By Nelli Rees
TRUE LOVE CONQUERS ALL... EVEN DEATH.
MOSCOW 1989. As the Soviet Union crumbles a young, naďve and idealistic Russian girl, Tonia Voronina, meets and falls in love with an English boy, Peter Monroe, while they are studying together in Moscow. Theirs is a forbidden romance: forbidden by the Soviet authorities and by Peter’s family. But such is the strength of their love that despite the ever present threat of discovery and public humiliation Tonia and Peter continue their clandestine meetings ignoring the protests of Peter’s over-protective sister, Georgie; the suspicions of Tonia’s friend and rival, Natasha; and the involvement of the KGB. Peter asks Tonia to marry him only to mysteriously disappear. Now Tonia must confront the fear that she has been abandoned.
ENGLAND, PRESENT DAY. A life-toughened and recently divorced Toni Graham comes to live in ‘The Nook’ and there discovers that Peter had always loved her and tried to protect her from the jealous and vindictive Maintree clan. As strange and disturbing events begin to threaten both her and her daughters, Toni must look to the shade of Peter for help, Toni being forced to revisit the bitter-sweet memories of those heady days in Moscow and to realize that true love really does conquer all … even death.
TWO INTERTWINED STORIES OF A LOVE LOST AND FOUND … WITH A FLAVORING OF THE SUPERNATURAL.
Present Day: Dorset, England
Excitement being a kindred spirit to fear, Toni was undecided as to whether it was a trickle of fear she felt shivering down her spine or a trickle of excitement.
As she sat staring at the screen of her laptop, the darkness shrouding the room seemed to draw in on her: her head swam, her palms became clammy. Tears welled up in her eyes. She blinked them away, hoping that by doing so the message on her screen would disappear. It didn’t.
Peter Monroe wants to be friends on Facebook
Hesitantly she maneuvered the cursor over the ‘connect’ button and pressed ‘enter.’ The screen mutated to show the Facebook page for ‘Peter Monroe.’ It was Peter! She recognized the profile photograph instantly. She’d taken it. She remembered posing him in front of the bandstand in Gorki Park on that spring day back in 1990, remembered laughing at the stupid faces he pulled, remembered the way his long chestnut hair flopped over his forehead, remembered…
How could she forget? He had been her one true love.
Love. A word made empty by misuse…by overuse. She wondered how many had ever endured the touch of real love, that soul-eviscerating sensation that comes when you know you have found your soul-mate. Very few, she decided. Perhaps this was all for the good: true love brought anguish in equal measure to joy. As the last twenty years had taught her, finding true love was a bitter-sweet blessing. Her fingers trembled as she typed.
Is it really you, Peter?
The reply was instantaneous.
Yes…I’ve missed you, Tonia.
She couldn’t stop herself: the tears flowed down her cheeks.
She paused, terrified that what she would type next might cause this marvelous mirage to vanish.
But I thought you were dead.
The seconds ticked by, then:
13th October, 1989: Moscow University of Linguistics, Moscow, USSR
Tonia had seen the English boy—Peter—before. Oh, not in the real world…no, in her Shining World, the place her imaginings took her to escape the dreary monotony of life. But now here he was standing at the blackboard at the front of the class. This vision-made-flesh chalked a word onto the board.
“I’d like one of the class to tell me the meaning of this word.”
She hardly heard what Peter was saying, lost as she was in studying how his mouth moved when he spoke, how he formed his flawless English. His was a full mouth, a sensuous mouth—
Pulling herself together, Tonia concentrated on watching Peter write the phonetic transcription of the word on the blackboard.
Desperately, she stared at the word trying to puzzle out its meaning.
“Who would you ask to propose a definition of the word, Peter?” asked Tonia’s teacher, Zoya Mikhailovna.
Tonia froze, simultaneously pleased that Peter had noticed her—had known her name!—and terrified that she would make a fool of herself in front of Zoya Mikhailovna, in front of the class and, most especially, in front of Peter.
“Do you know the word, Tonia?” Zoya Mikhailovna challenged.
