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Essays

CHANGING ROUTINES…

I am a creature of routines. Or at least I used to be. Alarm at five, cup of tea, check the news, rise, get ready, don the dark suit and crisp pastel shirt, choose a tie, make the wife a cup of tea, five minutes’ chat then drive into town, catch the train, get my usual seat facing the direction of travel halfway down the train. Upon arrival, cross the road to Pret, a strong cappuccino and a cheese and tomato croissant. First into the office, settle down to breakfast with only Jennifer, the gasping cleaner, for company as she vacuums around the desks. Discuss her dog, and her difficult husband who has been eased out of his job on reception after years of naps and general rudeness. Check the email, and send at least one as soon as possible to let somebody know how early I arrived in the office. Then the day begins…

Now all that is gone. “I bet you don’t miss the commute,” people both in and out of work remark. I reply, automatically, “No, I don’t,” but really want to say “Yes, I bloody well do”. Not necessarily for the early rising, or the endless train journeys, or the frisson of frustration when the driver says there’s signal trouble, or the rumbling herd hysteria when we are all chucked off a defective train and crowd around the assumed position of the doors of the crowded train which has yet to arrive. I could do without all that. But the rest of it – the delicious solitude of an empty office, the first charge of caffeine, the quiet satisfaction of a routine well-observed – all of that, I absolutely miss.

What is it about routine? Of itself, in all its elements, it probably (well definitely) sounds banal, and even more banal for the endless repetition. For starters, it’s safety. For the period of routine, it overlays some predictability and pattern onto the restless anarchy of life. I seem in control. If what I can control goes smoothly, then there is more chance that the rest of the day will be manageable. And when anarchy erupts, the return to routine reasserts a kind of grip. More than that there is a kind of mystique about it, like the words of a liturgy: everything said in its place, in the right way, at the right time, to ensure the magic happens. My routines are a kind of lucky charm, an incantation which works for me. So no surprise that sportsmen and gamblers and soldiers and people involved in risk and struggle have their favourite routines, invariably adhered to. I heard recently of a legendary motorcyclist who won the Isle of Man TT more than anybody else before or since. A friend of his recalled how strangely meticulous this man could be. If he was served ham sandwiches in which the ham protruded from the bread, he cast them aside: the ham had to be cut just so. No doubt that mania for precision, and routine, was part of the reason he was such a successful rider. Controlling the small things helped him control the big things.

Now, I rise whenever, wear what I want to, have different things for breakfast, live diverse days devoid of pattern or routine. As a result, I sometimes feel disorientated, like a man in the desert who has somehow lost the pathway over the dunes and wanders irresolutely trying to find the way. Yes, it is a kind of freedom, but who wants the freedom to be lost? And where am I to re-locate that delicious snatched solitude, and the first strong cappuccino of the day?

Essays

Embarrassment: THE TIME I MET A FAMOUS PERSON

A famous critic once wrote a book called “Keats and Embarrassment”. I have never read it but remember thinking that’s something really important you’ve stumbled on, the importance of embarrassment. For those of us who suffer from it, it is something we spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking to avoid interspersed with periods of insane self-confidence when we feel we have risen above it, like reformed alcoholics, and can run greater risks – until we next experience it and feel once again that awful sensation of public shame. It’s a sensation I hate so much that I can’t even bear to watch episodes of embarrassment on TV: what others find funny, I simply find excruciating.

What is it about embarrassment which is so difficult – for some people? Other people can have the same experience and not feel even a flicker of embarrassment. It’s simply not in their emotional repertoire. You can feel embarrassed for them, but you needn’t. I had an unembarrassable boss once. He would be late for meetings with very important people, make preposterous remarks, exhibit untidy personal habits, and never wavered from an unrufflable nonchalance. Other people might think him a buffoon, but that didn’t matter, because he never did. He scudded through life, like a yacht with billowing sails, inflated by his unshakeable self-belief. Lucky so and so.

But for us mortals who are prone to embarrassment, it is public deflation which we dread.

