name, Ortipo? As far as she could tell, it meant nothing in Russian. Or was the photo simply to identify that the necklace had belonged to Tatiana? Well, if it did, it clearly was not ‘Catherine’s gift’.

Marina fell to thinking about Ivan. It had been creepy enough the way he kept appearing, like a stalker. But how on earth had he got her name from the hotel – and not just ‘Mrs Jordan’ but her full name as it appeared on her passport? Was he really the nephew of Countess Anastasia? His historical details about her might be accurate, but it was easy enough to pilfer somebody else’s history. The tragedy of the Romanovs had attracted all sorts of imposters.

She looked at the photo again. The unnamed ‘he’ was Dimitri Malama, a scion of minor nobility. His father had been a cavalry general and a military adviser to the Tsar. Young Dimitri had inherited his father’s military prowess and bearing. Wondering what had become of Dimitri after Tatiana’s murder, she Googled him on her phone. Yes, there he was, staring at the photographer, wearing boots and hussar’s uniform with a Doric column as a prop and trees in the background, looking like he had strode up the shore, a hero and a conqueror, in to a landscape by Claude. Later, when the Bolsheviks came to power, he became a Captain in the White Army and died in 1919 in the battle of Tsaritsyn. Where was that, she wondered? She looked it up and her eyes widened as she read how it had been re-named . . . Stalingrad.

Where did this lead her? To a dead end, it seemed. So what about the dog? Apparently Tatiana had her jewellers make models of Ortipo, encrusted with diamonds, as gifts for her friends. Might she have given one to Dimitri as a keepsake? And might he have taken it with him to Tsaritsyn, maybe as his only memento of the dead Tatiana? If so, what would have become of it when he died? Most likely, she thought, the Soviet authorities would have added it to their collections of Romanov jewellery which were placed in museums to illustrate the greed and superficiality of the ruling class – and maybe also, implicitly, the skill of Russian craftsmen. Some, of course, were sold for foreign currency. Some, inevitably, must have been purloined by the new ruling class. Kirov, the first Communist ruler of Leningrad, had apparently kept some Romanov pieces on display in his flat.

She decided to pay a visit to Kirov’s flat as it was not far from the hotel. It was possibly an irrelevance, a red herring, a cul de sac in the maze of her search and yet . . . When she thought how she had managed things so far, she recognised a strong element of luck, or coincidence – or, as she sometimes felt, a family guardian angel was guiding her from clue to clue. Logic had played a part – but quite a modest one.

Kirov’s flat was on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, not the most fashionable area of the city but a wide tree-lined street of some beauty. Here, the Leningrad boss had lived with his wife until his assassination in 1934. A charismatic personality, he had been popular in the city and the party, and was seen by some – fatally for him and for them – as a possible successor to Stalin. Much against her expectations, the flat rather charmed Marina. There were shelves crammed with books, two rather diminutive single beds next to each other, a kitchen in which plaster casts of food sat unappetisingly, and posters and photos from the time showing Kirov on building sites, talking to crowds and hobnobbing with a smiling Stalin. The carpets and wall colours had a brightness and warmth and it struck her that the flat reflected Kirov’s personality, that he was a man of great energy and warmth. He regularly attended the theatre, and ballet, and was said to have had affairs with a number of ballerinas. There was something hedonistic about him, a man who, for all the puritanism of his politics, knew how to enjoy the finer things in life.

Wandering aimlessly from room to room, she was suddenly transfixed by a small statue of a black dog. It had deep blue eyes and a collar encrusted with what looked like white diamonds, and her heart skipped a beat. Was this a lost gift from Tatiana?

‘Do not touch! It is forbidden to touch anything.’ The harsh voice behind her made her jump.

‘I’m . . . I’m sorry,’ she muttered. ‘I was just wondering . . . I believe that the Tsar’s daughter had something similar made for her friends, as a memento of her dog.’

She turned to face a stocky woman dressed in a dark grey uniform, who snorted derisively then said, ‘This is just a copy. Comrade Kirov was a modest man.’ The woman took the dog down from the shelf and showed it to Marina.

‘Do you know what happened to the originals?’ Marina asked meekly.

‘Probably sold. The white Russians in Paris had a lot of the Romanov stuff. A Prince Ourassef, I believe, was a prominent collector of confiscated jewellery.’

‘Really?’

Marina left the flat, turning the name of this exiled Prince round in her mind. She could have sworn her aunt had mentioned him once or twice, in a tone of contempt. Was this where the photo pointed?

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 8 by Nicki Kelland

‘So tell me, Sally, why are you here at the Yusupov Palace?’ Marina looked into the eyes of the man who called himself Ivan and thought about how ridiculous her story sounded.

‘Well, it all began when I was clearing out Aunt Ludmila’s room. I found a note that led me to St Petersburg and The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood where I found another note that led me to the Peter and Paul Fortress. It seems silly now I say it out loud, but I found another message there which led me to the museum inside the zoo. Then I found another note that led me here.’

‘What did the note say?’ Ivan asked quickly.

Marina pulled the faded yellowing paper out of her pocket, feeling it crackle as she unfolded it. She read the message to Ivan.

He was invited to dine but he came to die. Three times he died before he drowned. It obviously means Rasputin, but there seems to be nothing here. I suppose this is the end of the trail.’

‘Not necessarily. Have you been to the cellar, to the Rasputin Museum?’

‘No. I didn’t know there was one.’

‘I am not surprised. Only people who buy a ticket for the Russian guided tour get to see it. You have to buy a separate ticket for the museum from the lady who sells the audio guides and they are only available once you are inside the palace. Wait for me here. I won’t be long.’

Ivan strode out of the Moorish Drawing Room and back towards the heavy carved oak doors of the magnificent entrance.

‘What have I done?’ thought Marina. ‘Telling my silly story to a total stranger. He will think I am a complete fantasist.’

Her mind made up, Marina walked briskly towards the entrance intending to leave and come back on her own the following day but she stopped short when she saw Ivan chatting to a middle-aged woman. Standing just inside the entrance, she was wearing the dark red jacket that identified her as a guide, shaking her head and speaking rapidly in Russian.