Tonia’s heart began to race and her cheeks reddened. She did so want to show this handsome Englishman she was clever…that she was worth noticing. She tried to think but nothing came. Her silence became embarrassing. Her rivals in the class sniggered, delighting in her failure.
“It appears that Tonia is unable to answer your question, Peter. Perhaps you should ask someone else?”
Peter smiled and gave his head a gentle shake. “A little longer, Zoya Mikhailovna. It’s a tricky word and one that Tonia is right to take a moment to consider.”
Tonia sensed Peter staring at her, but she kept her eyes focused on the top of her desk, not daring to return the look, knowing if she did her gaze would betray how she felt about him.
Her face flushed an even deeper red. Everyone waited for her to answer, but she couldn’t give one, her brain befuddled. She wanted to vanish, to fall through the floor, anything to escape Peter’s wonderful blue eyes. The awful silence she was trapped in seemed to stretch for an eternity.
“Right, I’m not going to interfere,” interfered Zoya Mikhailovna, “but let’s move on. If Tonia can’t answer, it’s no matter. Peter, ask someone else.”
“No,” said Peter. The sniggering in the class stopped, replaced by astonished silence. No one ever said ‘no’ to Zoya Mikhailovna: not only was she Head of the English Faculty’s fifth year but also the Secretary of the University’s Party Committee. She was a powerful woman, but if Peter knew this he was indifferent to it. “I would like Tonia to answer and if she doesn’t know she should guess.”
“Very well,” snapped a rather put-out Zoya Mikhailovna who didn’t seem able to cope with this sort of Imperialist-led insurrection. “Tonia, quickly now, come up with something, don’t hold up the lesson!”
Tonia racked her brains. The word didn’t look English, it looked more…Gaelic, like some of the words she’d read in the Irish folk tales she’d studied. Yes…she was sure it was Irish. And what were the Irish famous for? Drinking, singing and…dancing!
“A dance?” she blurted out, trying to put on an American accent to impress Peter. The problem was she didn’t form her mouth correctly so what she said sounded like ‘dense.’ Peter started to laugh.
The class and Zoya Mikhailovna laughed along with him. Hardly surprising: everybody in the class—all of them girls—wanted to be liked by Peter Monroe.
Idiots! As though they knew what the word meant.
“No, it doesn’t mean ‘dense.’ Do you have any other suggestions?”
Tonia took a deep breath, reminded herself that Peter was British not American, and, making sure she opened her mouth wider to accommodate that difficult long English [a:] sound, tried again. “I’m sorry; I meant to say ‘dance.’ ”
“Really, Tonia,” snapped Zoya Mikhailovna, adopting the air of aggrieved superiority Tonia so detested.
“No, no, no, Zoya Mikhailovna,” interrupted Peter. “It’s a really clever answer. Why do you think it means ‘dance,’ Tonia?’
“Because the word looks Gaelic and the Irish are famous for their dancing.”
“A brilliant piece of deduction! Well done, Tonia! A ceilidh is a traditional Gaelic social gathering, common in Scotland and Ireland, where folk music is played and folk dances are performed. So Tonia got it spot on.”
Tonia made a mental note to look up the expression ‘spot on.’ English was full of such quirky little sayings which made it simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. That was the wonder of having native English speakers in the class; she got to know how real English was spoken.
The words were hardly out of Peter’s mouth—how perfect his teeth were!—when the bell rang to signal both the end of the class and the end of Tonia’s torment. Tonia was first out of the room, trying to outrun her embarrassment, just wanting to hide from the mocking gaze of those piercing blue eyes. She glanced over her shoulder to take one last peek at Peter, but he was already deep in conversation with the beautiful English girl who was forever at his side, the one called Georgie.
“Lucky, lucky guess!” came the voice from behind her. Tonia turned to find herself facing her best friend in the University, Natasha.
