Saturday 27 January 2018

The Tank

Here, for the first time, are gathered as one whole the four parts of my best known military story, The Tank (also, jokingly, sometimes referred to as Alyosha and the Least Famous Tank in the Universe). I have a tremendous amount of affection for Alyosha, and in the last day or two I have begun considering writing more of his adventures in the closing days of the Second World War.

Now illustrated with two acrylic-on-paper paintings by me.

I am engaged in various projects including painting and writing (another) novel, which precludes my posting here much. Frankly, apart from the few (very few) who read me, nobody will miss anything anyway.


Part OneRetribution

Part Two: Nadezhda

Part Three: A Rotten Bloody War

Part Four: Nothing Heroic At All


Here in the south, in afternoon in late summer the air is drenched in sunshine, and looks heavy as though it is full of honey. And when a vehicle passes, the dust from its wheels hangs in the air as though suspended in the liquid and reluctant to come down to the ground again.

It was an afternoon in late summer when Alyosha’s tank came over the bulge of the little hill and clanked down the trail through the birch forest. Tanks and soldiers had already passed this way, and the air was still so hazy with dust that Alyosha had to squint through the driver’s hatch to see to steer.

“Keep your mouth closed, fishling,” the bow machine gunner, Fyodor, said from his right. His large face was creased with dirt mixed in with his beard stubble, and he rubbed his jaw with a finger and held it up to demonstrate. “You don’t want that in your mouth. All the pretty girls will laugh at your teeth.”

Alyosha flushed. They all kept making fun of him, because he was the new one, straight out of tank driver training, and they called him fishling. It wasn’t his fault that he was young and green and they were all veterans, or that he was the replacement for the former driver, who had been killed by a sniper bullet right through the front hatch.

That thought made him nervous, as though someone was drawing a bead through a sniper scope at the top of his chest, but there was nothing to be done about it. Besides, he told himself, the enemy had gone from this sector and there was no fighting left to do.

Yes, but suppose they had left behind a few men to delay the advance and fight to the last?

His thoughts were interrupted by the commander’s voice in the helmet headphones. “Driver, slow down. We turn off in fifty metres.”

“Da, tovarish Starshina.” Alyosha stamped on the clutch and yanked back on the gearshift as hard as he could. It amazed him as always how much strength it took to change gears on the T 34/85, and once again he wondered just why he’d been chosen for tank driver training when he was so small and thin. Once he’d asked and been told, leavened with plenty of profanity, that it was because he was so small and thin. 

“It’s little fishes like you who can jump in easily through the driver’s hatch,” Fyodor had said, rotating his shoulders, hefty with muscle. As though, Alyosha had thought sourly, he didn’t have to crawl in through the same hatch. And Sasha the gunner had added from behind and above, “Besides, you’re so small that if some sniper shoots at you through the hatch he’ll probably miss.” And everyone had laughed except Alyosha himself and Tereshchenko, the senior sergeant tank commander.

“Turn off to the left,” Tereshchenko called now, over the intercom. “Ten metres.”

Alyosha pulled in the left steering tiller and jerked the tank into the turn. Through the open hatch he could see the village, a jumble of houses across a stretch of fields. Some people were watching them from outside the houses.

“Back before the war,” Fyodor said conversationally, “you could have a good time in these villages. They knew how to live, no complexes on their backs like city people. And the girls after harvest time, they...”

Alyosha tuned him out, concentrating on driving the tank up the rutted trail to the village. The ruts were so deep that each time a track would hit one the entire tank tilted slightly, and the squad of soldiers riding on the rear deck swore and shouted abuse. Here, off the main track, the dust was less thick but still made his eyes smart. He wished he had a pair of goggles.

They passed a line of ditches dug into the fields perpendicular to the track, and arrived at the village. Alyosha brought the vehicle to a juddering halt without waiting for the commander’s order. Leaning back in his narrow seat, he switched off the engine. The sudden silence was sweet.

A small knot of people was coming up the village lane towards the tank. They looked apprehensive, and were led by an old man with long grey moustaches.

“You’d think they’d be happy to see us,” Fyodor grunted. “Instead just look at them!”

The loader, Akhmetov, laughed harshly. “All these days and you still expect gratitude?” He knelt on the ammunition crates on the floor to peer over Alyosha’s shoulder. “Wonder if they were all in bed with the Nazis.”

Alyosha watched the corporal in charge of the squad of soldiers walk over and talk to the old man with the moustaches. He nodded and came back to the tank.

“He says the Nazis weren’t here,” he called up to Tereshchenko in the turret. “He says nothing happened here, no one came.”

“Yes?” The senior sergeant’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Ask him about those trenches we drove past in the field.”

“I already asked him, Starshina. He says they dug them to stop German armour coming, in case they turned up.” He spat eloquently on the ground. “A likely story, seeing they left the track untouched and the trenches are all pointing east.”

“Take your men and search the village,” Tereshchenko said. “Be ready to move fast if anything happens. Akhmetov, load anti-personnel. Everyone on alert.”

Alyosha watched the villagers through the front hatch. They stood where they were, looking uncertainly at the tank and at the soldiers who were now beginning to move through the village. A chicken began clucking and quickly fell silent.

“How long,” Sasha the gunner muttered, “are we planning to stay here, Starshina?”

“As long as it takes,” Tereshchenko said irritably. He sounded on edge, and this worried Alyosha because Tereshchenko was normally as emotional as a block of wood. “I want to find out what’s going on here.”

“Starshina,” Fyodor said. The old man with the moustaches was stepping warily towards the tank. “Looks like we have complaints.”

“The soldiers,” the old man said to Alyosha through the hatch, since he was the most easily visible. “The soldiers are stealing the chickens.”

“What’s it to you, dedushka?” Fyodor leaned over to glare up at the old man. “We’ve come to liberate you, and all you can talk about is chickens? The soldiers need food. We need food.”

“Enough, Fyodor,” Tereshchenko called from the turret. “Listen, Dyadya,” he said to the old man. “We haven’t had a proper meal or sleep in days now, and we still have a long way to go. I think a few chickens are the least of your worries.”

“If you want food,” the old man said eagerly, squinting myopically up at the turret, “we have bread and even a few eggs. You’re welcome to them.” His watery blue eyes blinked earnestly. “But please don’t disturb the chickens, and the women –“

As though on cue, someone screamed in the village, a woman yelling. Alyosha glanced uneasily at Fyodor, but he was fumbling with the lock of his machine gun.

“Listen to them!” the old man said.

“What do you expect in a war?”’ Akhmetov leaned across Alyosha’s shoulder. He squinted at the afternoon sunshine, his narrow Kazakh eyes almost disappearing. “Soldiers are men, old man, and they need their fun.”

“Fun?” The old man was outraged, his jaw quivering. “You call that fun?”

“Oh yes.” Fyodor didn’t look at anyone, and he might have been talking to his machine gun. “After days and weeks of facing death constantly, not knowing if you’ll ever even see a woman again, I’d call it fun. All right.”

“That’s enough,” Tereshchenko said. “We aren’t the Nazis. Get them back here.”

At that moment, there was a shot, ringing out sharp and loud, from the other side of the village. Everyone in the tank stiffened. Alyosha grabbed at the steering tillers. Fyodor swivelled his machine gun, the stubby barrel traversing the street.

“Zhopa,” Sasha swore softly. “What the hell is going on?”

Nothing happened for a long moment. Alyosha, watching the old man, suddenly had a feeling that he’d been expecting the shot, that this was what he’d been trying to head off with his complaint about the chickens. He hadn’t made the slightest attempt to crouch in the dust like the others. He’d just turned round and was looking back at the village.

Then the corporal and two of the soldiers emerged from between two houses, pushing a girl between them.

“Starshina,” the corporal called. “Look what we found.”

“She was hiding behind a barn,” one of the other soldiers said. “Dug herself into the hay. When we found her she took a shot at us and tried to run.”

