“Dedushka,” his granddaughter says over her shoulder, as she turns in towards the parking lot. “We’re here, dedushka.”
Alyosha says nothing. He’s looking through the window at the object on the concrete plinth, the sun glinting off the metal. He’s been looking at it ever since it came into view, when they’d turned in to this street.
“Papa?” His daughter Zhenya gets out, comes round the back of the car, and opens the door on his side, and holds out his walking stick. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Alyosha struggles to get out of the enclosed space of the back seat. Once upon a time, he would have twisted like an eel inside the far more restrictive confines of the interior of the object on the plinth. But those days are over. Hopefully, he thinks, days like that will never come again.
“Those days –“ he begins to say, and stops, embarrassed, though he doesn’t know what he has to be embarrassed for. “Nothing,” he temporises, turning away stiffly from his daughter. “Forget it.”
“Papa,” Zhenya repeats, taking his arm. She’s a big woman, taller than Alyosha ever was, and strong to go with it. “If you’re not feeling all right...”
“I’m fine, dammit.” Alyosha shakes his head, irritated with himself for swearing. He straightens, brushes his white hair back from his forehead. “Right,” he says. “Let’s do this.”
“Dedushka.” His granddaughter, Masha, twenty, tall, slim, heartbreakingly pretty despite the pierced eyebrow, the hair that hardly reaches her collar, and her knee-length boots, comes round the car, the bouquet in her hands. “There are some people here.”
“Huh?” For the first time Alyosha notices the other cars, the small crowd around the base of the plinth. Some of them are already pointing cameras in his direction. “Who are they?”
“Media people, mostly,” Masha says, grinning. “You’re famous.”
“Hah,” Alyosha snorts. It sets him to coughing. “They just want a story.”
“Well, you are a story.” Zhenya and Masha exchange smiles, as they walk side by side towards the plinth. “A big part of the story.”
“Mr Safonov?” It’s a young man with a round face, hair carefully arranged to hang over one eyebrow. He’s got a small microphone in his hand. “I’m Konstantin Fedorov.” He names the TV channel he’s from, and steals a quick, appreciative glance at Masha. “Rad znakomitsya. It’s good to meet you.”
Alyosha nods, hardly noticing him. He’s staring up at the thing on the plinth. The new olive-green paint looks incongruous on the metal. The last time he’d seen it, it had been covered with brown dirt and black oil, and splashed with grey concrete dust. He’s sure it’ll smell different, too, like a new car perhaps. Back then it had smelt of hot metal, burned cordite, diesel exhaust and the coppery tang of Tereshchenko’s blood, seeping down from the turret. He can still smell that medley of odours. He dreams of it sometimes.
“Mr Safonov?” the journalist persists. “How does it feel to see your old tank again? The one you went to war in?”
“How does it feel?” Alyosha looks at him, at his fleshy features and soft hands. It’s impossible to imagine he’s ever even touched a gun or felt the scratch of uniform cloth on his skin. Hardly any of them do now, preferring to buy their way out of military service. “What sort of question is that?”
“Um...” The young man, Fedorov, blinks. “You know. You’re a hero, and this is a historic occasion, after all.”
Alyosha smiles, with no humour in the smile at all. “What makes you imagine I’m a hero? All I did was sit in a seat, press pedals and pull at levers. What’s heroic about that?”
“You helped take Berlin,” the journalist persists, desperately. “How many can say they did?”
“I and a few hundred thousand others,” Alyosha replies. “Why don’t you ask them? Those of them who are left,” he amends. “Can’t be that many, I suppose.”
“Papa,” Zhenya says warningly. She smiles at the journalist. “You’ll have to give my father a little time,” she tells him. “He’s a bit excited – you understand.”
“I’m not excited,” Alyosha says. He looks at the cameras, then up at the green metal object on the plinth. Masha takes his arm, the one not holding the cane. “Help me up there, Koshka,” he tells her.
“Just a couple of photos,” someone calls.
“Later,” Masha smiles. She’s fiercely protective of him, has been since she was a child. “Let my grandfather do what he’s come here to do, please. What you’ve all come here to watch him do.”