Maybe ‘best’ was an exaggeration. Natasha was a difficult girl to like being so very arrogant and so very self-centered, but Tonia’s mother had insisted she cultivate the relationship. Natasha’s father was a high-ranking Party official and hence a man who could help Tonia get a job after university: he was a man, in the jargon of the street, with a very hairy hand. And being a dutiful daughter, Tonia had done what her mother had asked.
Anyway, Tonia didn’t have so many friends that she could afford to pick and choose. Outsiders like her—those who were poorer, less well-connected…cleverer—were never terribly popular. Not that she minded; there was always a haven waiting for her in her Shining World.
“Inspired, rather,” Tonia retorted. “I bet you didn’t know what it meant.”
Natasha gave a haughty toss of her head. “Of course I did. Everyone knows what ‘ceilidh’ means. I use it all the time when I’m speaking English at home.” Tonia studied her friend’s face, searching for connivance. Being such a supremely confident girl, Natasha could tell the most appalling fibs and get away with them. “I might not be an otlichnitsa like you, Tonia, but I know my English!”
That Tonia was a straight-5 student—an otlichnitsa—rankled with Natasha. She hated that Tonia was the best student in the University.
“Well, anyway I got it—”
“Tonia? Might I have a word with you?”
It was Peter! He had blindsided her. She mustered all her courage and raised her eyes to meet his. And drowned in them…
“I think I might owe you an apology, Tonia.”
Tonia frowned, carefully running his words through her mind, making sure she understood what he was saying. English was a very…elusive language which delighted in tripping up the unwary. “I’m sorry but I do not understand?”
“It was rude of me to laugh at your pronunciation of the word ‘dance.’ I hope I didn’t embarrass you.”
Not as much as he was doing now. Peter obviously didn’t appreciate how interested the Russian students were in their English counterparts. Tonia could feel her classmates begin to edge closer to them, trying to hear what was being said, making sure they had their part of the conversation.
Hating not being the center of attention, Natasha stepped forward and smiled at Peter. “Hi,” she crooned. Without looking at her, Peter nodded an absent-minded acknowledgement.
Tonia ignored her friend, relishing the moment. This was the first time she’d stood so close to Peter, the first time she’d been able to see the tuft of chest hair that peeked out from beneath his open-necked shirt, to appreciate how broad his shoulders were, how pale his skin was. He brushed his slender fingers—musician’s fingers—through his unruly locks of long curly chestnut hair, a hairstyle that wouldn’t be tolerated in Soviet boys. How badly she wanted to touch that wonderful hair, to trace her hands round his strong shoulders…
She stopped herself. These were impossible fantasies. Being with Peter could never happen. There was too much dividing them…an abyss…a political abyss.
“No, no. Please, there is nothing to apologize for. I was not made embarrassed.”
“Great…I’m pleased. Look, could I ask a favor?”
A tremble of excited anticipation shivered over Tonia. “Of course,” she answered, trying to stop herself smiling, trying to ignore the mischievous twinkle in Peter’s eyes.
“I still don’t know my way round the building very well, and I need to get to the office of the Dean of the English Faculty. You wouldn’t show me where it is, would you? If you’ve got time, that is?”
A simple enough request, but one fraught with danger.
When Zoya Mikhailovna had announced just the previous week that four ‘student guests from Great Britain’ would be joining her final year English Conversation class, this piece of unexpected news had been accompanied by a warning.
“You have been granted a special privilege because you are the top group in the University and are considered politically sound, true members of Komsomol. As a reward for your hard work and diligent study, a weekly lesson has been organized with the young visitors from the Capitalist world in order that you might perfect your spoken English. But I hope I do not need to make clear that you all must demonstrate vigilance during these classes, that you must not give in to any Capitalist incitements or succumb to their specious propaganda. Rather you must use these classes as an opportunity to prove to our British guests the superiority of the Soviet, socialist, way of life especially when compared to their rotting Capitalism. You must not accept any presents from them, not converse with them on any subject that might be construed as trivial or anti-socialist and above all, must not…” Zoya Mikhailovna struggled with the nature of what she was about to suggest, “…enter into a personal relationship with them. To do so would be to put your place in this University at risk. Remember, you are ambassadors of your socialist motherland and must justify the trust placed in you by the University’s Party organization.”