The girl was now close enough for Alyosha to get a better look at her. Straw was sticking in her hair and clinging to her brown dress. She was still struggling, her oval face red with effort and her deep-set eyes snapping with fury.

“Shot at you?” Tereshchenko asked. “What with?”

The second soldier held up a pistol. It was a German model, with a narrow barrel sticking out of the end like an admonitory finger.

“A Walther,” Tereshchenko said without surprise. “So, Dyadya,” he called to the old man, “nobody was here, wasn’t that what you said? And here we have people taking potshots at us with German guns.”

“She’s not from here,” the old man said, not looking back. “I’ve never seen her before.”

“He lies!” One of the men who had come along behind the old man strode forward. His face was working with fury and some other emotion. “This hell-bitch was the German commandant’s whore. And she acted like the queen of the whole district. Had people shot for looking at her crossways.”

“That’s a lie!” The girl glared at the man. The muscles in her arms were tense with effort, and she looked magnificent in her anger. One of her shoes had come off, and in order not to have to look at her face, Alyosha stared at her bare toes clenching in the dust. “I had nothing to do with the German commandant.”

“He just left her behind when they pulled out yesterday,” the man said. Alyosha could identify the other emotion in his voice now, along with the fury. It was triumph. “She was running behind them, with the other collaborators, begging them to take her along. But the German pretended he couldn’t hear her.”

“He’s right,” one of the other men said. “This bitch, she isn’t from this village, but she came here just after the war started. Mother dead and papa in the army, she said, and said she’d come where she knew she could find shelter.” He sneered. “Nice daughter of a soldier she turned out to be. The moment the Germans came she rushed into their arms.” His upper lip lifted in a sneer. “Probably her dad’s one of the traitors who went over to the Germans, too.”

“Ask her what her name was, the one the Germans gave her.” The first man glared up at the turret. “Go on, ask her if it’s not true that they called her Snow White.”

There was a sudden silence.

“Snow White,” the corporal said. “Are you sure?”

The man nodded, saying nothing. For an endless moment nobody spoke.

“Snow White,” Alyosha mouthed silently. Even he had heard of Snow White, word of whose cruelty had filtered back through the partisans to the troops. He couldn’t believe it. Snow White should be a tall, jackbooted Nordic ice queen with flinty blue eyes and a cigarette in a holder. She shouldn’t be an oval-faced village girl with straw in her hair and dirty toes.

“All right, corporal,” Tereshchenko said from the turret. “Hold her. Fyodor, call battalion and report that we’ve got Snow White.”

Alyosha stared at the young woman. Now that she was no longer struggling, there was something almost familiar about her face. From being someone who should have been a Nordic ice queen, Snow White had become someone whom he seemed to have known for a long time.

“Starshina,” Fyodor said, “the Kombat says to take her back to battalion. She’s to be sent on from there.”

There was a brief pause. “Very well,” Tereshchenko said. “Tell the Kombat we’ll be bringing her back. Corporal,” he added, “get the people to go back to the village and stay here with your squad. Keep an eye on everything.”

“But, the woman, sergeant,” the corporal said. “How do you plan to take her back? Someone like that, inside the tank, she might get hold of a submachine gun or a grenade and –“

“I’ll talk to her,” Tereshchenko said. He swung himself out of the turret and dropped to the ground. Alyosha could see him out of the corner of the hatch, in his brown uniform and black helmet for all the world like someone from another world in the honey-drenched summer light. “I’ll talk to her and convince her to behave. Get the people indoors and keep watch.”

“Starshina –“ the corporal protested.

“I said I’ll talk to her, damn it.” Tereshchenko plucked the Walther out of the third soldier’s grasp and grabbed the girl’s shoulder. “Let’s take a little walk,” he told her, his fingers digging into her so hard that she winced. They passed out of sight to the side of the tank.

Nobody said anything for a moment.

“Snow White,” Akhmetov said. “That wasn’t what I thought Snow White would look like.”

“None of us did,” Fyodor said. “Well, live and learn, as they say, right?”

“What happens to her when they get her back to Moscow?” Alyosha wanted to know.

“What do you think, fishling? Some good hard interrogation and a firing squad, what else?”

“What’s the Starshina doing with her?” Fyodor asked.

“I can’t quite see,” Sasha said from the turret. “They’re over by the trenches. They –“

“What?” Alyosha asked.


There was a shot, the clear crack of the Walther. A heavy tread came closer to the tank and Tereshchenko climbed in through the turret. “Let’s go.”

“The girl?”

“Forget the girl. Let’s go.”

“Starshina,” Akhmetov said. “The Kombat said –“

“Let’s go, I said.”

Alyosha switched on the engine and turned the tank round. They clattered unevenly up the track and passed the trenches. From the nearest of them, a bare foot protruded, smeared with blood.

The tank drove on towards the setting sun.


I only found out about the rest of it later,” Alyosha said.

His granddaughter sat back against his chair and hugged her knees. “What happened to the sergeant?”

“To him? Nothing. I don’t know what Tereshchenko told the Kombat. Probably that the girl had tried to escape and he’d been forced to shoot her. We never heard anything more about it anyway, and he was killed in Berlin.”

“So what did you find out, dedushka?”

“It was right at the end of summer. We’d halted one night in a little town on the Polish frontier. It was a cold night for that time of year, and since the Germans were nowhere near we’d built a fire. We even had some food and vodka, so we were feeling pretty content. You’ve never been in that situation, so you don’t know how it feels to be content with only a little meat and alcohol, when you have a fire and nobody’s shooting at you.

“Then somehow or other we got to talking about the girl, Snow White, and what had happened in the village. Then Akhmetov asked casually, ‘Aren’t you from some village in those parts, Starshina?’

 “Tereshchenko’s face froze. ‘Yes,’ he said shortly, and looked into the fire.

“I was sitting right opposite him and I saw that look on his face, and it was suddenly as though I’d seen that look – that exact same look – somewhere before, somewhere framed by honey-coloured air.

“ ‘A traitor who went over to the Germans,’ he quoted, and his voice was proud and defiant and filled with regret.”


In the dim light filtering through the heavy clouds, the far side of the river was a line of shadows pricked out with trees, and the water a flow of darkness between the grey mud that made up the banks.

Alyosha hated the mud. He hated it with an intensity that he could hardly believe himself capable of, the mud that got into everything, that clogged the tracks, that spattered up through the driver’s hatch into his face, so that he could taste it in his mouth when he ran his tongue around his teeth. The track leading down to the river was so thick with mud that as the tank headed down it, the hull front seemed to ride on a tide of the glutinous material, and it crept up the glacis and into the tank itself.

“Napoleon called this mud a fifth element,” Tereshchenko had said earlier in the week. “You’re in good company.”

Akhmetov, the Kazakh loader, had stated in clear terms what Napoleon could go and do with himself.

“I can’t even keep the shells clean,” he’d grumbled, wiping the cases with an oily rag. “At this rate, we’ll have the gun rifling fouled.”

It wasn’t just the mud, of course, it was the cold. Everything was damp and freezing, and when Alyosha touched the glacis plate next to the driver’s hatch, it was crawling with condensed moisture from their bodies.

At least, earlier they’d been with the rest of the battalion, among others who had shared their misery. But at dawn the Kombat had summoned Tereshchenko with new orders.

“We’re to go out in front as reconnaissance,” the senior sergeant had said when he returned. His face had been grim, the lines etched with mud and stubble. “Get ready and we’ll head out.”

Everyone had paused a moment to take that in. “How far?” Alyosha had asked at last.

Tereshchenko had shrugged. “Up to the river, if we haven’t encountered anything by then.”

The river was a blue squiggle on the page torn out of an old Polish atlas which was the only map they had. It had an unpronounceable name, the unfamiliar Latin characters further complicated by diacritical marks which meant nothing to any of them. Now, looking at it, Alyosha thought it should be called Chyornaya Reka, Black River. It was as good a name as any.