‘There you are, my darling.’ Ivan beckoned Marina over to the guide. ‘This is Sally, my girlfriend from London.’ He grabbed her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers and squeezing them tightly as if he was sending her a message to play along.

The smiling eyes of the guide found Marina’s and she nodded politely.

‘За час до закрытия, Пожалуйста, оставьте до этого.’ The guide repeated her instructions and pointed along the hallway to a set of steps leading downwards.

‘What did she say?’ asked Marina, quietly. She felt awkward and on edge as Ivan led her by the hand towards the steps.

‘Shhh. Just keep walking until we get to the cellar,’ whispered Ivan. They continued down the steps which were illuminated by lights set within small alcoves. At the bottom, a wooden doorway opened into a large room whose walls were covered in photographic displays depicting the rise and fall of Rasputin.

‘So, what did she say?’ Marina asked. Her tone left no doubt she was not comfortable about being pulled into the cellar without explanation. She raised her hand, which was still entwined with Ivan’s.

‘Do you mind? I would quite like my hand back, please.’

‘I am sorry. I wanted her to believe you are my girlfriend. There are no more tours today or tomorrow and I wanted us to see the cellar without a crowd. She said we have one hour until the museum closes and we must be gone by then. Please, I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to help you find the next clue . . . ’ Ivan’s voice tailed away as he seemed to realise that he may have gone too far.

‘Well, alright. I suppose you’re only trying to help.’ Marina looked around at the stark white walls and the shiny display cases that filled the room. ‘This all looks very modern. It’s not at all what I was expecting. I can’t imagine that there will be a clue here.’ Deflated, she turned towards the staircase and prepared to make her way back upstairs.

‘Do you know the story of Rasputin?’ asked Ivan. Marina turned and shook her head. ‘He was a Strannik, a religious wanderer who claimed he had the power to cure disease. That’s how he became close to the Romanovs, the Tsarina Alexandria in particular. She was desperate to find a cure for her son’s haemophilia. Rasputin was a vain and boastful man who bragged about his special relationship with the Royal Family, often showing the Tsarina’s private letters in public. His behaviour meant he was suspected of having a sinister and corrupt influence over the Royal Family. Some people even thought of him as the Antichrist and, in 1914, he was stabbed by a woman who wanted to rid the world of his evil.’

‘So what happened to him?’ asked Marina. ‘And why would the clue send us here?’

‘Through here, this is where he began to die.’ Ivan ducked through another wooden doorway into a small room whose window was covered with a heavy red and silver silk curtain. The table was laid for dinner with a waxwork seated as if about to eat from the lavish display of food. The glow of the lightbulb that shone from the fireplace cast an eerie shadow across the features of the long-dead Rasputin.

Marina shivered as she stared into the waxwork’s sightless eyes. Ivan’s deep, accented voice echoed through the small room as he continued his story.

‘Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to the Tsar’s only niece, Irina, invited Rasputin to dinner. There were three other guests in the house at the time, a politician called VM Purishkevich, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Dr Stannislas de Lazovert. The four of them had made a pact to kill Rasputin and end his influence over the Royal Family. The Prince told Rasputin that Irina was suffering from a headache and he wanted the Strannik to cure her. In this room Prince Felix gave Rasputin Madeira wine and cake, both laced with cyanide, but he survived. When the Prince realised that Rasputin was still alive, he shot him in the chest. But this time, when Rasputin did not die, he was able to escape into the courtyard above us.’

‘What happened next?’ asked Marina, fascinated by the timbre of Ivan’s voice.

‘Purishkevich found him in the courtyard and shot him in the kidneys and the head. Rasputin fell into the snow and the conspirators, fearing he was still alive, beat him and bound his hands and feet with chains and rope before throwing him into the icy Nevka River. There was water in his lungs when his body was found, which meant he was alive when he was dumped in the river.’

Marina shivered as she felt a chill creep along her spine. ‘Ivan would do a great job as a tour guide on Halloween,’ she thought to herself. ‘The clue must be leading us to something structural in this room as the furniture and the waxwork must have been moved in here at some point to create the display.’ She ducked under the rope separating the tourists from the display. ‘The fireplace looks like an original feature.’ She knelt on the hearth and looked behind the glow of the light bulb that simulated a log fire. The bricks were old and worn and Marina stared at each one carefully, searching for anything that looked different. She was about to give up when she noticed a small cross scratched deeply into one of the bricks in the top right-hand corner. She ran her fingers over the cross and felt around the edges of the brick. Feeling a barely perceptible wobble, she pushed a little harder and a shower of dust landed on the bulb with a hiss.

Marina reached into her bag and her fingers closed around a nail file. She ran the point of the file along the edges of the brick and was rewarded when it loosened enough to fall into her palm, revealing a gap just big enough for her to get her hand through. When her trembling fingers reached inside, they met the cool surface of oilskin. She tugged hard, falling back on her heels as two packages fell into her hand.

‘What have you found?’ asked Ivan from the doorway, where he had taken watch to prevent them being disturbed.

‘I’m not sure.’ Marina pushed the brick back into place and spread the fallen dust along the hearth. Taking a deep breath, she pulled at the stubborn knots in the string holding the oilcloth around one of the packages. When the binding finally loosened, the musty scent of rotting fabric rose up towards her nostrils as an old petticoat fell into her lap. She held it up to show Ivan.

‘It’s a petticoat, I think, an old one. It feels very heavy. I think there is something sewn into the hem.’ Marina grabbed her nail file once more and began to pull at the small stitches in the hem. ‘There is definitely something in here.’ She gasped as she pulled at the last stitch and what looked like a string of pearls appeared in the folds of material.

‘Let me see!’ Ivan held out his hand across the rope, pulling the petticoat and the pearls from Marina’s dust-streaked hands and moving towards the table where a plastic candle glowed above the feast.

Marina turned her attention to the other package and began to loosen the knots around the second piece of oilskin. When they came undone and the wrapping parted, a photograph fell into her lap. It showed a Red Cross nurse from the First World War. Marina turned it over and saw some faded writing on the back.