This was Tonia’s dilemma: the definition of what constituted a ‘personal relationship’ was a very grey one. But when she thought about it, surely showing Peter to the Dean’s office could hardly constitute impropriety? Surely to say ‘no’ to his request would be impolite. He was, after all, referred to as one of the University’s British ‘guests’ and guests had to be looked after.
“It would be my pleasure…Peter. If you would come this way.”
Leaving behind an astonished Natasha, Tonia led Peter along the labyrinthine corridors of the University—ignoring the amazed glances of the students she passed—doing her best to remain calm and aloof as they walked. But try as she might she couldn’t help herself, she had to ask at least some of the hundred and one questions tormenting her.
“Which part of England do you come from, Peter?”
“Dorset. It’s in the south-west of England. Very pretty. It’s where Thomas Hardy was born.”
“I know Thomas Hardy. I have read Tess of the d'Urbervilles.”She decided not to add how unremittingly depressing she’d found the book.
“Which is more than I have,” admitted Peter. “I’m drawn to more modern writers. I’m a particular fan of George Orwell.”
Tonia gave a quick look around to make sure she wouldn’t be overheard. “I have never read any Orwell, his works are banned in the Soviet Union.”
“Really? How strange.”
And how naďve Peter was: for one of the University’s students to be found with a copy of 1984 would…well, Tonia didn’t even want to think about what that ‘would’ might involve.
“Everyone should read 1984,” Peter continued. “It’s the greatest book of the twentieth century.”
They turned a corner and began to climb the stairs to the second floor. With it being lunchtime the staircase was crowded, so Peter had to squeeze up against Tonia to allow the students coming down space to pass. He placed his hand—a little unnecessarily, she was delighted to note—on her back to ease her out of the oncoming tide, drawing her so close to him that Tonia could smell the heady fragrance of his cologne.
She determined to get a grip of herself. “Is it correct, Peter, that you are a student of Oxford University?”
“Yeah, I’m reading Russian and Linguistics, which requires I spend my third year living in Russia, so here I am.”
That answered one of the questions her classmates had been speculating on. Peter was twenty-one years old. He just acted older.
“Why did you choose to study the Russian language?”
“Because Russia—the Soviet Union—looms large in the world and if the West and East are ever to understand one another, then it’s essential they speak the same language.” He glanced towards Tonia. “Yeah, there are a great many beautiful things about Russia I’d like to get to know better.” And then he winked at her.
Tonia was so shocked that for a moment she couldn’t believe what he’d done. Could he really be flirting with her?! Her confusion lasted until she delivered Peter to the Dean’s office, ushering him into the presence of the great man’s formidable secretary who was busy filing her nails. Tonia switched to Russian. “This is Peter Monroe, one of the University’s British guests. He wishes to see the Dean.”
“I have an appointment,” added Peter. This was the first time Tonia had heard Peter speak Russian and she judged herself impressed. He had hardly any accent at all. He must, she decided, have a very good ear.
“Sit,” instructed the secretary without looking up from scrutinizing her nails.
Instead Peter leant across the woman’s desk, picked up her stapler and used it to pin the sheets of paper he was carrying together. Both the secretary and Tonia were dumbstruck. To do such a thing—to use the one and only stapler in the entire University in such a cavalier manner, without having asked permission—was…well, Tonia struggled to think of a more heinous crime, but Peter seemed utterly careless as to the enormity of what he’d done. The secretary stopped her filing and her mouth opened and closed a couple of times as she struggled to form a protest, but Peter’s disarming smile rendered her mute. Then, astonishingly, he pushed out a hand in Tonia’s direction. “Thank you for being so generous with your time, Tonia, and I look forward to talking with you more—a lot more in the future.”
As she shook the strong hand, Tonia thanked the gods that he’d said this in English. Peter might be indifferent to the protocol of a Soviet University, but he at least had the good sense to know certain things were best left unsaid…unsaid in Russian, that is.