There was a straggle of buildings on both sides of the track, and Sasha turned the turret to cover them as the tank slowly churned by. But they seemed to be deserted, the windows broken, doors open to the rain and wind, and nobody to be seen.

“What I wouldn’t do for some vodka,” Fyodor said.

“Wouldn’t we all,” Sasha, the gunner, said. “But none for you, fishling. We don’t need a drunk driver. We’d end up in the river.”

“We don’t need a drunk gunner either,” Alyosha snapped. “You couldn’t shoot straight.”

With a sudden roar of engines, a flight of planes passed overhead and towards the river.

“Are they ours?” Alyosha asked.

“Better hope they aren’t,” Tereshchenko said. “This far ahead of the main advance, if they’re our planes, they’ll bomb first and ask questions later.” But the planes turned away and disappeared, like a line of migrating birds.

“What do we do now, tovarish Starshina?” Akhmetov asked. “We’re at the river, so do we go back, or – ”

The next moment something smashed into the rim of the driver’s hatch and ricocheted away. Before Alyosha’s brain had consciously formulated the word “sniper”, his hand had already yanked on the lever that brought the hatch cover clanging down into place. His vision narrowed to two tiny slots of light. It was like becoming half-blind in an instant.

“Driver,” Tereshchenko snapped. “Reverse up the slope.”

Alyosha’s cold, muddy grip slipped on the gearshift, so that he had to use both hands to yank back on the clumsy transmission. He barely noticed the hammering as Fyodor fired the bow machine gun at some invisible target.

“Faster,” Tereshchenko said.

From across the river a heavy machine gun lashed at them, bullets spanging on the armour like hail, so loudly that they could hear them over the racing engine. Through the vision blocks in the hatch cover it was impossible to see where the fire was coming from. The far shore lay thick with murk.

“Stop,” Tereshchenko ordered over the intercom. A few seconds later the entire tank recoiled as Sasha fired the main gun, the muzzle flash briefly turning the world orange. The fighting compartment filled with smoke as Akhmetov reloaded.

“Gunner, traverse left, thirty degrees,” Alyosha heard Tereshchenko say. “Range, four hundred.” The gun roared again.

As always when in combat, Alyosha felt peculiarly useless. Sitting behind the steering tillers, he could only smell the smoke filling the tank, feel the heat of the spent casings rolling on the floor, and wait for orders. He felt the sweat trickle down his spine, cold as the mud itself, and clenched his teeth tight, willing the wave of nausea that filled him to go away.

The machine gun across the river fell silent, whether destroyed or lying low it was impossible to tell. A couple of shots from the sniper, wherever he was, and the skirmish was over. But Alyosha kept his hatch cover down just the same.

Tereshchenko had been on the radio to the battalion. “The Kombat says we should stay here and keep watch,” he said. “The battalion won’t be here till tomorrow morning though.”

“I’m not surprised, with this mud,” Sasha said. “The lorries can’t keep up. We can’t stay inside the tank all the time, Starshina.”

“No, we can’t.” Tereshchenko paused. “We’d better set up an observation post in one of the buildings,” he said finally. “Driver, reverse a hundred metres, then left. We’ll park the tank between the two houses there. We’d still have a good field of fire if we need it.”

“We’ll need it all right,” Fyodor said, fitting a fresh magazine on the bow machine gun. “It never rains but it pours, rebyata.”

Rotating his neck and shoulders to get rid of the dull ache the tension of combat had brought to them, Alyosha reached for the gearshift again.

The building Tereshchenko chose had once been a small school. Peeling charts still hung askew from the walls, and some of the furniture was still in place, dark benches looking far too gloomy for anyone sitting on them to want to learn anything. Most of the blackboards were gone, though, and the windows were open mouths set with jagged teeth of glass.

While Tereshchenko took the first watch, sitting at a window with the submachine gun and grenades from the turret bin, the other four broke up a few of the benches, piled the pieces in a corridor, and tried to make a fire. But the heavy old wood would not catch, until Alyosha fetched a bottle of diesel from the tank. Even then, it burned slowly and reluctantly, as if in sympathy with the cold.

“Just as well,” Akhmetov said. “Or it might have set the whole place on fire.”

“We could toast some of the bread in this.” Fyodor poked at the fire with another piece of wood, sending a shower of sparks floating towards the ceiling. “That’s about all we have to eat.”

The bread was hard and almost black, and it burned rather than toasted. But it was still food, and Alyosha’s stomach grumbled as he watched Sasha gingerly turn a loaf over and over in the fire.

“What’s that?” Fyodor snapped suddenly.


“Something moved – in that doorway.” Fyodor had turned away from the fire, tense, listening. “I saw it from the corner of my eye.”

“You’re imagining things,” Akhmetov said. “We searched the building when we came in.”

“We even looked in that room,” Alyosha agreed. “Nobody there.”

“I saw something, I tell you.” Fyodor bent forward, looking intently into the darkness. “Someone is in there.”

“Can’t be the sniper,” Sasha said. “He’d have shot us by now.”

Fyodor wasn’t listening. “Come out,” he called. “We know you’re there. Come out with your hands up or we’ll throw a grenade in. Come on.”

Nothing happened, but Alyosha fancied he could see movement, a shifting of shadows. “Come out,” Fyodor shouted again.

Both Akhmetov and Sasha had now realised he was serious, and they, too were listening intently. Quietly, the loader slipped a grenade out of his belt and hefted it.

“Get ready to duck,” he said, without looking at them.

“Wait!” Fyodor looked back at him. “There’s no danger.”

“You just said...”

Fyodor didn’t reply. He was looking back into the room, and said something Alyosha didn’t understand. It sounded as though he was saying “Nadezhda”. But that was ridiculous. He couldn’t possibly have said that.

“Who’s Nad –“

Fyodor wasn’t listening. Slowly, he stepped forward, two steps, three, and then darted into the room. There was a brief scuffle, a shrill cry, and he emerged, pulling someone along by the arm.

“Look what I found,” he said.

It was a child, a little girl. She was appallingly thin, her hair hanging in bedraggled strings round her face. All she wore was a muddy cotton dress and a pair of tattered shoes without socks. Her bare arms and legs were blue with cold. And she was still struggling, hard, trying to pull away from the big machine-gunner.

“Where on earth did she come from?” Alyosha asked blankly.

“She was hiding under the benches,” Fyodor replied. “That’s why we couldn’t see her before.”

“She must have come out because of the fire,” Sasha said. “And maybe she smelt the bread.”

The girl gabbled something, squirming in Fyodor’s grip.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her. “ Stop fighting. Do you understand Russian?”

The girl twisted desperately, trying to tear herself loose. Her dress ripped suddenly, she ducked under Alyosha’s grabbing hand and rushed off down the corridor.

“Get her!” Fyodor shouted. “If she gets out in the mud we’ll never find her again.”

“What’s going on?” Tereshchenko shouted from upstairs. Alyosha was already running after the girl, whom he could just make out in the darkness. Her short thin legs carried her along amazingly fast, so that she managed to evade him long enough to throw herself out of the building’s back door. But she wasn’t quite fast enough for him not to see her duck into a house to the right.

“Where’s the kid?” Fyodor came up behind him, panting. “Don’t tell me you lost her.”

“She’s in there,” Alyosha pointed. “We’d better cover all sides, though, so she can’t run again.”

So that was what they did, Tereshchenko joining them as Sasha explained what had happened. Only Fyodor entered the house, carrying a torch from the tank. In a few minutes, he came out again, white-faced.

“I think you need to come in here,” he said.

“What’s in there?” Tereshchenko asked.

Fyodor shook his head. “You need to see it for yourself, Starshina. No wonder she was so desperate to get back in there. She was taking care of her mother, you see.”


