Reza Simonyan wakes early, his thighs sticky with sweat. He rolls on his back and beside him his wife Elaina groans softly. The two bottles of wine they shared the night before are playing havoc with his sinuses. Slowly, careful not to disturb her further, he lifts a hand and squeezes the bridge of his nose.
‘Be still,’ she mutters and pulls the bedclothes over her head.
Daylight shows around the edge of the blinds, revealing the shabby room. The top of the wardrobe is stacked with dusty boxes. There are clothes drying on a rack in front of the window. The mantelpiece is cluttered with photos of Elaina’s family – nieces and nephews that Reza has never met. Every year she makes the trip to Yerevan to visit them and he pleads pressure of work and stays behind.
He cannot sleep anymore. By the quality of the light in the room and the muffled silence from the street, he can tell that it has snowed again in the night. He rolls out of bed and pulls on shorts and a sweatshirt. As if she has been waiting for the moment, Elaina rolls over to his side of the bed and enfolds his pillow in her arms. Her biceps are beginning to pucker with age. His own arm is reassuringly hard under the pressure of his fingers, the muscles like cables under the skin.
He closes the bedroom door quietly and in the kitchen does his hundred morning push ups, fifty with his hands far apart, fifty with them close together. By the time he has finished the kettle is boiling and he takes it off the gas as it starts to whistle. The instant coffee is thin and bitter and he grimaces as he sips it. But recently the source of his stomach problems has been tracked to the amount of fresh coffee he has been drinking. Instant is a poor substitute but better than switching to tea, which he despises. Whenever a prisoner asks for tea it makes him dislike them more.
He takes the toast from under the grill and searches the fridge for butter but there is none. Irritation at Elaina makes him mutter a curse under his breath. It’s not as if she has to go to work. Can’t she at least make sure they have basic food in the house? But the anger dies almost immediately.
It’s not her fault, he says quietly to the sparsely stocked shelves.
He drizzles olive oil on his bread, spreading it with a forefinger, and takes a bite. The taste leaves a sour film in his mouth. Produce of Italy, the label on the bottle reads but the woman holding an olive branch has a decidedly Russian look about her. Reza throws the rest of the toast in the plastic bag that hangs from a hook under the sink. Once again he swallows irritation. A little plastic swing bin would not cost so much.
He fetches his uniform from the hall cupboard and gets dressed in the kitchen. The room depresses him but it is the only warm place in the flat. The paint on the ceiling is peeling in one corner where Mrs Arkovy’s sink upstairs leaked last year. The cupboard doors are hung crookedly. Five minutes with a screwdriver could correct the problem but he never seems to find the time and he can’t expect Elaina to do it. He touches the woodwork above the stove, drags a fingernail across it and brings it away black with grease. He will wash all the doors tonight when he comes home, he tells himself and the decision makes him feel better. In the cupboard under the sink is a bottle of bleach and some rags. He sets them on the counter and then changes his mind. Elaina might think he is suggesting she should do some cleaning if he leaves them out. Ignoring the sweet stench of the plastic bag on its hook, he returns the bottle and the rags to the cupboard. He gulps the last of the coffee, washes his plate and cup and lets himself out of the flat, inserting his key into the lock to pull the door closed quietly behind him.
On the street he relaxes, in spite of the biting wind. The roads have already been ploughed and the walls of snow in the gutters are being shovelled on to lorries and taken away. The labourers work in gangs of ten with a supervisor hovering idly by. Reza nods to him. The man looks back, taking in the uniform overcoat and turns attentively to his charges. Is there a sneer on the thin lips? Reza is tempted to stop him, to tell him how many of these prisoners he, Reza Simonyan, had personally delivered to his keeping. He could demand the man’s orders, sew a seed of worry in his day. But what is the point? The supervisor doesn’t look like a man who would care. Nobody cares anymore. Besides, better not to make a scene outside his own door. Any noise might wake Elaina.
The inside of his car is damp. It feels colder than the air outside. He turns the key again and again, rocking in his seat in futile prayer. On the tenth try, with the battery ready to give up, the motor retches into life. A cloud of dark smoke drifts down the street. Carefully he pulls around the working men and manoeuvres the car on to the main road. He keeps one hand on the wheel and buries the other in his crotch, alternating as one hand warms and the other freezes. Ridiculous to try and make it through a Russian winter without gloves. Without warning, a memory of his grandfather swims into his head. They are walking down a country lane – he must have been eight or nine – still young enough to not mind having his hand held by an adult. And the old man was talking through the cigarette that lived permanently in the corner of his mouth.
“Why are Armenians so tough, my boy?’ he asked and Reza had shrugged and said he didn’t know.