The day he gave me Ortipo
Tsarskoye Selo
September 1914
Tatiana Nikolaevna Romanov

‘Is there anything else?’ asked Ivan. He was poring over the rotting fabric and the pearls, which glistened even in the weak light.

‘No, nothing,’ replied Marina as she pushed the photograph deep into her pocket.

 

[Image of WWI Red Cross nurse used with kind permission from www.worldwar1postcards.com ]

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 7 by Liz Losty

Marina knew why she was in St Petersburg, and why she was now standing in the Moorish drawing room of the Yusupov Palace. But why was Ivan here?

She was following a series of clues linked to her Aunt Ludmila who had fled St Petersburg as a young child, with her parents, just before the Bolsheviks arrived in November 1917. Marina didn’t know if the clues would lead to an amazing treasure or a harsh truth. But she did know she wouldn’t stop until she had exhausted the trail.

She looked at Ivan and feigned polite surprise, but the obvious question had to be asked: ‘Ivan, are you following me?’.

His smile didn’t extend to his eyes. ‘I wanted to show you around some of our superb palaces and historic sites. I thought you may appreciate having a guide with you?’ He extended his hand towards the inner palace, but Marina was neither charmed nor interested. She stood her ground.

‘Ivan, I do not believe in coincidences or the kindness of strangers. Nor do I believe that someone who claims to be from Siberia, and only in St Petersburg on holiday, can be my tour guide.’

She saw anger and irritation flash across his face. He looked away, the muscles around his jaw tightening, until finally he sighed and looked back at her having come to some inner resolution.

‘I think you and I have a common purpose. My name is Ivan Hendrikova. Do you recognise my name? Did your family ever mention it?’

Marina was intrigued but, no, the name meant nothing to her. She shook her head.

‘My great aunt was Countess Anastasia Hendrikova, lady in waiting to the Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. She was, like so many of them, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. In those desperate months beforehand, they had tried to do what they could to save the Romanov family. The Tsarina had handed over jewels to help arrange her family’s escape, but the jewels were stolen, the family was betrayed and their fate sealed. Countess Anastasia Hendrikova was one of the people rumoured to be part of the theft. But she was an honourable lady, devoted to the Tsarina and her four daughters. She died for them.

‘You will know of Rasputin? It was his son in law, Boris Soloviev, who was behind the betrayal, He married Rasputin’s daughter, Maria, to gain the trust of the Rasputin supporters who were trying to finance a plot to rescue the Romanovs. It was he who betrayed the family and attempted to throw blame for the theft onto others, including my Aunt.

‘Before she was murdered, Anastasia hid some jewels of her own, gifts given to her by the Tsarina. She knew there was no such thing as a safe place in times of revolution, so she devised a plan.

‘The jewels were dispersed all over St Petersburg so that even if some were found, others priceless jewels would remain safe. A trusted friend, Pyotr Vyrubova, helped her. In return she helped him escape St Petersburg with his wife and little daughter, Ludmila, before the Bolsheviks invaded.

‘My family always believed one day we would find the treasure, but there were no clues in Anastasia’s documents so we hoped that Pyotr Vyrubova and his family knew more.

‘We have always been watching and waiting for someone to arrive. So when someone called Mrs Marina Sally Vyrubova Jordan checked into the Pushka Inn, I knew why you had come. I think between us we can solve the clues, find whatever the treasure may be, and ensure that my aunt’s good name and reputation is restored.’

Marina looked at Ivan, saw the desperation in his face, and knew what Ludmila would want her to do. ‘Ok . . . Perhaps it is our job to put right some of the wrongs of history and see what our families have left for us.’

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 6 by Linda Cohen

The journey across the River Neva was unbelievable. Buildings on either side rose up, confronting Marina, beckoning her further into this landscape which was both breathtaking and depressing depending on which side of the river you looked. Marina was shocked at the difference between the wealthy people and the poor; wonderful buildings with intricate masonry and beautiful colours, then drab grey rows and rows of flats. She wondered what the lives of the Russians living in these miserable looking flats were like. There certainly was one rule for the rich and one for the poor here.

Glancing out of the taxi window, Marina turned her head. Surely not? It couldn’t be. In the taxi drawing up alongside her – she couldn’t be sure – but wasn’t that Ivan? No, it couldn’t be, what would he be doing going in the same direction as her? Surely that would be too much of a coincidence?

Marina shrank back inside the taxi. She was beginning to feel unnerved. How come this man kept turning up wherever she went? Maybe she should ask the taxi driver to slow down, see where the other taxi was going, but she didn’t feel confident enough in her Russian conversation to ask him to do that. No: she would just carry on with her plan and see what happened. Nevertheless, the nervous feeling she had carried inside her the whole time she had been in Russia gave her a lightheaded feeling, and she began to wonder why she had ever come.

Suddenly, and to her surprise, the taxi stopped. There before her was a building of such magnificence she could only gasp in total amazement.

“We are here, Yusupov Palace. You like it?” the driver asked with great pride in his voice.

“Oh yes, I like it,” Marina stated. “Thank you.”

She quickly paid her driver, and stared up at the enormous yellow and white building. She felt overwhelmed by her surroundings, and had no idea whatsoever what to do next. Looking around, and hoping that Ivan was nowhere to be seen, she entered the heavily carved doors of the Palace.

How could anything be so beautiful? she wondered, trying to take in the vastness of her surroundings. There was mosaic everywhere, in beautiful patterns and colours. She found herself drawn to the first drawing room which was Moorish in design. Looking around the room she had a feeling that someone was watching her and she turned slowly round, only to be confronted by Ivan. Now she knew it was much more than just a coincidence. Who was this man, and what did he want? Her uneasiness grew as he strode towards her.

“Sally! How nice to meet again,” he said. His use of the name Sally threw her off her stride, and then she remembered. Of course! She had used her middle name when they had introduced themselves to each other. She really must stop being so paranoid.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 5 by Lesley

Marina’s heart was in her mouth as she rushed towards the zoo exit. The clue could only refer to one person in St Petersburg in 1917 – Rasputin. But which of the places associated with him did it mean? She read the words again, focussing on ‘…came to dine…’ Where did he eat on that fateful night in December 1916?

