Home > The Half Life of Valery K

The Half Life of Valery K
Author: Natasha Pulley

 

1

An Unexpected Departure

 

 

Kolyma, Siberia, 1963


Possibly because French made it sound fancy and respectable, the wake-up call for the prisoners was called reveille. In fact it was just one of the guards banging a bit of pipe against an iron bar outside the barracks. If he was in the right mood, the guard would take rhythm requests. On what Valery Kolkhanov didn’t yet know was his final morning, it was ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

Valery eased himself upright, one hand in the roots of his hair, because it was frozen to the pillow. The hessian blankets crackled; there was frost on the top side of the weave. He touched the rafters, which were just above his head and sparkling too, and bent forward to stretch out his shoulders. Something fluffy scuffled into his lap and squeaked. Boris the sociable rat. Valery stroked his ears in the dark. For reasons known only to himself, Boris stole nails from all over the camp. He gave Valery the latest and then rolled over to have his tummy scratched.

‘Who’s a good rat?’ Valery said, pleased. Everyone used nails as needles for darning, and if Boris brought four or five a month, Valery could get an entire can of condensed milk just by selling them on. He wasn’t sure why Boris had decided he, Valery, ought to get the nails, but he wasn’t in the habit of looking gift rats in the mouth.

He bent his neck to see through the small window beside him. The frost was thick on the inside, blurring the halogen lamp on the camp perimeter. He brushed some off. It was snowing.

There was still a clear forty minutes before the start of the labour shift, and those forty minutes stretched out beautifully. He pulled the physics textbook from under the straw mattress and tipped it to the light of the halogen. He preferred to read over the lessons before he had to teach them to the administrator. He would never have needed to – or, not Before – but lately, he could feel his mind effervescing, like one of those headache-cure tablets in a glass of water. He wasn’t losing memories, it wasn’t as straightforward as that. But it was getting harder and harder to think.

‘God’s sake, you tart, just lie down and keep the warm in …’

This from his bunk-partner, whose name he had forgotten because they rarely spoke. Valery gave him Boris to hold. They didn’t know each other well, but in the winter it was a ridiculous idea to sleep alone.

At the barracks doors, the long bar made a grinding noise as the guard pulled it out from the handles. The doors opened, letting in a blast of frozen air, and the old men on light duties. That was a joke, light duties; the first thing they did in the morning was light the four lamps. The lamps were kerosene. They sent a clean chemical smell across the musty space, which looked like a barn, but stacked with bunks and men instead of hay bales. Valery read for a little while, then closed the book and slid down to the ground, past two other bunks and four other men.

Hay crunched under his boots. Other eyes followed the boots. He was one of only three men in the barracks who had real boots, not tied-on rags.

‘Hand those over,’ someone said, someone new.

Valery pushed his sleeve back to show the tattoos on his arm.

‘Bugger,’ the voice mumbled. ‘Sorry.’

 

On the way out into the black morning, where the darkness was so viscous it felt like being inside an oil slick, Valery bumped the edge of the barracks door. Someone else was coming in just at the same time and they both misjudged their trajectories. It was a tiny knock, just to the knuckles of his first two fingers, but he got a stab of pain anyway that was probably the bones fracturing. He walked shaking his hand in the frozen air, which was as good as any analgesic. Before long his hand was numb.

Calcium deficiency. Annoying but not scurvy. He was fine. He made himself a cigarette, one-and-a-half-handed.

The way to not sink into self-pity and despair – the way to not die – was to look forward to things. Anything; the tinier the better, because then you were more likely to get it. The patterns of ice on the water barrels, the feeling of holding a hot mug. Anything to stop the onset of the terrible docility that came before you gave up. Collect enough bright things, and it was possible to have a good day.

One of the things Valery looked forward to was cigarettes.

All you had to do was find a newspaper from the stack the guards kept for kindling – it was never Truth or anything anyone would actually read, just local farmers’-market stuff and news about how somebody had hit somebody else’s nephew over the head with a sugar beet – and fold it, one page at a time, into small squares. Then you ripped along the folds. Then you sprinkled tobacco in the middle of a square and rolled it up, tight. The square-tearing had to be precise, or you ended up with something too big that caught fire too enthusiastically and your eyebrows suffered. Valery’s favourite thing was the crossword, because it was exactly the right size. Some people took care to find the pictures of Lenin or Stalin, or other things they hated, like marriage banns or cheese adverts, but it was ideal to do the crossword and then smoke it. That was a lot of mileage from one piece of paper.

He always had a decent amount of tobacco. The Vory saw to that.

Walking was difficult, because the mud had frozen into solid ruts and troughs, tyre tracks, footprints, some deep, but all hard to see by the halo glow of the far-off halogens in the staff quarter. He had to go in fits and starts, waiting for the white scythe of the tower’s rotating searchlight. The camp was quiet at this time, though, so there were no crowds to navigate. In the far distance, from the mines, the whistle of the shift change floated eerie up the hill. Valery breathed smoke into the bitter air, and reminded himself again to be grateful that he was not in the mines. The cigarette moulted firefly embers.

One of the guards at the administration-building door gave him the why-am-I-up-at-four-in-the-morning scowl, and spat to one side. It froze before it hit the ground. Minus sixty degrees.

‘Why haven’t you taken your hat off for us?’ he snapped. There was so much rage in his voice that something else must have gone wrong for him this morning already. He was new. Probably he was as miserable to find himself here as any of the zeks. ‘Five paces before you reach a guard!’

He snatched it off, and then roared, because there was a needle in it, probably the only real needle – not a nail – on Valery’s side of the camp. It wasn’t practical to keep a needle anywhere else. The experienced guards knew that.

There was honest fury in his face, and he lashed out fast with his cattle prod. The electric shock was just as horrible as always, a flash of astonishing pain that zinged right up and down Valery’s ribs. Valery forced himself to stay straight instead of doubling over, his hands clamped so hard behind his back that he could feel his nails gouging half-moons into his palms.

He found himself smiling, because he lived for these moments. He loved it when he had a chance to do a real magic trick. There was joy in finding he still could, real raw joy, because what it meant was there was still some iron in him.

‘The thermometer’s buggered, did you hear?’ Valery said, as if nothing had happened.

‘What?’

It didn’t work if you were big. Valery wasn’t. Most people here shaved their heads because it was easier to keep clean, but he didn’t; there was a curl to his hair that made him look much younger than he really was, and he poured energy into keeping his shoulders open and his resting expression sunny. It was so out of place here that sometimes, if he hit it exactly right, it cast an illusion that they weren’t here at all, but on a street in Moscow, meeting like normal people, with the normal rules.

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