‘Because we endure,’ his grandfather growled. ‘When everyone else would give up, we carry on.’
‘But why?’ the boy Reza asked. ‘Why do we carry on?’
And the old man coughed, a sound as bitter as a curse and spat in the snow without removing the cigarette from his mouth.
‘Because we have no choice,’ he shouted. ‘We go on because for us there is no going back. We cannot give up and return home because home would be gone. We cannot fail and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter because it always does.’ He pulled off his glove and showed Reza the familiar stumps where the fingers of his left hand should have been.
‘You know how I lost those fingers?’ he asked for the thousandth time.
‘Yes, grandpa,’ said Reza patiently. ‘They froze.’
‘That’s right. They froze. Right onto the metal of my machine gun. I pulled my hand away and left the skin behind and then, all that night, pinned down by German fire, the hand grew colder and colder. By the time the morning came the fingers were black as tar. The major came round and sent me back down the line to the hospital. They amputated all four fingers and half the thumb, gave me some aspirin and sent me back. The major had put me on report for not wearing gloves. I did five nights of extra sentry duty.’
He fell silent and kicked at the snow and Reza waited for him to start speaking again. He had never known his grandfather stay silent for more than the time it took to draw in five breaths of ice laden air.
‘Even these kids today – these argumentative idiots with their college degrees, their American jeans - even they have that toughness. But they don’t know it. They feel so much - for women, for whales, for Independence. They want everyone to live in peace, to never have to fight or die. Don’t they realise, if they want Independence from the Soviets some of them will have to die for it?’
Reza’s parents got nervous when his grandfather talked like this but Reza liked it. His grandfather’s face flushed with passion and his harsh voice shouted down all argument.
They started walking again, the snow protesting under their boots. Reza felt the icy air on his face and tried to imagine lying in the snow with a gun, week after week. His grandfather’s cheeks were blotched with cold. His good hand was clamped on Reza’s as tightly as if he was still clutching his machine gun. The snow was falling more heavily as they reached the front gate of the house.
We endure, thinks Reza he waits at the traffic lights and bangs a fist on the controls of the heater. I endure. He wonders if Elaina is awake yet, stretching her warm body in the fug under the bedclothes. The day stretches in front of him like a grey road, devoid of life. The morning will be the usual paperwork and in the afternoon – Anton Ovsepian.
The traffic lights change and he pulls away, still shivering.
Reza has not eaten lunch. Being hungry makes him irritable but it sharpen his wits as well. He sets out paper and pens on the plain wooden table and pulls at the jacket of his uniform. Since he turned forty it has become tighter under the arms and around the waist. He wishes he could take it off and sling it over the chair as they did in the movies. But regulations state that interrogating officers must be fully uniformed at all times, with name badges, numbers and badges of rank clearly visible. He squeezes the twin mounds of flesh that have built up at the back of his waist. Love handles – whoever thought up such a stupid name? He tries and fails to remember the last time he and Elaina made love. These days she scuttles in and out of her clothes with her back turned, never leaving herself fully naked. What is taking so long to bring Ovsepian up from the cells? He glances at his watch, smoothes his hair over the spot on the back of his head where it is thinning.
A knock at the door and a policeman shows his face.
‘Ovsepian is here, sir,’ he says, as if as if the prisoner had chosen to show up for an appointment he had arranged himself.
‘Show him in,’ says Reza sarcastically and watches as Ovsepian is seated and one hand cuffed to the leg of the table. The policeman withdraws to the corner of the room, his face blank.
Silence falls. Reza lets his mind roam. It is a technique he uses when he wants to increase tension in the interrogation. Unlike his grandfather, remaining silent is easy for him. It is talking he finds difficult. He thinks about a holiday that he and Elaina took when they were first married. Down the Danube on a cruise ship to Vienna and wandering through the old streets, marvelling at the shops and the people. He remembers the cream cakes and the coffees. He remembers Elaina’s laugher and her voice. The Blue Danube? It’s as brown as dog shit in the snow.
He can see the picture of her laughing but he can’t really recall the sound. She never laughs anymore, hardly smiles.
Ovsepian clears his throat and Reza slides a glance in his direction. Without the expensive suits he wore when he was in power, he is so small and scrawny. The stubble on his loose jowls is greying. The famous lightly-tinted glasses have been broken in the middle and mended with tape. His friends in high places have disowned him, fearful of their own positions. Reza despises all politicians even though he takes his orders from them. He wonders how this man feels, so recently someone who made others tremble, now faced with a giant encased in a gaudy green and gold uniform. Does he realise how alone he is in this room? How vulnerable? Reza sits forward and watches the other man’s eyes flinch. Oh yes, he knows. For a moment, in the perfect silence, Reza contemplates the paths before him. He sees, in the moment of clarity, that the next few seconds could determine the rest of his life. If he sits back, even now, perhaps it is not too late. Far away, the ringing of a telephone, the scrape of a chair – noises from another world. Reza sighs. Here, in this room, there are no choices. They are already too far down the road to turn aside.