With no idea where to go next she decided to look for a cafe where she could warm up while trying to solve the clue. As she stepped forward to cross the tram tracks a hand grabbed her sleeve and pulled her back. When, seconds later, a tram rattled past, she looked at her saviour and realised she recognised him. It was the man who had helped her find the Peter and Paul Fortress.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I know you will understand when I say how grateful I am. I was distracted and not thinking clearly.’

‘Slow down,’ said the man, guiding her towards a nearby tram stop and making her sit down. ‘I have some English but not so fast, please.’

‘Sorry.’ After sitting quietly for a moment, Marina remembered where she’d been going. ‘Do you know where I could get a hot drink near here?’

‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘There is a cafe just along there’ – he pointed – ‘a few minutes’ walk away. When you are rested we will go.’

‘Do you live in St Petersburg?’ Marina asked.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I am here on holiday, like you I think. I live in Siberia and staying with my sister Irena.’

‘Your English is very good,’ said Marina, standing up. She needed to get warm and get this clue solved. ‘Where is the cafe?’

They crossed the tram tracks and the busy one-way road and walked in silence until, after a couple of minutes, a dingy looking cafe appeared: Marina hoped this was not the place he had meant. All that was appealing about it was the smell of coffee coming out of the door whenever a customer arrived or departed.

‘This is the cafe,’ he said and her heart sank.

‘I insist on buying you a drink to thank you for saving me earlier,’ Marina said, regretting her words as soon as she spoke and hoping he would refuse her invitation.

‘Thank you,’ said the man, pushing open the door. ‘My name is Ivan. What is yours?’

Knowing how often people had had trouble saying her name on previous holidays – if that’s what this was – she decided to use her middle name. ‘Sally,’ she said, holding out her hand across the chipped Formica tabletop. ‘Pleased to meet you, Ivan.’

The coffee was awful, but it was hot and the seat wasn’t too uncomfortable. Marina took out her guidebook. ‘Do you know anything about Rasputin?’ she asked.

‘Irena took me to the exhibition about him in the Yusupov Palace. He was shot there, but it wasn’t very interesting. Why?’

Marina held her breath as well as her words. Did she want to share her mission with a stranger? Erring on the side of caution, she feigned surprise. ‘Of course! That’s the name. It’s been on the tip of my tongue all day. Listen, I must dash. Nice to meet you. Bye!’

Running out of the cafe she looked around for a taxi. When she spotted one she waved and the driver stopped. ‘Yusupov Palace,’ she said, hoping her pronunciation was going to be good enough.

The driver said something, which might have been her own words pronounced properly, then set off. She didn’t notice Ivan getting in to a taxi, which followed when hers turned in to a side road heading for a bridge across the River Neva.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 4 by Debbie Hunter

A chill wind wrapped itself around Marina’s shoulders as she walked away from the Fortress, her thoughts of the dismal prison cell adding to the gloom of the late afternoon. The sun had disappeared and the early evening sky threatened rain.

Marina pulled her coat closer to her body. “300,” she thought. “300. What on earth does that mean?” She was to tired to solve this now. It was getting late so she decided to return to the hotel. Perhaps a good night’s sleep would sharpen her wits.

She awoke the next morning to the sound of traffic outside the hotel window. ‘300’ immediately popped into her mind but with no further idea of its meaning. “Mark was right. This is nothing but a wild goose chase,” she thought. She would reluctantly abandon the whole idea and spend her remaining time in St Petersburg sightseeing and getting to know the city of her ancestors.

She found the tourist pamphlets she had collected from the display in the hotel foyer the day before. Maybe she would visit the Hermitage Museum or perhaps there was still time to take a tour to the Peterhof Palace. Frustration niggled in her head as she tried to decipher the leaflets. Most of the wording was in Russian with very little English. She wished she’d paid more attention to her mother’s lessons. A colourful leaflet displaying pictures of animals, birds and fish caught her eye but this time the wording was all in Russian. Marina turned the leaflet over hoping to find an English translation. ‘Зоопарк’ appeared in bold letters at the top of the page. She stared at the unfamiliar writing – could this be the 300 scratched in the cell window?

Marina took the brochure to the hotel reception. “Could you please tell me what this is?” she asked the young girl behind the desk, pointing at the brochure.

“It’s the Leningrad Zoo,” the girl explained. “In Alexandra Park.”

“Is it far from here?”

“No, not too far. Just catch the Metro to Gorkovskaya. It’s only a short walk from the station.”

A visit to a zoo would not have been high on Marina’s list of must-see attractions but a voice in her head told her she should go. What did she have to lose? She owed it to Ludmila and the family to follow every possible lead.

Despondent giraffes and lethargic lions did nothing to excite Marina once she’d found her way to the zoo. She could only feel pity for the poor animals in their enclosures and couldn’t help comparing their plight to the cell she had seen at the Fortress the day before. “This is a complete waste of time,” she thought. “Finding any connection to the clue here is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.”

Fat droplets of rain splattered onto the ground causing Marina to look around for shelter. She noticed a sign pointing to ‘The Museum: Zoo during the Siege’ and made her way towards a building with the strange name of ‘Brown Bear’.

A notice at the door informed her that the museum was divided into three zones. The first zone was modelled on the room of a servant of the zoo, she read, at the time of the siege with historical artifacts on display, the second was all about the care of the animals and the third was devoted to the scientific research work at the zoo.

Entering the room in the first zone Marina felt as if she had stepped back in time. She imagined herself living in St Petersburg during the siege in this room filled with heavy wooden furniture and she could almost smell the smoke coming from the small inadequate metal stove. She looked around at shelves filled with old dusty books and overly decorated antique ornaments and pictured people shivering from the cold, living on meagre food and prayers. Prayers . . . There before her on the wall hung a crucifix. She studied it closely, looking for the now-familiar groove. Could she really be lucky again? Turning her head to make sure she wasn’t being watched she felt along the groove. This time her hands found the opening at the back of the crucifix easily.With trembling fingers she pulled out a yellowing piece of paper. Not daring to look at it, she placed it in her handbag. She hurried from the room and made her way to the entrance of the museum. She could wait no longer to read the words.