The woman’s name was Malgorzata. That much they could get out of her, and that she and her daughter had been hiding there for many days. How many, she could not say – she was in any case too weak to sit up, let alone talk coherently, her body burning with fever. Finally, they wrapped her in blankets and carried her across to the school. The girl ran beside them, staring anxiously up at her mother.

After she’d warmed up and eaten some of the bread and drunk a little water, she spoke a little more, her voice a rough whisper. She spoke in a mixture of Polish and very bad Russian, and in her fever she stumbled over words, so they had to guess at a lot of the things she said. And when she’d finished they looked at each other.

“I’ve heard of what the Poles and Germans did to the Jews,” Tereshchenko said softly. “But not that it was like this.”

“Threatened to turn the kid into soap,” Akhmetov responded blankly. “They threatened to turn her kid into soap. What?”

“But she isn’t even a Jew,” Alyosha objected. “She only married one.”

“That’s even worse,” Sasha told them. “That means she’s a race traitor, you know.”

“And she got away,” Tereshchenko added. “Both of them escaped. Think of what happened to those who didn’t. Her husband, for instance.”

They looked at the woman. She had fallen asleep, her breathing harsh in the silence. Fever spots burned bright on her high cheekbones. The girl sat by her mother, fiercely possessive. Her torn dress flapped from her shoulder.

“I’ll be getting back on watch,” Tereshchenko said. “Keep them warm. Get the girl a sheet from the tank so she doesn’t freeze.”

“What do we do with them?” Akhmetov asked.

“When the battalion comes in the morning we’ll hand them over to the medics.” Sasha shook his head. “I’ll tell you straight, I don’t like Jews all that much, myself, but nobody deserves to be treated like that.”

Alyosha looked at Fyodor curiously. “You know, I’ve known you for a while now,” he said. “But I’ve never seen you so worked up about anyone as you were about that kid when you chased after her. Why? She was obviously not a spy, was she?”

Fyodor glowered into the fire and put on another piece of broken desk. “I knew she wasn’t,” he said. “She just reminded me of another kid.”

“A kid? What kid?”

“Nadezhda.” Fyodor looked round at them. “Her name was Nadezhda.”

All three of them looked at him. “Who’s Nadezhda?” Akhmetov asked. “A niece? I didn’t know you had any family.”

Fyodor shook his head. “I don’t. Forget it.”

“No,” Alyosha said. “We’re not going to forget it. Tell us.”

Fyodor looked up at him, nodded to himself, and began.


This all happened over three years ago (Fyodor said). It was just after the invasion. Yes, I’ve been in this war right from the start.

Back then I was a loader on a Betushka. I don’t know if any of you have even seen one, but three years ago we were still using them, though they were no good, really. They would almost catch fire by themselves, and we’d say that even a sharp stone could poke a hole in the armour. And, of course, the unit commanders were under the direct control of the commissars, the politrooks.

These days you don’t know what it is like to be commanded by a politrook. They used to love to throw their weight around, just to show that they knew as much or more than the commanders, and they screwed up everything. Some were worse than others, and ours was one of the worst in the army. His name was Kazakov.

Those were bad days, when the war started. Our planes had pretty much all been wiped out on the ground, and the Nazis ruled the skies. We couldn’t even move without being bombed and shelled to pieces. But our politrooks always knew better than anyone else, and Kazakov decided that we ought to attack the Germans.

We knew it was going to be a disaster, but it was even worse than we’d expected. We never even got anywhere near the Germans before being blasted to pieces by their artillery. The few tanks which survived – mine among them – managed to withdraw. And then Kazakov decided he would lead us through a forest to safety.

Can you guess what happened? He led us straight into a swamp. Every single tank we had was stuck. We had to abandon them all.

By that time the Nazis were on all sides, and we were surrounded. Those of us who were left split up, and tried to get through the enemy lines back to our own side.  I started off with a small group – the two others from my tank, and a few more – but as we went we got separated, and sometime during that first evening I found myself alone.

I can’t tell you now how I spent the next couple of days. I ate leaves of plants and things I dug out of the ground – roots and tubers – with the only tool I had, a knife. I drank out of puddles. I slept only when I had to, dozing off leaning against a tree trunk until I forced myself to my feet and carried on again. And all this time the Germans were flying over the forest, and lobbing shells at random into it, because they knew we were there.

I think it was the third day when I walked, mostly in a daze, into a village whose name I don’t remember now – if I ever knew it. And, because I was half-starved and totally exhausted, I stumbled into the place hardly looking where I was going.

It was early morning, I remember, and the sun was a swollen red ball hanging in the east, turning everything the colour of blood. It wasn’t a large village, basically a line of houses on either side of an unpaved street, with kitchen gardens and cow sheds round the back. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

The street was narrow, unpaved and deeply rutted by cart wheels – generations of carts, all of the same axle size, had worn ruts like twin drainage channels – in the earth; but it was quite wide enough for the German half tracks. I saw the first one just in time, parked in the centre of the village, the crew still in the act of disembarking. If I’d arrived only a minute later, or if I’d come along the track instead of through the forest, they couldn’t have failed to see me.

I was between two houses, standing beside a sagging fence with a creeper growing on it, afraid that the least movement would give me away. In fact, it was probably my blue uniform merging with the blue morning shadows which concealed me for the moment. Still, I couldn’t remain undiscovered forever, and I was beginning to edge slowly back when I felt a tug on my tunic. I was almost too petrified to turn around and look, but finally I forced myself.

It was a girl, a small girl, just about the same age and size as that one over there. She pulled on my sleeve again.

“What?” I whispered, but she shook her head and put a finger to her lips. Then she beckoned me to follow her.

I thought – well, I can’t really say at this distance of time what I did think, but I might have imagined she was playing a game. But I had no alternative but to follow her, because as we came out from between the houses I saw more German soldiers walking along the border of the forest, between me and safety.

She led me through a back garden, past another house and into a third. It was the usual peasant home, nothing fancy, the kind where you stepped right into the kitchen because that was the most important room in the house. A woman was standing at the window, looking out at the street. She turned eagerly when the girl entered. And then she saw me.

“Oh,” she said. Just that. “Oh.”

“Mama,” the girl said. “I saw him hiding from the soldiers, so I brought him.”

The woman’s eyes were filled with fear – whether of me, or of what would happen if the Germans found me, I don’t know. But the fear made me uneasy.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ll go away.”

The girl spoke even before I saw the flash of relief in the woman’s eyes. “No, you can’t go away like that. Papa told me to help anyone who needs help, and the Germans will hurt you if they catch you.”

“But I can’t stay,” I tried to explain. “If they find me here, they’ll punish your Mama and you.”

“He’s right,” the woman said. “He has to...”

“Mama,” the girl said, and even though she was such a little girl she had real steel in her voice. “Remember what Papa said before he went off to the war.”

The woman sighed, her shoulders slumping. “All right,” she muttered. “But I can’t keep you here, whatever your name is. I’ll give you one of my husband’s suits, and then you’ll have to go.”

So that was what she did. Her husband and I were about a height, luckily, and though he must have been quite a bit fatter the clothes didn’t fit too badly. When I was done changing, I went back into the kitchen carrying the uniform and my tank helmet.

“I’d better be going,” I said. “Thank you very much for the clothes. I’ll be on my way.”

“Wait,” the girl said, and took the uniform and helmet from my hands. “I’ll hide these for you in a haystack somewhere.” Before I could say anything more she disappeared through the door.

The woman gave me an embarrassed smile. “You’d better sit down and have some breakfast before you go,” she said. Without giving me a chance to protest she poured out a bowl of borscht and a cup of tea. “My daughter will be right back, and you can leave then.”

I’ll tell you, that even after all these years I still haven’t ever tasted anything better than that bowl of soup. It was the first real food I’d had in days, and the warmth flooded through me as I spooned it into my mouth. The woman sat opposite me, watching, sipping at her tea and not saying a word.

I’d almost finished the soup when she looked up over my shoulder at the door, and there was an expression on her face that told me it was bad news even before I turned.