He plants a punch in the grey face, just to the left of the nose. Speed is the secret here. The unexpected transition from stillness to motion. Ovsepian tumbles from his chair, brought up cruelly by the handcuff round his left wrist. The young policeman is staring open-mouthed. For him it is as shocking as a student hitting a teacher, a son hitting his father. Perhaps it is even worse.
Slowly Ovsepian regains his feet and sits on the chair that the policeman retrieves and shoves underneath him. He opens his mouth to say something and Reza hits him again, in the same spot, feeling the creak of bone in the man’s face under his knuckles. This time Ovsepian holds on to the table and does not fall but an open handed slap from the other side sends him sprawling again. He is slower to get up this time. The handcuffs have cut into his wrist and there is blood on the off-white sleeve of his shirt. The policeman looks as though he might throw up. He obviously wants to say something but caught between conflicting sources of danger, he is floundering, unable to speak. They are characters in a play, imprisoned by the lines the writer allows them.
Ovsepian gasps like a landed fish and manages to produce a few sounds – charge, lawyer, illegal arrest – and Reza wants to hit him again, to really hurt him this time, for destroying the moment. But for now, it is enough. He stands up, looms over the smaller man. Ovsepian cowers but Reza gets no satisfaction from it. Every ounce of dignity that he takes from this man will have to be paid for eventually.
‘Charges?’ he says. ‘You are charged with treason. Disturbing the peace. Resisting arrest. Un-Soviet activities. Is that enough to be going on with?’
Elaina must be up by now - drifting through the apartment in her nightgown, pulling at her tangled hair with absent jerks, tears running down her cheeks. Does she always cry when she wakes up because she was hoping she would die in her sleep? Her wrists are scarred with the attempts she made to kill herself after Irina’s death. And there were other times – pills and alcohol which left no marks, at least not on her body. Reza grits his teeth. Perhaps it is better that Irina died, though the memory is like a stake of molten metal in his chest. He remembers holding her in his hairy paws and knowing that somehow, eventually, he would hurt her. She was too delicate, too perfect. She would break in his hands like the china cup that had belonged to Elaina’s grandmother. So when he found her one morning still and silent in her cot, it had almost been a relief, knowing she was safe from him. But he had found her and for Elaina that was betrayal enough.
What have you done? she had screamed at him as he called her name and brought her running to the child’s bedroom?
The policeman uncuffs Ovsepian with gentle movements that he tries to block from Reza by half turning his back to him. With a respectful hand on the older man’s elbow, he escorts him from the room.
They have rules. No visible marks. Nothing on the hands or face or neck. Reza leans against the wall and feels the stripes of swollen flesh on his shoulders Other than that, she can do what she likes with him.
He had known the moment he woke early that this day would be different and even now, he is not sure why it is except he seems to be seeing things that are usually invisible. He understands how Ovsepian must see him as a dumb beast who carries out his orders blindly, a blunt stick that his masters use to beat their enemies. And how Elaina feels to wake up every day with the man she believes killed her child. He leans his hands on the table, stretches his shoulders, sits down again. He had been ordered to begin Ovsepian’s interrogation exactly the way it had happened. No questions. No demands. Unsettle him. Unseat him.
Reza leans his forehead on his arms and closes his eyes. Ovsepian will be his undoing, he sees suddenly with the day’s lucidity. Stripped of his position, his clothes, his friends, he still retains power over those who touch him. The new masters, the ones who give the orders now, will fear someone who is strong enough to break Anton Ovsepian. Such a person cannot be left to make their own way, to gather their own supporters, to create their own factions. Reza understands how this works. In their position he too would see the threat that he poses. Reassurances mean nothing. It is better not to take the risk. A wasp in the room may not sting you but it is still better to kill it.
He stands up and straightens his jacket. Outside the interrogation room, faces turn towards him, expressions ranging from awe-struck to hostile. Word has spread quickly. He frowns at them all. None of them were chosen for this duty, only him. The policeman, his assistant, is standing by the door, his eyes as wide as a calf at the slaughterhouse door.
‘We will continue with Ovsepian tomorrow morning at seven,’ Reza says, loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Whatever the consequences, he has a job to do. Hopefully he can get up that early without waking Elaina.