He was invited to dine but he came to die. Three times he died before he drowned.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 3 by Chris Payne

After only a few steps Marina stopped short, feeling suddenly dizzy. She stepped aside from a tour group approaching the church door and sank down on a low stone wall. The scrap of paper crackled between her trembling fingers and she shoved it, suddenly and violently, deep into her coat pocket.

Despite her brave words to Mark, Marina hadn’t fully believed that it was possible to follow a treasure trail this old and this far from home. At least in part – and she had only barely admitted this to herself – she had made this trip as an overdue homage to her mother and aunt, the strong women of her childhood. So often they had reminisced about the short and privileged years before fleeing St Petersburg in advance of the Bolsheviks. In their memories, each day was full of sunlight, music, and dancing. Marina had hoped that by returning to where they had once been so happy, she would find it easier to come to terms with their loss from her life.

Marina closed her eyes against the low winter sun as she leaned her head back on the wrought iron railings. The bitter cold of the metal struck through her thick hat and jolted her upright again. Slowly she drew the scrap of paper out again and peered closely at the spidery script. “I’ve never been good at puzzles,” she thought. “And I wish I’d paid better attention to all the saints.”

Marina opened her guide book and turned to the T section of the index. There was nearly a full column of sub-headings under ‘Trotsky’. Her eyes scanned down the list and stopped disbelievingly at ‘Peter and Paul Fortress’. Flipping to the correct page in the book, she read eagerly about how Trotsky had been incarcerated in the legendary Peter and Paul Fortress and discovered that his cell was still open to visit. She laid the small clue paper on top of the book and re-read it. “Ask Peter and Paul for guidance,” she murmured. This must be it!

A shadow fell across the page of the book and Marina glanced up. A tall figure stood between her and the sunlight. It was impossible to discern the face as a voice spoke, in English. “Are you all right? I noticed you seemed faint.”

Marina stood up, closing the guidebook and tucking it into her bag. “Yes, thank you. I felt a bit odd for a moment but I’m fine now, ready to continue my sightseeing. But thank you for checking; you’re very kind.”

“My pleasure,” the man replied. “So where will your sightseeing take you next?”

“I want to explore Peter and Paul Fortress, actually,” Marina said. “I don’t suppose you know what direction it’s in, do you?”

“I do, yes. Do you have a map? I will show you.”

Marina pulled out the guide book again and unfolded the map in the back. As she did so, the tiny piece of paper escaped the pages. Marina tried to catch it but it fluttered to the pavement, from where her benefactor scooped it up. He glanced at it before returning it to her palm.

“You speak Russian?”

“Only a tiny bit,” Marina replied repressively, turning the map towards him. He carefully outlined a route with a gloved finger. Thanking him for his assistance, Marina turned in the direction he’d pointed and began to walk. As she reached the corner, she glanced behind her and saw his gaze still fixed upon her.

Even late in the day, the fortress was busy with tourists and Trotsky’s cell — Cell 60 — had a queue of people waiting to peer inside the spartan room. Finally it was her turn. But this was not like the church where she could duck under a railing, even if there had been any promising artifacts in sight. Eagerly Marina scoured every detail of the cell: the single, narrow bed, the collapsible plank table, and the arched, high window that gave light but no view.

She pressed herself closer, raking every surface for a clue, and muttered bitterly, “What did I expect? To see a new clue painted on a cell wall?”

She raised her eyes to the small window at the far end of the room. Gradually, something struck her. Of the several small panes that made up the whole, one of them was marred. The light coming through it seemed to be refracted differently from the other panes. Marina craned further forward but couldn’t make it out. Conscious of the crowds pressing in behind her, she whipped out her phone and took a photo, focusing carefully to ensure the windowpanes were captured clearly.

Marina turned and pushed her way back out through the crowds and into the chilly corridor again. She opened the photo and zoomed in on the picture. She’d been right! There, on the lowest pane of the window, some lines had been scratched. It looked like a number.

“300,” breathed Marina. “What am I supposed to do with that?”

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 2 by Carol Hall

Marina breathed in the cold air as she stood at the top of the aeroplane steps. The sun was shining but the bitter St Petersburg wind needled her face as she descended to the tarmac.

Mark had tried to talk her out of coming.

“So you’re going all the way to Russia to follow-up some so-called clue left by old Aunt Ludmila?”

“It’s not a so-called clue,” she’d replied. “It’s my family’s legacy. They lost everything and now I have a chance to reclaim some of it.”

Now she was here, the task seemed enormous. All she had to go on was a scrap of paper and some judicious Googling. As she queued at Passport Control, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. But once she’d checked into her room at the Pushka Inn, she was impatient to begin her search. Aunt Ludmila’s note had hinted at hidden treasure and Marina had spent hours in the last few weeks imagining what it could be.

She opened her suitcase to retrieve her walking boots, her bobble hat and her warmest gloves and set off into the cold St Petersburg afternoon. Aunt Ludmila’s note had mentioned Christ’s blood and a few minutes on the internet revealed that the city’s most famous church was called The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. She had decided before she left London that this was where she would begin her search.

After twenty minutes’ walking she saw the church come into view and it took her breath away. The magnificent onion domes and mosaics stood out like jewels against the clear blue sky. Marina couldn’t resist taking some photographs and texting one of them to Mark with the caption, “Here I am!”

It was late afternoon and the tourist crowds were thinning out as she entered the church. She thought about Ludmila’s note and wondered again what she had meant by ‘Catherine’s gift’. Mark had sarcastically suggested it was Catherine the Great and they had laughed about it, but afterwards, Marina had imagined that it was. Ludmila’s family were aristocrats after all and their ancestors could well have been close enough to the Empress to have been on the receiving end of a fabulous gift.