Two German soldiers stood at the door, and there was a collaborator along with them. Back then, we hadn’t become familiar with those turncoats, since there weren’t that many of them, and they were mostly émigrés who had joined the Nazis before the invasion. This particular one was a short, stocky individual in a German helmet and a brown uniform. We were lucky that he wasn’t from the village, or I wouldn’t have had a chance. And we were also lucky that the Nazis didn’t summon the whole village to gather together before examining us, like they began doing later. Someone would certainly have given me away.

“So,” the collaborator said. “Who have we here?”

“I’m Maria Mironova,” the woman said. “And this is my husband, Viktor.”

“Your husband, is it?” The traitor peered at me. “Why aren’t you speaking for yourself? Lost your tongue?”

“I’m eating,” I said, swallowing the borscht in my mouth. “I don’t speak with my mouth full.”

That gave him a laugh. He looked over his shoulder at the Germans and said something in their language, and both of them grinned. “A civilised Russian villager, yet,” he said to me. “Why aren’t you in the army?”

I shrugged. “My call up papers didn’t come.”

“I see. Well, we’ll have a look in the house. Stay right where you are.”

One of the Germans stayed in the kitchen, watching us, while the traitor and the other one went through the place. I could hear things being thrown on the floor in the bedroom where I’d changed. If my uniform had still been there I’d have been toast.

Finally they came back. The traitor had a disappointed look on his face. “You,” he said to me. “We’ll ask you some questions.”

“What about?”

“To make sure you are who you say you are, and not another of the Ivans trying to get away. We’ve caught a good number of those. Now, what’s your –“

Before he could finish what he was saying, the German at the door was pushed aside. The girl ran in. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Who are these people?”

The traitor pointed a thick finger at her. “Who are you?”

“Nadezhda,” the girl said. Not Nadya, like any other kid, but the full name, Nadezhda. “Who are you?”

“Nadezhda,” the woman told her, “come here and be quiet.”

Instead she ran to me and threw her arms around my neck, which she could since I was still sitting down. “Papa. Who are these people? I’m scared.”

One of the Germans said something to the other. They looked together at the traitor.

“Is this your father?” he asked.

“Of course he’s my Papa,” she replied, putting her head on my shoulder. “And this is my Mama.”

The traitor made a disgusted sound. “Right then,” he said. “We don’t have any more time to waste, so we’ll be going. But we’ll be back if you put so much as a toe wrong.”

For many minutes after they’d gone nobody said anything. Then the girl smiled at me. “I think it’s safe now,” she said.

“You’re a remarkable young lady.” I listened to the sound of the half-tracks’ engines revving as they readied to move out. “Quite the actress.”

The mother’s eyes held an expression I couldn’t name. “You’ll be leaving now, soldier?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Somehow I couldn’t call her citizeness. There was some kind of barrier between us, like a glass wall. “Thank you for everything.”

“I’ll go with you as far as the next village,” the girl said. “I know these woods well, I can take you by the quickest path.”

I looked at the mother. She nodded.

“Nadezhda will go with you,” she said.

Nadezhda stayed with me till that afternoon,” Fyodor continued. “She took me past the next village, and the one beyond that. We saw it from inside the forest. It was a smoking ruin, every house destroyed. The Germans had been less kind to it than they had been to us.

“ ‘You go back to the army,’ Nadezhda said when we parted in the forest, after she’d shown me which way to go. She’d wanted to come further, to stay with me all the way, but I’d insisted she return to her mother. ‘And you beat the enemy, these Germans. Throw them away.’

“She said it with such earnestness that if the situation had been different I might have wanted to laugh. ‘Your papa is there too,’ I said. ‘He’s fighting the Germans too.’

“She looked at me and after a pause shook her head. ‘He’s dead. One of his friends wrote. We got the letter yesterday.’ She touched my arm. ‘He was a tanker just like you. I recognised your uniform at once – it was just like his.’

“And I remembered the strange expression on the woman’s face. Even today, I can’t imagine the control she must have forced on herself. ‘Your Papa must have been a very good man,’ I said inadequately.

“She smiled. After all she’d gone through, the girl smiled. ‘You’ll have to do his bit as well as your own,’ she said. And then she rose on tiptoe, kissed me on the cheek, and was gone.”

Everyone watched in silence as Fyodor poked the fire and added some more broken wood. “I walked for another day before I found one of our patrols. I got back to our side with them, and luckily nobody asked questions about why I’d come back in civilian clothes. They might have, but they needed tank crew so badly that all they wanted to know was how fast it was possible to put me back in a tank.

“I don’t know what happened afterwards to the village. The Germans destroyed a great number of them later, and deported many people, women and girls, back home as slave labour. But each time I see a small girl, all I see is Nadezhda. After the war is over, I’m going to go back there, and I’m going to see if I can find her again.”

“What will you do if you do find her?” Alyosha asked.

“Tell her I did as she told me,” Fyodor said. He rose from beside the fire. “Is there a toilet in this dump? I need to pee.” Turning, he stalked away. They all watched him go in silence.

As he went, in the flickering light of the fire, Alyosha could have sworn he could see Fyodor’s shoulders shaking.

But that was really too ridiculous for words, he thought, and turned back to the fire.

“Who takes the next watch?” Tereshchenko asked, coming down the stairs.

Nobody said anything.


In a few hours the thunder would break over the city, and it crouched, like an animal awaiting the hunters, knowing the blow was about to fall.

Alyosha tried not to keep looking towards the west, towards the enemy city. Whenever he did, the tension gripped his throat and twisted his stomach. For the third time he began another walk around the tank, checking the tracks and wheels with a hooded torch.

“Stop that, fishling,” Akhmetov said. He was leaning on the hull, puffing nervously on a cigarette. His was only one of hundreds of red dots sprinkling the darkness of the little wood among the dark bulks of parked tanks. “You’re winding me up.”

“Remember that time we shed a track? I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Looking at it twenty times won’t make a difference. Nor is draining the main batteries checking over and over that they aren’t drained a great idea. I haven’t seen you stop moving in hours.” His voice took on a mocking litany. “Oil pump, gearbox, fuel, electrics, engine, transmission. Transmission, engine, electrics, fuel, gearbox, oil pump. You’re obsessed, fishling.”  

Alyosha shrugged. “It never hurts to make sure,” he said. “I mean, by this time tomorrow we won’t be able to find time for maintenance.”

“By this time tomorrow we’ll be lucky not to be dead.” Ahmetov took a final drag on the cigarette, threw it down and stamped on it. “That lot over there won’t be just waiting for us to roll over them, you know.”

Alyosha looked at him. “You really think they’ll fight hard? The war’s almost over.”

Akhmetov waved at the forest around them, his hand almost invisible except in the reflected glow of cigarettes and Alyosha’s hooded torch. “Everyone’s tense,” he said. “We all know that lot over there will fight, and fight hard. They’ve put kids on the front line, you know? Fourteen, fifteen year old boys, even girls.” He spat. “You know what kids are like? You tell them to do something, they’ll do it, even if they get killed. Because they want to please you.”

Alyosha leaned on the hull beside Akhmetov and switched off the torch. “Nurik,” he asked, “what are you planning to do when the war’s over?”

“In the unlikely event of us surviving, you mean?” Akhmetov’s expression was unreadable in the darkness. “Go back home and get back to college, I suppose.” He laughed harshly. “I was studying to be an agronomist when the war started, can you believe that? I thought I’d spend my life growing things.”

“You can still go back to growing things.”

“Oh sure, after all I’ve seen these last couple of years.” Akhmetov’s voice was heavy with irony. “You know who I see in my dreams these days? Old Chinggis Khan himself, and he keeps pushing a sword in my hands. Each time, I refuse to take it, so he gets more angry and insistent.” He laughed without mirth. “Someday, I’ll take it, if only to stop him scowling at me. And then what? What can I do with a sword that I’m not already doing, loading shells for Sasha to shoot at other human beings?”