In my last job I had, occasionally, to meet famous people. As director of a grant-making trust, I received an endless stream of invitations to fundraising events. The bigger charities often had a celebrity guest of honour, as a pull for potential donors. When I attended these events, I spent most of my time studiously avoiding the queue forming to talk to such characters. I had a special phobia about powerful politicians, and once spent a very anxious evening trying to work out where Gordon Brown might head next, so as not to be cornered.

Just once, I failed. I was at a reception for a charity, located in an old Baptist chapel in Islington, which rehabilitated offenders after release from prison by training them in the art and discipline of acting whilst giving them other support to re-settle. One of the founders and directors was a former speechwriter for David Cameron, and so it was no surprise that he had secured the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to make a speech. I joined a crowd of people sipping cheap wine and eating sausages on sticks while things warmed up before the formalities. I had just finished speaking to somebody and was wondering whether there were any alternatives to sausages when I looked up to see Ken Clarke making an apparent bee-line to me. I stood my ground presuming there must be somebody behind me who he wanted to speak to when, to my horror, he greeted me cheerily. I replied in kind and waited for him either to move on or ask me something. A posse of people followed him and looked at me with curiosity. “You’re not Jim Phillips, are you?” he asked with an irritable edge. “No, I’m not,” I said and revealed my identity. “You look just like him,” he said, accusingly, and moved off. Several people had been looking at me, assuming I was an old friend of Ken’s. I saw their interest evaporate as he walked off, and felt the prickle of red corpuscles swarming around my face.

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 5

The final batch…for now

1963

The snow lasted that year
Deep into Spring.
The playground toilets
Froze, school became
Optional for those
Who could stay at home
Or had the guts to bunk off.

Those of us with working
Mums sat in classrooms
In our coats and gloves
Barely able to write
While a giant circular
Radiator seemed to heat
Only itself
And the unfamiliar teacher
Broke his chalk on the
Blackboard like a piece of ice.

Everybody struggled.
The milk left in the hatch
Froze solid, the cat
Hardly ventured out
We went to bed early
To avoid using too much
Coal. The snow grew
Grey pockmarked with dirt
Scabbed brown
On the roads
Like old frozen wounds.

We might have fallen
Out of love with winter
But for the journeys
With toboggans through parks
Grown wild with ice and drifts
And the tracks of dogs
And hares and strange
White birds
And sledging down hills
On sheets of brown cardboard
As dusk crept
Out of the woods
And alleyways
And the orange street lamps
Turned the iced-up pavements
A smattered gold…

 

Class Traitor

 I was a Costa man
A Tesco man
An old Mondeo man
Bristling
With tribal truculence
Among the white tattooed
Barristas
Old guys shouting
For their buttered toast
Old girls with lizard skin
And with wiry perms
Tough as nails
As they knock back
Espressos
And menace
All comers
With their beady gaze.

Now. Goddammit,
I’m a Waitrose man
With my white Waitrose
Mug of frothy cappuccino
And nice bourgeois girls
Taking your order
In their grey Waitrose aprons
Crisp white shirts
And grey caps. Here
The old dudes wear
Wedding rings and glasses
And tasteful winter
Jackets, conversation
Is conducted with genteel
Decorum, the ladies wear
Silk scarves and pearls
And bring toasted tea cakes
For their hubs.

I want to stand up
On my table, shake my fist
And shout “This is not real!”
But all I do is suck down
The froth from the bottom
Of my mug, write angry poems
And shuffle off to fire up
The Merc for the short drive
Home.

 

Final Colours

What colour ends?
As you lie curled foetally
Like the shadow
Of a babe in the womb

Does your dream world
Change to a sheer arctic
Blue like a cloudless
Polar night illumined
By shoals of stars?

Or, as you start
To breathe in stumbling
Semi quavers interspersed
With breathless stops
Does the inner view
Turn red as your blood
Streams around the whorls
Of your brain one last

Time? Or is there just
A shrinking point
Of pure white light
Like a laser beam pointed

From further and further
Away? You see I’d rather like
To know what signifies
The end.

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 4

It gives me great pleasure to read and publish these poems – I wish I had Richard’s talent…

 

M5 Swans

I saw them again
The swans grazing
In little groups
Of twos and threes
In fields alongside
The unbroken rush
Of lorries and cars
And coaches and caravans
Careering westwards
With an unsated urgency.