Not knowing where to look for clues, or even if she was in the right place, Marina wandered aimlessly around the church, taking in the sights and smells, trying to sense a connection to the place and to her forebears.

And then she saw it: above an altar at the side of the church stood a small group of saints.

His saints smile upon us, Aunt Ludmila’s note said. We are not worthy to gather the crumbs from beneath their table.

Her heart thumping, Marina approached the altar and looked upwards. The saints were indeed smiling down on her. She followed their gaze downwards to the box behind the altar they appeared to be standing on. Could this be where Ludmila’s ‘crumbs’ were hidden?

There was a chain across the front of the altar, prohibiting tourists, but Marina wasn’t going to let that stand in her way. She looked around her. The only security guard she could see was busy taking photographs for a small group of Japanese tourists. She had to move fast. She slid under the chain and approached the wooden structure under the feet of the smiling saints. She ran her hands over it, knocking softly on it with her fists. With some trepidation, she slid her hand into the small gap underneath the box and felt something stuck to the underside. Taking a deep breath and glancing round to check on the whereabouts of the guard, she pulled gently, then more firmly, until, with a snap that was louder than she’d hoped, the object came away in her hand.

It was a crucifix, identical to the one she’d found in Ludmila’s room. She turned it upside down and there, in the base, was the familiar carved groove. She fumbled for a nail file in her bag to open it. Inside was a piece of fragile, yellowed paper.

Marina didn’t stop to read it. She put it carefully into her bag, replaced the crucifix and slipped out of the church.

Once outside, she opened the note with trembling hands.

Ask Peter and Paul for guidance, it said. Trotsky will never be free.

Marina re-folded the note and strode away from the church.

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 1 by Angela Haward

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.”

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The legacy – a Just Write collaborative serial

Just Write is at it again! We are writing a new collaborative serial for publication on this website. Each author is writing one chapter and has 48 hours to write their section (roughly 500 words) and send it to the other writers. The next writer gets an additional clue to help them take the story forward.

The story is called The Legacy. It starts when Ludmila dies and her niece discovers something intriguing in the room she had occupied…

The last chapter will be published on Easter Sunday and the first will appear tomorrow, Friday 23rd March. Enjoy, and do give us feedback!

Short stories on International Women's Day

The dress – a collaborative story by Lesley and Liz

It was only after her father was imprisoned that Amber felt confident enough to wear The Dress. At best he would have told her to take it off, at worst he would have ripped it off her, shreds of red silk flying everywhere as her mother’s beautiful gown was reduced to tatters.

But the dress had avoided that fate, staying locked up in mother’s suitcase until her father was locked up following mother’s court case.

Amber opened the suitcase on the first day of her father’s prison sentence. The dress’s crimson folds were wrapped in layers of white tissue, reminding Amber of seeing her mother’s bloodstained body lying in a grotesquely distorted pose on the bed. She took a deep breath and plunged her hands into the fine fabric, feeling the soft silk fold and slide over her skin. The sensation took her breath away for a moment, and she found herself shuddering. When had her mother last worn the dress? Had she been happy then or had her father already started the campaign of destruction that ended so cruelly.

She took the dress into the front bedroom which was flooded with light from the bright afternoon sunshine pouring through the large bay windows. Shaking and rustling the dress gently so the folds of silk fell in natural cascades she held it up to her face, breathing in the faint memory of her mother’s perfume. She felt tears sting the corner of her eyes and drew in a quick breath to hold them there. She knew if she allowed the tears to flow they would not stop and, no matter how many tears she shed, the well of sadness within her remained as full as the day she found her mother’s broken and lifeless body.

The dress hung in her hands and she shook herself back into the present, then gently laid the dress on the bed while she tugged off her jeans and tee shirt. She picked the dress up and let it fall gently to the floor to form a puddle of red silk. She stepped carefully into the centre of it and slid the dress up over her body, tugging the bodice into place. A smile curved gently around her mouth as she realised that the dress fitted her perfectly. She had the same feminine curves and height as her beautiful mother and the dress was testament to that.

She reached around and carefully guided the zip up her back, feeling the rich and expensive silk fold in around her, then took a few steps over to the window to stand in front of the full length mirror positioned there to catch the best light. She gasped in surprise at her own reflection. She looked beautiful, ladylike, elegant, serene.  All the things a 20-year-old cider-swigging student like her could never be – and yet she was. She blushed with pride, realising her own beauty for the first time. Empowered by her transformation she moved towards her mother’s dressing table, undid her long auburn hair and used her mother’s brush to sweep her hair into soft waves. She opened the drawers of the dressing table and found all her mother’s makeup still there as though, any minute, she would walk in from her bath to sit and gaze at her reflection before enhancing it with her art.  Amber reached for the gold-capped lipstick then the eyeliner, checking her reflection while she worked, Finally she reached into her mother’s black, leather-bound jewellery box and put on a pair of her favourite diamond stud earrings.

She stood up, walked back to the full length mirror and started to sway and move in front of it while the rich silk skirt of the dress rustled and whispered around her.

Amber was lost in memories, entranced by her own reflection, empowered by her transformation. She now understood why the dress had driven her father mad with jealousy. It was perfect, and would now be both her revenge and her escape.

 

 

Short stories on International Women's Day

Stars in my eyes – a collaborative story by Liz, Lesley and Debbie

Saturday mornings always followed the same route when I was a kid. Jam on toast for breakfast, then Mum would shout downstairs for you to come up for your bath, which involved Niagra-like quantities of water being poured over your head from a cracked plastic jug and copious amounts of shampoo suds stinging your eyes. The bath rota was always a hotly debated depending on who needed to be where and by what time on a Saturday. Apart from the dog, who got slung into the bath when the last child hopped out.

Once your hair was rinsed you could escape. A cursory dry with a rough towel then on with the jeans, sweat shirt, quick comb of the hair, then stage 2 Saturday morning – present yourself, washed and dressed, to Dad who gave you 20p pocket money. That was the start of the fun.