“Chinggis, huh?” Alyosha scratched his chin, which was rough with stubble. “That’s...I don’t know what to say.”

Akhmetov didn’t even pause to listen to him. “Back in training, I was with another former agronomist student – from Ukraine. When the Nazis attacked, he’d been ordered to drive a tractor over the living grain he’d just planted and nurtured; to destroy it all rather than leave it for the enemy. He couldn’t stop thinking about that, and that’s what he wanted revenge for. Strange, isn’t it? He wanted to make the Nazis pay, not for the destroyed cities and the dead people, but for making him drive a tractor over the grain.”

A flare rose in the west, a red point of light soaring through the darkness, briefly visible through a gap in the foliage. They watched it until it vanished.

“If I’d seen it out over the steppe, back home,” Akhmetov said softly, “I’d have said that was a meteor, a pretty meteor. Now, if I see a meteor I assume it’s a flare, and I wonder if it’s a signal for an attack.”

“They know we’re here, don’t they?”

“Of course they do, fishling, and they’re watching us just like we’re watching them, don’t worry.”

As though to emphasise what he’d just said, there was a series of explosions, close enough that Alyosha felt the vibrations through his boots. “Ours or theirs?” he asked.

“It’s all the same if it hits you.”

“You’ve never been in a real battle, have you, fishling?” Sasha dropped down from the turret and handed Akhmetov a flask. “Ever since you’ve joined the crew, all we’ve had is skirmishes, not battles.”

“He’s our lucky mascot,” Akhmetov said. “Our lucky fish.” He swallowed some of the vodka. “My grandfather was all religious,” he observed, passing the flask to Alyosha. “He’d have been horrified to think of me drinking. And I was his favourite too!”

Alyosha swirled around a little of the fiery spirit in his mouth, feeling it numb his tongue and the inside of his cheeks. He’d disliked vodka, but was getting increasingly used to the taste. Maybe once the war was over he’d have to learn to hate it again.

“The Starshina said we’d better get what rest we can while we can,” Sasha said. “Give me that flask if you’re not going to drink any more of it.”

Alyosha put his hands in his pockets and slouched, listening with half an ear to Sasha and Akhmetov talk as they passed the vodka back and forth. From the next tank, there was a noise of hammering as the crew tried to fix some defect. He smelt burned oil and diesel smoke.

Another flare rose in the distance, followed by a wavering line of tracer that stitched the sky with white dots. Alyosha watched it and wondered who’d fired it, and what they were thinking, and whether they were frightened of what was going to happen tomorrow.

He was frightened. Now, he thought, he could admit it to himself. At least if he kept it to himself nobody would laugh at him, though he had an idea that Sasha and Akhmetov wouldn’t laugh at him anyway. Over time, they’d finally begun to accept him as one of them, though he’d probably never take the place of Misha, the driver who’d been killed by the sniper. They’d been through too much with Misha for Alyosha ever to replace him.

But then, he thought, if Akhmetov was right about what would happen tomorrow, there might not be any need to worry about that anyway.

“Hey, fishling?” Sasha asked, poking him. “I asked you a question.”

“Huh?” Alyosha turned with a start.

“Don’t tell me you’re drunk already.” Sasha took a swallow from the flask and belched. “Do you have a girl to go home to or something?”

It was strange that they had never asked this before, and another sign that he was becoming accepted. “Not really. I mean...” His cheeks burned and he was grateful of the darkness. “I’ve never really talked to any girls, to be honest.”

“He’s right out of mama’s arms,” Akhmetov chuckled.

Sasha laughed. “Well, if we get out of this alive, you’ll be a war hero. No problem with girls, they’ll come flocking to you.”

“From all the other millions of soldiers to pick from, you mean?” Alyosha said. “Not likely.”

“Here comes the Kombat,” Akhmetov said, as a hooded torch moved towards them down the line of tanks. They straightened to attention and Sasha put the flask away. The Kombat, a big man with a small moustache, nodded at them and moved on. “What would you do if you were an officer, Sasha?”

“Sit in a nice big office pushing pins into maps, that’s what I’d do.” Sasha snorted. “You wouldn’t find me tramping around in the dark preparing for an attack, you can be sure.”

“You should’ve been a German. They’d have given you the Knight’s Cross and put you on Hitler’s General Staff.”

“I once knew a German, you know,” Sasha said unexpectedly.

“What, before the war?”

“Yeah. I was training to be a machinist and he was attached to the factory as an advisor. He wasn’t a bad bloke, for a German. I wonder where he is now.”

“Maybe over there,” Akhmetov said. Nobody replied to that. There was no reply possible.

Fyodor materialised from somewhere. “Two hours to go,” he said. “All set for the glorious victory ride?”

They all laughed. “Fishling will see us safe,” Akhmetov said. “As long as fishling’s in the driver’s seat no harm can come to us.”

“And if I don’t?” Alyosha asked.

“Then it won’t make a difference, my boy.” Fyodor slapped him on the shoulder. “It won’t make a difference to anyone at all.”


The world was shivering with fear.

That was the best way Alyosha could think of it. The air trembled from the shockwave of the shells hurtling by overhead, and the ground shuddered like an earthquake as they smashed into the enemy city. Even through the padded lining of his leather helmet, the sound was so intense that he could barely hear the engine of the tank as he revved it. He was intensely grateful he wasn’t one of the artillerymen, and even more that he wasn’t on the receiving end.

“There are going to be a lot of eardrums ruptured tonight,” Tereshchenko had said, just before the barrage had started. “It’s going to look and sound very impressive, but don’t be fooled – the Nazis will still be there when we go over, and they’re still going to fight.”

“They are?” Alyosha had asked. “But there can’t be many of them left after the artillery are through, surely?”

Tereshchenko had laughed sourly. “Remember Stalingrad? If the lot in there know what they’re doing, it’s going to be our turn to face the music.” He’d turned to the others. “As I said, we’ll be following the infantry in. Don’t go mistaking our soldiers for theirs.”

“What about civilians?” Sasha had asked. “Are they still there or have they been evacuated?”

Tereshchenko had shrugged and scratched his chin. “I don’t know. If they’re there, they’ll have to take their chances like anyone else.”

“The civilians won’t like the barrage,” Akhmetov had said. “The old men, the women, the children...”

“The Kombat said, watch out for the old men and the children,” Tereshchenko had replied. “The Nazis have armed them to fight us. Hitler Jugend and Volkssturm.”

“Old men and children?” Alyosha had asked. “What can they do?”

Tereshchenko had gazed at him bleakly. “Given enough motivation, Safonov,” he’d replied, “they can do anything.”

They’d been standing by the side of the tank then, going through the last minute briefing. Now the senior sergeant leaned out of the commander’s hatch and motioned them inside. The noise was too intense to hear his shouts.

Alyosha rubbed his face with his hands, grasped the edges of the front hatch and climbed inside. The tank had become like home over the last few months, but each time he entered it, he had to get used all over again to the cramped interior, the smell of oil and gunsmoke, and the heat and vibration of the engine. And if they faced hard fighting in the city, he might not be able to leave it again for at least the coming day.

For the moment, though, Alyosha didn’t see how anyone could survive the barrage that was throwing the ground up and down like a stormy sea. The flashes of the explosions seen through the trees had merged into a continuous flickering light, red and orange and white, and shredded twigs from the trees overhead fell on the tanks like pieces of amputated limbs.

The lead tanks began to move off. Alyosha saw the sparks from their exhausts, and the clouds of diesel smoke caught his headlights. Stamping on the clutch, he leaned forward and pushed the gearshift into third.

The blow had fallen on the beast, and the hunt was on.


By the clock on the dashboard, it should be well past dawn, but it was impossible to tell.