The swans graceful
Sinuous unhurried
Oblivious apparently
Of what might otherwise
Seem a headlong endless
Flight from an apocalypse
Of cinematic proportions
Or maybe just unfazed.

You think what made
Them choose such
An unpeaceful spot?
Or does it soothe them
Being near such constant
Noise of things rushing
But never stopping
Which keeps at bay
The anxieties
Of silence?

Maybe
That’s why we like
To live in cities
Riding their insomnia
Buoyed up by the great
White wings which bear
Us high above
Our unsettled minds.

 

My Late Uncle

That’s you or very nearly –
The heavy coat
Crumpled cord trousers
Heavy shoes probably
From Church’s,
A scarf and cap
And half leather gloves,
A stooping walk,
Stopping to examine attentively
The blackboard advertising
The cafe’s comestibles
Before walking on
At a metronomic pace
Along the platform.

It’s as if I’ve caught you
On one of those
Complicated railway trips
With two or three changes
And at each stop
The topography researched
Checked on a map
With a compass to hand
For good measure
To calibrate
The correct direction
Of travel.

When we get to Swindon
Your doppelganger’s gone.
Of course it wasn’t quite you,
This man had a more developed
Beard and maybe lacked
Your taste in Latin liturgy,
But in other ways
He caught you to a ‘t’
And no doubt you looked on
Half approvingly.

 

 

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 3

Another batch of verse from Mr H.

Snowdrops

White dots
On pale green shoots
Winter’s first
Punctuation.

Hard to imagine
A flower furled
So unobtrusively.

Hard to remember
Such tiny heralds
Of our January deaths.

Now as they multiply
Under the hedgerows
And old stone walls

Their white flowers
Drift luxuriantly
Like the down
Of kidnapped birds.

 

No More (on moving …)

The pheasants won’t perch
On the ledge, cock
Their heads and look suggestively
In to ask for food.

The old badger won’t snuffle
And snort and crunch away
At the apples I left on the grass
Below the bedroom window.

The moths won’t flap around
The bathroom light
And spread their wings
Upon the mirror each night.

The sparrow hawks won’t scream
From the beech woods
On top of the hill behind us
Before shooting into the air.

The wasps and bees
Won’t hum like one vast hive
In the ivy on the old stone walls
Searching out the flowers.

The wind will still blow,
The clouds will still sail over
The rain will still fall
The snow will still glow.

After we are gone
away
Somewhere else.

 

Vast

It’s only a brief
Hump in the landscape
Seen from the train

But it looks
Like the huge undulations
Of a Canadian prairie,

Vast fields, houses,
Telegraph poles, cyclists
Miniaturised, isolated
Within the atonal
Harmonies of space.

Maybe that is what
Comes after life, not
Breathing but breathed.

Not erased but lost
In endless alphabets.

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 2

Further poetry from the ‘pen’ of Just Write’s much-missed bard…

TV Memories

I try to think back
To when Christmas
Was not framed
By TV memories

Childhood, certainly.
Even the Queen’s speech
Which we listened to
In deferential silence,

We heard from the radio.
But in the ’60s
There were already
Things we had to watch,

Comedies, classic
Films (remember the joy
Of Some like it Hot),
The Yellow Submarine,

And on New Year’s Eve
We briefly let the Jocks
Into our living rooms
With the White Heather Club.

Then into the ’70s
And ’80s, the Christmas shows
Of Eric and Ernie,
The Two Ronnies.

We all laughed.
We all relished.
We all took away
The same memories.

Briefly, before the Tower
Of Babel tore us all
Apart, we were at one,
At ease with our minstrels

Like the ancient Greeks
Listening enrapt to Homer
Unravelling the old tales
Around the winter fires.

 

Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine

1959
Coldharbour estate
London SE9
I’ve no idea whether
We are richer or poorer
Of good family or lousy
Well educated or thick
Upwardly or downwardly
Mobile.
Life simply is.
People simply are.

This year I ate stolen pink wafers
With Robert Smith
In his outdoor loo,
Had visits from Granddad H
With brown bags of winkles
From Woolwich market
And more rarely
From Grandpa S
With flowers and exotic toys
But I assumed they occupied
The same universe.