They walk up towards the plinth. There’s a plaque on it, with today’s date under the heading GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR MEMORIAL, and below that – Alyosha has to squint to read it – a couple of lines saying that this vehicle had fought from Ukraine to Berlin as part of Marshal Konev’s army. Someone’s put a wreath under the plaque for some reason. It looks ridiculous.
“Koshka,” he says to Masha, holding out his arm. “Koshka.”
She takes hold of him again, her small hand with their long fingers on his elbow, her high-heeled boots firm on the concrete. “Here, dedushka,” she says. “There’s a step for you.”
Someone’s put a flight of wooden stairs next to the plinth for him, broad enough so that he can climb to the top without trouble. He looks down at his feet as he walks up, and once on top turns round for a moment, looking down at the crowd. Zhenya is down there, beside the reporter, everyone staring up at him and Masha, up on the plinth. He can feel the sun-warmed metal at his back.
“Dedushka,” Masha says, but he barely hears, because he can hear a different now, an older voice, wordless, made up of grinding gears, roaring engine and clattering caterpillar tracks. An old and familiar voice, dear as a lover’s. And he turns, he turns at last.
And, yes, now he can think of it as the tank, not as a thing, an object, now he’s beside it and it’s the tank again. He reaches out, touches the edge of the track, and walks slowly around the hull towards the front. Masha follows, hesitantly, unwilling to intrude and yet unwilling to leave him alone.
Now he’s standing by the glacis plate, and he bends slowly and runs his hand along the lower slope of the armour, feeling the rough metal where it had been repaired, and now at last he knows her, knows she’s the same tank, that it’s her despite the paint and the new smell. And the tears come to his eyes, remembering.
“Dedushka,” Masha says urgently. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” he says, shaking his head, and it is nothing, just a tear or two. “A Panzerfaust hit right here, do you know? A Hitler Youth boy fired it. I was sitting just inside, there.”
Alyosha shrugs. “We survived, of course. If the boy had taken a moment to aim better, we probably wouldn’t have.” He leans over the glacis to peer at the forward hatch. It’s open for the occasion, and he can see the driver’s seat inside, still the same old seat, with the familiar nick on the backrest. A sniper bullet had done that, before he’d joined the crew, the same bullet which had killed Misha, the previous driver. “I used to be able to climb inside through this hatch,” he says.
Masha laughs, looks at him and at the hatch. “I can’t imagine a...cat going in through that.”
“I did, though. Each time.” He looks up at the turret, and debates trying to climb up there to look in through the hatches. But he’s afraid that if he does, even supposing he can still get up there at all, what he’ll see is what he saw the last time, Tereshchenko’s blood, dry but still splashed over the commander’s cupola and seat. It’s absurd, but he can’t get rid of the feeling.
“The Starshina was killed there,” he says, pointing. “It was just a few days before the end of the war.”
“How?” Masha asks, though she surely knows, he’s certainly told her all this before. “What happened to him, dedushka?”
“A German sniper got him.” He can still remember the moment, the shot lost in the noise of the tank engine, but he heard Tereshchenko gasp suddenly over the intercom, and Sasha the gunner cried out that the sergeant had been hit. And there was the coppery smell of the blood. “He didn’t suffer.”
Then the entire section had poured in fire into the building from which the shot had come, machine gun bullets and shells crashing into the walls, and the German had fallen limply out of a top floor window, dropping like a rag doll down to the street, and when they’d gone to look at the blasted corpse they’d found it was a teenage girl with flaxen braids hanging out from under her helmet. He squeezes his eyes to get rid of the memory. “We never did get the blood out.” He doesn’t know whose blood he means.
“It’s all right, dedushka.”
He wishes he could stay with the tank, crawl inside her and curl up in his old seat, but his legs are growing tired. “Help me, Koshka,” he says.
She knows what he means, and takes his arm and helps him around the tank to the stairs. He takes the bouquet from her, kneels, puts it down next to the track. He remains like that a while. The cameras are busy. Then she helps him down.
“Let’s get to the car,” he says.
The journalist, Fedorov, is back, though. “Can you tell us about at least one battle you were in?” he asks.