Through the twin vision blocks on the closed forward hatch, Alyosha could only see a slice of the sky, which was black with the smoke from the burning buildings. The flames threw a lurid glow on the street, slick with water from broken pipes. His tank had been in the second line of advance, and so far hadn’t seen any fighting, but, as Tereshchenko kept reminding them over the intercom, that was bound to change.

“Roadblock ahead,” Tereshchenko said. Alyosha couldn’t see it from his seat, but he could hear the shooting. A T 34 ahead stopped, its turret swivelling, and fired off a shell. Another slowed, took up position, and fired too.

“Turn left, side street,” Tereshchenko ordered over the intercom. “Driver, turning to the left, twenty metres.” Alyosha pulled in the left tiller, turning the tank. They were now broadside on to the roadblock, and he had a sudden vision of a shell smashing into the side armour. Gritting his teeth to dispel the mental image, he eased the throttle forward.

There was a car lying on its side, partially blocking the turning, and its dark grey roof showed briefly in Alyosha’s vision block before the tank struck it. The T 34’s left side rose slightly as it rolled over the wreck. Alyosha eased the throttle forward and the tank was past the turn, the car spread across the junction, a flattened ruin.

“Hope nobody was inside that,” Alyosha muttered.

“If they were,” Fyodor replied, “they were either dead or too badly hurt to get out. And they’re certainly dead now.”

Brown-clad figures raced up the pavements ahead, staying close to the buildings. Occasionally, one of them would stop to squeeze off a submachine gun burst, though it was impossible to tell what they were firing at. One of them turned at the tank’s approach and made hand signals up at the turret.

“Slow down,” Tereshchenko ordered. “Something’s up ahead.”

The ‘something’ proved to be a destroyed T 34, burning brightly, its turret knocked askew. From a tall building on the other side of an intersection, a storm of bullets rained down on the wrecked tank, several bouncing off Alyosha’s tank’s glacis and turret sides. “Close up to the other tank,” Tereshchenko said. “Close up and stop.”

The heat from the burning tank, and the smell of burning fuel and rubber, filtered past the closed hatch and stung Alyosha’s eyes and nose. He tried not to think of what had happened to the other crew. The red and yellow flames filled the vision blocks, licking out like hungry tongues.

“Stop,” Tereshchenko said.

There was a hollow boom and the tank shuddered as Sasha fired off a shell. Before the empty case had even finished clattering on the ammunition boxes on the turret floor, Akhmetov had already lifted another shell into the breech and rammed it home. The gun boomed again.

By the time Sasha stopped firing, the fighting compartment was full of gun smoke, the turret floor was littered with spent shell casings, and the inside of the tank felt like an oven. But the firing from the building opposite had slackened off.

“There goes the infantry,” Sasha said with satisfaction. Alyosha heard the sound of grenades going off in quick succession, like popcorn. The firing stopped completely.

“Building’s cleared,” Tereshchenko reported. “I’ll radio the Kombat and –“

With a shriek that seemed to split the sky, a salvo of shells landed on the street. The explosions were so loud that Alyosha thought he’d gone deaf. Debris came raining down, chunks of masonry bouncing off the tank’s armour.

“That’s our artillery!” Sasha yelled.

“What the hell are they doing?” Fyodor shouted. “They’ll be hitting us in a moment!”

“I’m trying to radio the Kombat,” Tereshchenko yelled. “Driver, reverse, fast as you can.” The shells were still falling. The entire street was a mass of flashes and smoke.

Suddenly the shelling stopped, as though someone had turned off a tap. It was so sudden that nobody could believe it for a moment. “Driver, stop,” Tereshchenko said at last. “Damn. After all we’ve been through, being hit by our own artillery would have been a pretty poor way to go.” 

“Well, that’s that.” Akhmetov was on his knees on the turret floor, dropping the empties into the ammunition boxes and loading fresh ready rounds into the turret racks. “I wish we could open up the hatches and get some fresh air, but you can’t have everything.”

“Yeah,” Fyodor said, “we could’ve been like the poor bastards in the other tank. Any idea whose tank that was?”

“No,” Sasha said, “and I don’t want to know. What happened with the artillery? Did someone call in a strike on the building we were shooting at?”

“Some screw up, for certain. Artillery bastards are sodding drunk all the time anyway.”

Alyosha didn’t say anything. The lining of his helmet was soaked with sweat and it was trickling down his face. His shoulders and the base of his neck ached with tension.

Slowly, the smoke lifted and the dust clouds began to settle. The street was almost unrecognisable, the pretty stone buildings masses of broken masonry, the pavements covered with jagged shards of glass. Alyosha stared around at the devastation through the vision blocks and then blinked, unbelieving. A group of boys was bicycling through the ruins, as calmly as though they were on a holiday.

Alyosha almost waited too long. He stared at the boys, cycling down the street, as though going for a picnic, and it was only when one of them turned suddenly, looking at the tank, that he noticed the club-ended cylinders slung on either side of the handlebars, and the uniforms they were wearing.

Tereshchenko had noticed them too, at almost the same moment, but Alyosha’s hands and feet were already blurring on the levers and starter button as his shout came down the intercom. Before the first boy had finished spilling from his bike and unslung the Panzerfausts beside the handlebars, he had already slewed the tank round in a turn to face him.

Time seemed to drop into slow motion. Through the vision block Alyosha saw the boy, crouched behind the bicycle, his Panzerfaust clutched below his armpit as he brought the weapon to bear. Beside him, Fyodor seemed to be moving underwater, his machine gun tracking back and forth with excruciating slowness, hosing the street with long bursts of machine gun fire. And his own hand, as though hanging in the air, as it dragged the gearshift back into reverse, the T 34 backing into rubble as there came a puff of smoke behind the boy and the warhead hurtled over the street and slammed into the tank with a huge blinding flash.

Alyosha sat behind the steering tillers, blinded with smoke and deafened, his head ringing. Vaguely, he was aware of someone shouting, as though far away, and machine gun fire. He could not react, couldn’t move. Then someone was shaking him and yelling in his face.

“Fishling?” It was Fyodor, his cheeks and forehead streaked with soot. “Fishling, are you hurt? Are you all right?”

Alyosha shook his head to clear it. His mouth moved, forming words. “I...don’t know. No pain.”

“He’s stunned.” A slit-eyed face peered over Fyodor’s shoulder; Akhmetov. “It hit the glacis right in front of him.”

“Here,” Sasha’s voice, in Alyosha’s left ear. “Lay him down on the turret floor.” He folded the driver’s seat back down and helped ease Alyosha back until he was lying on the rubber mat over the ammunition boxes. “Give fishling some vodka.”

“Those boys...” Alyosha whispered, after the alcohol had made its way down his throat. “What happened to the tank?”

Fyodor looked at him and then across at his machine gun and back. “Don’t worry about them. They’re taken care of. The tank’s damaged, but we aren’t dead yet.”

“Are you injured, Safonov?” Tereshchenko peered down past the gun breech in the turret. “Are you bleeding anywhere?”

“I’m all right,” Alyosha said, and struggled to sit up. “What happened to the tank, Starshina?”

“The left track’s damaged, and the steering mechanism’s done for, apparently. You’d be able to tell better than I could.” Tereshchenko kicked moodily at the back of Sasha’s seat. “We’re stuck here until we can get a recovery vehicle to come up, that’s for sure.”

“Starshina,” Sasha warned, “someone’s coming. It’s a man.”

“Who?” Very cautiously, Tereshchenko poked his head up over the rim of the commander’s cupola. “What on earth does he want?”

Alyosha had just sat up, and he looked through one of the vision ports on the side of the turret. He saw a man in his sixties, maybe, podgy, in an overcoat, grey hair hanging from below the brim of a black Homburg hat. He had his arms raised over his head and was looking up at the turret anxiously.

“Hilfe, hilfe, bitte,” Alyosha heard the man saying, his voice faint through the turret and the ringing in his ears. “Russische Soldat, hilfen Sie uns, bitte.”