I would race down the hill to the corner shop, buy a quarter of lemon sherbets, then back home, telly on and settle in for kids’ Saturday morning TV. There were no cable channels then. There weren’t even kids’ channels. So Saturday morning was a real treat to have back-to-back TV shows just for kids. The Banana Splits, the Double Decker’s, Swap Shop and then it always finished with a vintage Laurel and Hardy show. We loved it and the best bit was it was the only time Dad would sit and watch TV with us. We all learnt the words of ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ off by heart and sang at the top of our voices.

I loved the words of those songs, and that was what made me I start writing poetry. I’d been given a note book for my birthday and I’d drawn a few pictures in it, the feint lines of the pages becoming entangled with the image I was creating – a park bench, railway lines, telephone wires. Words were easier, sitting neatly on the lines rather than fighting with them for space on the page. Space – that’s what I wrote about. I love the sci-fi programmes on TV then – Dr Who was always my favourite and Star Trek. I dreamt of boldly going where no girl had ever gone before, and I wrote my dreams as poems. We’d read some poetry in school so I had an idea that it needed to rhyme but space was a tough word at the end of a line – pace, face, disgrace…err… so I decided to put it nearer the start of the lines.

Then I decided it didn’t need to be mentioned if I ‘alluded’ to space and use simile and metaphor instead. I was so pleased with myself for knowing those words! And then I discovered that poetry didn’t need to rhyme after all, so the s-word made its way back in to my verses. Here are some examples – remember I was only eight!

I look at stars up in the sky
And the only question I ask is ‘why?’
Why are we here? And what is life?
Is it happiness – or is it strife?

I was quite pleased with that one and thought I should add another verse so that I could enter my poem in to the school poetry competition. I took my note book and some chocolate in to the garden, lay down on the grass, which gave a pleasing tickle to my back, and contemplated the vast expanse of dark sky above me. One hour and three chocolate bars later:

Stars are the fireworks made by God
The sun is the match He uses
The moon is the magnet of mankind
And the galaxy makes the fuses.

To this day I can’t understand why I didn’t win any prizes.

Short stories on International Women's Day

Future imperfect – a collaborative story by Emma, Angela and Lesley

I woke up and stretched. There was that half a second when everything seemed alright with the world, until I remembered our specialist’s voice saying, ‘Many couples have very happy lives without children. It can make couples become closer.’

Dan and I had agreed to give IVF one more try. We did, and it did not work so that was that. We also agreed that we were not going to be one of those couples whose whole happiness depended on something they could not have.

I smelt the coffee Dan was making. He always pampered me on Sunday mornings. Was this how it was going to be? Would we grow closer? I didn’t think we could get any closer. We always knew what the other was thinking, we did not always need words. Sometimes Dan would hand me the thing I needed without saying anything. Was it a tiny bit of relief?

I’d visited my sister on Sunday. The house was strewn with toys – so many you barely noticed she hadn’t vacuumed for three weeks. The baby refused to sleep and both Sarah and Gareth looked permanently exhausted. I couldn’t remember the last time they had a night out, and I’d noticed the terse replies, the pursed lips, the irritating cracks widening into valleys. The two older boys scrapped all the time and the domestic atmosphere was riven with cries of, ‘Muuum . . . He hit me.’ ‘He started it!’ and the snappish response, ‘I don’t care who started it. You can both go to separate rooms . . .’ If this was the future denied us, then I reckoned we could definitely make coupledom work.

Dan appeared at the bedroom door, looking a little anxious. ‘I just looked in my diary and we booked that photographer’s appointment at 10. It’s 9:15 now.’

I’d completely forgotten! We’d booked a wedding anniversary portrait session at the old studio in the village. The morning went in to overdrive.

Hastily applying lipstick as we pulled up outside studio with a couple of minutes to spare, I noticed a child hanging about outside the door. He was of mixed race, about nine years old, and he grinned broadly as he approached us.

‘Spare a pound for the guy?’ he asked, cheekily.

‘But it’s only September,’ Dan challenged him. ‘Aren’t you a bit early?’ The boy scuffed at the ground with one shoe, twisting his hips as he tried to come up with a response. ‘And where’s your guy?’ Dan added.

‘That’s what the pound’s for,’ the boy said, finding the answer to his dilemma in Dan’s words.

His skin was beautiful, golden and smooth, and his dark eyes shone with the confidence of youth. Dan grinned back at him. ‘Maybe later,’ he said as he pushed the studio door open.

‘I see you’ve met my grandson.’ The photographer was smiling as he held out his hand in greeting. ‘Did he try his “penny for the guy” con on you?’

Fearing that Dan was going to mention the inflation in the boy’s demand, I spoke. ‘He’s a cheeky boy, that’s for sure. Is he staying with you?’

‘No. He’s my . . . well, my ward, I suppose. His parents died when he was very little and my wife and I took him in. But she died earlier this year and he’s a bit too much of a handful for me, as you can tell.’

I looked at Dan: his face bore the same expression as mine but neither of us dared to speak, yet . . .

Short stories on International Women's Day

Doors – a collaborative story by Carol, Debbie and Angela

I’ll never forget those doors. They are imprinted on my soul. They are the doors that I walked through, heavily pregnant and scared to death, and the doors that I walked out of, my belly flat and my arms empty.

It was the priest who told my distraught mother about the place. “Let me take her there,” he had said, putting a pastoral arm around her and offering her a creased handkerchief from the pocket of his cassock. “No-one will know that she’s sinned and the nuns will take good care of her.”

They didn’t, of course. The so-called ‘taking care’ amounted to feeding me and my fellow sinners and providing a bed. The rest of their time was taken up with telling us how many ways God would show us that we were sinners and how we had ruined our lives and would never find a man willing to marry us. I hated it there.

Things improved a little after my son was born. I loved him with a passion I could not have imagined. He was part of me and I would hurry through my ‘household duties’ with exemplary obedience so I could spend every spare minute in the nursery – until he’d learned to smile. That morning, he beamed at me before I left him and I couldn’t wait to see that smile again at the end of the day. But on my return, the crib was empty and the nuns met my hysteria and pleading with a silence which branded my soul.