Alyosha looks at him, and has a sudden memory, the damaged Panther tank backed into a wrecked building, firing at them from inside, Sasha pumping shell after shell back at the poor doomed German crew. That had been a good tank crew, even though they had been Germans, brave fighters, who’d not given up, even at the end. He suddenly feels much closer kinship to that long dead Nazi tank crew than to the fresh-faced boy holding the microphone and the others behind him, faces behind cameras, people who have never seen any kind of combat and hopefully never will, who think war is what they see on movie screens. “There’s nothing to tell.”
“No.” He holds up a hand. “There’s nothing to tell, I said. We did nothing heroic at all.” He turns away, to his daughter. “Let’s go home, Zhenya.”
They make their way towards the parking lot. Masha has walked away a little distance, speaking into her mobile phone, and she returns now, holding it out, smiling. “Dedushka, someone wants to talk to you.”
“Who?” Frowning, Alyosha takes the rectangle of plastic, and holds it awkwardly to his ear. “Hello?”
“Fishling?” The voice is so familiar, despite the old man’s quaver, and so unexpected that he almost drops the cell. “Hey, fishling.”
“Nurik?” Alyosha’s mouth falls open in astonishment. “Eto ti? Nurik, you old drunkard.”
“Not a drunkard any more.” Akhmetov’s voice, from far Almaty, echoes in Alyosha’s ear as though he’d heard it only yesterday. “Gave up drinking, these three years now.”
“Why on earth?” Alyosha laughs. “I can’t imagine you not drinking. Don’t tell me you got religion in your old age.”
“No, what I got was liver cancer. Thought, fine, I’ll just die and get it over with. After all, I’m over ninety, what do I want to live longer for? But the bloody doctor, a Russian just like you, he cut most of my liver out. And now he says I’m good for years more, and I can’t even drink any longer. You Russians,” Akhmetov adds gloomily. “I always knew you’d do for me in the end.”
“I’m at the old tank, Nurik,” Alyosha says. “It’s a war memorial now, can you imagine?”
“I know, your granddaughter told me. She tracked me down online, she said. I don’t know how these young ones do it, Facebook and things. You’re coming to see me this year, aren’t you?”
“Of course you are. Ask your granddaughter if you don’t believe me.” Alyosha can imagine Akhmetov’s expression, the narrow Kazakh eyes almost disappearing in glee. “It’s all arranged, old fish, so you might as well just sit back and let it happen.”
“And you won’t stop me from drinking?”
“Shut up about drinking, will you. Or I’m going to make you get drunk, in front of your granddaughter, too. And I’m going to tell her about the time you...”
They laugh together, until Akhmetov begins coughing, and has to end the conversation. They’re at the car now, and someone’s waiting for them, a woman, small and stout, with grey hair. She steps forward, diffidently.
“I think you knew my father. He was Fyodor Novikov.” The woman looks shyly at Zhenya and Masha. “He always talked about you.”
“Well...” Alyosha smiles at the woman. She’s got tired eyes, and her dumpy body is covered in clothes that look a little threadbare. “What’s your name?”
“Anastasia,” she says, embarrassed by the name itself, a name too grand for most people these days. But so is Fyodor. “My father told me many times, you were the best tank driver he’d ever met. He said –“ she pauses, blushing.
“He said that if it hadn’t been for you, none of the crew would ever have got back alive from the war. And he said, if ever I had a chance to meet you, I should. So when I heard about this memorial, and that you’d been invited as a guest, I thought I’d just see if you could spare a moment.”
“I’m so glad you came,” Alyosha says, and means it. “I’d love to get to know you better.”
“Come to a cafe with us for tea,” Zhenya offers.
“I’d like to,” the woman replies, “but I don’t have the time.” She looks hurriedly at her watch. “Oh, I have to go. I’ve got to be getting back to work.”
“Come and see us.” Alyosha scrabbles in his pocket, finds a card, and hands it to her. “Come and see us, please.”
She nods, her head moving in abrupt jerks like a bird’s, takes the card and walks quickly away. They watch her go.
Alyosha sighs. For some reason, he feels very tired. “Let’s go home, Koshka,” he says.
As they drive away, he looks back one last time at the tank on the plinth. And suddenly, he sees five men standing in front of it, dressed in tankers’ uniforms and helmets, waving and smiling. Young faces, so very young, and so long ago.
He blinks, and they are gone. It must have been a trick of the light anyway.
Then the car turns the corner, and the tank is lost to view.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
|[The Old Vet And His Tank]|