At school we drew
The Bayeux tapestry
Around the classroom walls
And Mrs Carpenter slapped
My left leg hard
For lying (allegedly)
About breaking Malcolm Pott’s
Stupid boat. We had summer
Day trips to Botany Bay
In a hired car which only
Broke down once, and had
To stand outside a pub
As the drunks tottered out
And a raucous row of singing
And shouting erupted
Every time the pub door swung open
And went quiet when it closed.

My brother went to boarding
School, I bought him
A tube of love hearts
When Mum told me he’d
Passed the exam, but ate them
Before I could give them to him.
They weren’t my favourite
Sweet but I thought he’d like
The motto on each one.

At Christmas the hamster
Escaped and nipped my toes
As I lay sleeping. I dreamed
I was being eaten by a lion.
He hid in the bathroom for weeks
Taking food when we were out
Until one day Siamese Peter caught him
And bit his head off after pretending
To let him go. We forgave
Peter, it was the hamster’s fault
For escaping. Otherwise he might
Still have been alive in 1960…

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 1

Richard wrote this first poem after making a return visit to Chesham. He was in a coffee shop at the time, of course…

Being Back

The familiar shops
Drinkers outside
The brewing hobby shop
The familiar cafes
Feeling exactly
How a slow Sunday afternoon
Should feel.

The river
Now a midsummer trickle
But the moor still marshy.

It’s not home but was
And when I’m old
And maybe blurred
With confusion about
Wherever I’ll be
It’s what I’ll remember
What I’ll translate
The strange streets
Into.

And continuing the coffee shop theme, but written in The Cotswolds…

Untitled

Whether it be a day
Which with hindsight
Was pivotal or a milestone
Or the first rumble
Of a remote avalanche
Is as yet unknowable.

All I know in a Costa cafe
At 11.37 am
On a damp but mild
Saturday morning
Is that the couple behind me
Are talking about an MOT,
A big white-haired man
In a short-sleeve shirt
Is doing the Quick Crossword
Slowly while his wife
In her orange blouse
And flowery cardigan
Flips idly through
The weekend magazine. Across
The aisle a middle-aged bloke
In jeans, check shirt
And classy shoes
Helps his little old mum
Wipe her hands on a
Serviette as his blonde wife
Arrives and they get up to go
Maybe to take his mum
Back to the home
Where the very old live out
Their days.

The cafe staff chat
And clink spoons
On saucers, there’s been
A rush which has now subsided
And the empty tables
Are filled with the trays
And crockery
Of the departed
And the dishwasher
Is bust. An old lady
With tightly curled white hair
In a coat with a brooch
Smiles as her fat husband
Brings her coffee, sweeps
The crumbs off his seat
On which he places
His rather large behind
And shares a joke
As she proffers
A five pound note.
Then he starts tapping
On his phone as she rummages
In her bag for a till receipt.

It’s now 11.52,
A quarter of an hour
Has passed. Who knows
What births and deaths
And great dramas
Have happened in the world
Outside? In Europe
They’ve had the heaviest snow
In thirty years, the papers
Are full of anger and woe
About the latest twist
In the BREXIT civil war.
We had a lot of snow
A year ago
But just now just here
Life carries on
Normally uneventfully
Like an untroubled stream
Over well worn
Stones.

Writing news

Just Write in good company!

On a recent visit to Waterstones in Amersham, it was wonderful to see our books of short stories being promoted alongside short stories by ‘other’ authors…

With Tom Hanks, Jojo Moyes and Lionel Shriver (listed, naturally, in alphabetical order) above and below our books, you couldn’t fail to notice them!

 

Writing news

Donation to The Hospice of St Francis

Just Write attended the garden party given by our local charity of choice, The Hospice of St Francis, in the grounds of Ashridge House on Sunday 3rd June. It was a beautiful day and a lovely event, made all the more special by the presence of  Just Write’s Big Cheque! Sales of Shakespeare Street since its publication in November last year allowed us to donate £750 to this amazingly good cause. Dr Sharon Chadwick, Medical Director and Deputy CEO of St Francis, accepted the cheque (which, naturally, had a real-size counterpart) from Emma and Stuart.

We are very proud to be associated with St Francis and to be able to help their vital work.

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!