I met Bill at work about five years later. We shared a bit of banter over an illicit cigarette and he asked me to go with him to the pictures. By that time, I had wrapped the void in my heart and sealed it. He never knew for certain, though I think he suspected I was hiding something. I had developed an unconquerable fear of religious statues, and my first pregnancy with Bill’s child was tortured by an irrational terror and a ferocious protectiveness for the baby inside me.

“Let’s get married in our local Church,” he’d said, only a couple of months into our relationship. “I don’t think I could handle telling my mother it’s going to be a registry office.”

But I told him it was me he was marrying, not his mother, and there was no way I was going to stand in a church reciting vows like a hypocrite. Of course, he gave in – because he loved me. I couldn’t help his disappointment – or his mother’s. Somewhere in my heart was a chamber of lead which even he couldn’t melt.

I tried to forget – I truly did. Bill and I had the girls, and I immersed myself in their upbringing. But the guilt was always there, lurking in dark corners, waiting to spring out and choke me. Where had they sent my little son? I didn’t even know if my tiny boy had survived. I used to celebrate his birthday every year, though Bill never cottoned on. On 18th May, I would book a trip to the theatre or the cinema for the whole family, and I would indulge my fantasy that I had reserved five seats instead of four.

I lost Bill last year. The emptiness I had hidden for thirty years became a vacuum in my heart, and a compulsion to find my child rose through the void. That’s how I find myself here once again, outside the convent, hand poised over the doorbell, frozen in a time warp. The answer is in the ledger somewhere inside.

Short stories on International Women's Day

Coming home – a collaborative story by Debbie, Carol and Emma

He could hear her voice as he ran. ‘Breathe,’ she said. ‘Breathe.’ She was the only one he would listen to. Her voice echoed through his head as he ran from the room, his throat tightening. He loosened his tie, but still he could feel the invisible noose clutching at his throat. He stumbled as he ran up the stairs.

‘Curse this house for being so big,’ he thought. Panic was beginning to invade his body. If he didn’t reach that room soon it would be too late. They would have won, and even she wouldn’t be able to help him. It was an effort now to put one foot in front of the other. ‘Concentrate,’ he thought. ‘Breathe.’ At last he found the door and, with the sigh of a condemned man pardoned at the eleventh hour, fell into the room.

It was calm, serene. He could feel his pulse, which had been bursting in his head, start to slow down. He was safe at last. He fell to the floor and rested his back against the book shelves. He remembered her advice and, as he took some slow deep breaths, he felt the invisible grip on his throat start to loosen.

She would follow him, of course. She would wait a few moments and then she would come to check that he was ok, that he was coping. She always did. He had to start coping. He couldn’t carry on like this or he would find himself back in hospital. He couldn’t face that again.

Then suddenly he saw her, but this time she was a younger, more beautiful version of herself. She had a wide smile and her hair was curled and fell over one shoulder. ‘What am I so afraid of?’ he thought. ‘She does not mean me any harm.’

Then she spoke in her quiet voice. ‘Come into the light, come to me, come home, come and rest. Take my hand.’

All the strength went out of him as he took her hand and went into the light.

Short stories on International Women's Day

New collaborative stories for International Women’s Day

Unusually, we were all women at our latest writing class and our teacher for the night, Nicki, presented us with sheets of paper on which she had printed pictures of a person, an object and a location. Each of us took a set of images and wrote the start of a story based on one or more of those pictures. We then passed that beginning to another member of the group who wrote the second part, again integrating one or more of the pictures. The story was passed on again to another member of the group to write the conclusion. We hope you enjoy the resulting stories, but please bear in mind that this spontaneous collaborative writing was all achieved in under an hour!

We don’t intend to identify where the different women took over and we challenge you to spot the joins…

Writing news

Shakespeare Street launch party!

Shakespeare Street was officially launched on Tuesday at a party in Amersham’s Cafe Africa. In the photo (taken by Angela’s husband Keith) we are all saying ‘sausages’ I think, and it includes all but one of the members of Just Write: Richard Hopgood was excused on the grounds of having moved to Gloucestershire… Back row, left to right: Cathy Salmon, Bob Gasking, Graham Blundell, Phil Tysoe, Chris Payne, Angela Haward (whose husband Keith took the photo), Vicky Trelinska. Middle row, left to right: Emma Darke, Chas Burton, Stuart Tennant, Carol Hall, Debbie Hunter, Liz Losty. Front row: Nikki Kelland, Lesley Close, Linda Cohen. But the star of each row is our gorgeous new book!

Lots of guests bought copies of the book, getting our fundraising for the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted off to a flying start. Bob Gasking, an ambassador for the Hospice, spoke about the need to raise funds and the need to raise awareness of just how little of the Hospice’s funding comes form the NHS (19% and falling).

Bob’s ‘boss’, Cathy Salmon, the Hospice’s Head of Communications, said a few spontaneous words after Bob, and we were delighted that she was able to join us.

We were also delighted to see Mimi Harker, ex-Chair of Chiltern District Council, and to hear her say such kind things about Just Write. Her comments echoed and amplified her words which introduce the stories. She isn’t in the photo as she was busy taking her own photos – and organising us to look this good!

We were very glad that Chas Burton, illustrator, and Graham Blundell, typesetter, were also able to join the fun. Working with Stuart, they have produced a book which is so much more than the sum of its parts.

It was lovely to see Victoria Rodden at the party: she gave us such a lot of food for thought at a recent Monday-night meeting. She isn’t in the photo either…

Finally, two people whose contributions made a huge difference to the book could not join us: Janet Mears is a proofreader extraordinaire, and Melissa Scott-Miller allowed us to use two of her paintings of north London Georgian houses. You were both much-missed.

Writing news

New book from Just Write!

“Just Write launch their third book of short stories at a star-studded reception in a glamorous local venue” – the newspaper headline of our dreams!

In reality, we will launch Shakespeare Street in Amersham’s lovely Cafe Africa with as many guests as the venue will hold. The book is available from our dedicated website, shakespearestreet.org.uk as well as at many Christmas events in the Chilterns. As with our last two books, we are delighted that Waterstones in Amersham will have copies on their shelves.