Tereshchenko was the only one of them who could speak more than a few words of German. “Was ist los?” he called, still keeping his head low.

The elderly man replied something else, too fast for Alyosha to catch. Tereshchenko replied, and looked down into the tank.

“He says the shelling hurt his daughter, she’s trapped under the debris, his wife is trying to free her but they can’t do it without help. If the fire in those buildings spreads, she’ll be burned.”

“A chto?” Akhmetov asked. “So what?”

“So he wants our help rescuing her, of course,” Tereshchenko said. “He’s got a point, seeing that it’s our shelling that did this.”

“What do we care about his daughter, after all the Nazis did to us?” Sasha slapped the breech of the gun angrily. “Let her burn, I say.”

 “Don’t be a silly nit,” Tereshchenko snapped back. “If it was my daughter...” He paused, and everyone remembered.

“All right,” Sasha gave in. “I’ll go.”

“No, I need you to see to the gun if the Nazis come back. I’ll stay here too, and load and stay on the radio. The three of you go – if you’re feeling well enough, Safonov?”

“Da, Starshina. I’m all right. Not that I could do much good in here anyway, without being able to drive.”

“Good. Take tools, you’ll need them. And a submachine gun, of course.”

“You be sure to cover us, Starshina,” Fyodor said.

Tereshchenko put his hand on the turret traverse, turning it so the main gun pointed at the German man. “Don’t worry, I’ll cover you.”


The old man’s house was in a narrow street just behind the tank, a street Alyosha hadn’t noticed earlier from his driver’s position. They hurried after him, heads low, Akhmetov carrying the submachine gun, listening to the explosions and the sound of gunfire elsewhere in the city. Smoke rose over the skyline, here and there, merging together so it seemed to Alyosha as though a tree of fire was slowly growing up towards the sky, which at the same time was filled with wan sunshine.

The house was half demolished, the front half a pile of rubble sloping into the street, and loose wires dangling overhead. But there was enough space to squeeze past inside, into a tiny back garden, from where they found themselves directly in the kitchen.

A grey haired woman in a print dress was on her knees by the far wall, which had fallen in, scrabbling frantically with her hands. She looked up as they entered.

“Meine Frau,” the German man said unnecessarily. The woman sat back on her heels and watched the three tankers with wary eyes.

Akhmetov motioned the man to put down his hands, which all this time he’d been holding over his head. The man’s fleshy face was drawn tight around his eyes, and his complexion was waxy.

“Tochter?” Fyodor managed. “Wo ist Ihre Tochter?”

The man and woman both pointed and broke into a gabble of German. Alyosha walked over to the tumbled debris. A piece of it seemed to be of different colour and texture to the rest. Then he realised that he was looking at a hand and arm, covered with dust. Even as he looked, the fingers twitched.

“Fyodor, Nurik,” he called. “She’s alive.”

They dug. At first Akhmetov kept the submachine gun trained on the old couple, but it was soon obvious they weren’t a threat. Also, Fyodor’s and Alyosha’s efforts weren’t enough. Slinging the gun over his shoulder, he, too, began to clear away the rubble.

They got the woman out finally. She was perhaps thirty and might have been pretty, but the mask of dust and clotted blood on her face and in her hair had obscured her features so it was hard to tell. One shin hung loose, a jagged edge of white bone showing through it. She moaned.

“Helga,” her father said. “Du bist in Sicherheit, Helga.”

The woman moaned again. Her hand clutched at Alyosha’s sleeve.

“It isn’t as bad as it looks,” Fyodor, the crew’s first aid man, said. “I’ll get the kit from the tank.”

“Moment, bitteschön.” The old man rolled out a strip of matting on the kitchen table and signalled them to lay the woman on it. Her mother was already cleaning her face with a moist piece of cloth. Her eyes flickered, opening. She stared at one of them and then the other.

“You’re all right,” Alyosha said in Russian. “You’re safe.”

The woman, Helga, flinched as Akhmetov reached out to move her into a more comfortable position, shaking her head. He raised his hands and stepped back.

“Have it your own way,” he said. The woman’s mother kept silently cleaning the dirt away while her father watched from the corner.

“We’ll have to set that leg,” Fyodor said, returning with the first aid kit. “Fishling, hold her foot. Nurik, press on the thigh.” He bent over the shin. The woman screamed suddenly and fell silent.

“She’s just fainted,” Fyodor said. He snapped a leg off a chair and splinted the broken shin, tying it in place with strips of tablecloth. “She’ll be all –“

With a tremendous roar, a squadron of Shturmoviks flew over at rooftop level, their shadows falling across the room through the dusty kitchen windows, and unloaded their rockets somewhere in the vicinity. Everyone crouched instinctively as the explosions shook the air. Broken glass tinkled from the frames.

“Where was –“ Alyosha began, and stopped, staring.

A boy stood at the kitchen door. He was dressed in a khaki and black uniform with a peaked cap and a swastika band on his arm. His eyes were wide and his mouth open, as though screaming. In one hand he held a pistol, its barrel pointed in Fyodor’s general direction.

Everyone froze. Nurik’s submachine gun, still slung over his back, might as well have been as far away as the moon.

“Was geht hier?” the boy shouted. He couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, his cheeks flushed red with youth and anger and excitement. His pistol hand trembled.

“Junge –“ the old man began.

The boy screamed something at him, his pistol swinging round. Alyosha made out one word, Verräter. Traitor.

“Hört mir zu, Junge,” the old man said, raising his hands. “Alles ist...”

But the boy was in no mood to listen. His finger tightened on the trigger as he raised the gun to shoot. Akhmetov, seeing his chance, began to unsling his submachine gun.

“Nein.” The word came from the kitchen table, the voice firm and clear. “Nein.”

They all looked. The woman, Helga, had raised her head and was staring across at the boy. “Nein,” she said again.

The boy’s mouth moved, his face turning white. He whispered one word, a word Alyosha half-heard. The gun began to tremble.

“Nein,” Helga said a fourth time, shaking her head. And that was enough. Turning, the boy ran. His gun, dropped as he fled, thumped on the floor. It did not go off.

Except for the sounds of explosions in the distance, there was silence. Alyosha picked up the pistol.

“Let’s get them out of here,” Fyodor said. “That kid could come back, or more like him.”

Faintly, and then louder, they heard the sound of tank treads rolling.


It was only much later, when the repair crew had done their job and the tank had finally been put back into running order, that Alyosha found the time to talk to Fyodor.

“That kid,” he said, as they had a hurried dinner in the shelter of a pile of rubble. “I was sure he was going to shoot the old man, and us too. A nasty piece of work.”

Fyodor shrugged, spooning up some soup. “Yes, they brainwash them well in the Hitler Jugend. But, of course, once the woman said No, that was the end of the matter.”

Alyosha frowned. “Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. When she said no, he said something and fled. What was all that about?”

“There are some things even the Hitler Youth can’t eradicate.” Fyodor finished the last of the soup and glanced at Alyosha.

“The kid said one word,” he continued. “And that word was...Mutti. Mother.”

Alyosha opened his mouth to say something, and thought the better of it.

“Yes, you’re right,” Fyodor said. “It’s a rotten bloody war.”


Dedushka,” his granddaughter says over her shoulder, as she turns in towards the car park. “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 1st Ukrainian Front 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 its 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 voice 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.”

“What happened?”

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...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 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 plaits 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.”

“But –“

“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 car park. 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 phone. “Hey, fishling.”

“Nurik?” Alyosha’s mouth falls open in astonishment. “Eto ti? Nurik, you old drunkard.”

“Not a drunkard anymore.” 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?”

“Am I?”

“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.

“Alexei Mikhailovich Safonov?”


“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 that 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, Anastasia Fyodorovna,” 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.

“You know,” Alyosha says to nobody in particular, “I never knew they thought about me like that.”

“Who, Papa?” Zhenya asks.

“Fyodor and the others. You heard what she said. I never knew that.” 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 2018