The Civil War is raging in Russia and Count Kirilov, a distant relative of the Tsar, decides to take his wife and two children, Andrea and Lydia, to Yalta and see them safely onto a ship to England. He and the Countess set out in the carriage and the children and their nurse go in the droshky, driven by Ivan Ivanov. The droshky is held up by bandits and Andrea and the nurse are killed. Ivan takes Lydia to the rendez-vous but her parents never arrive. She is taken to Sir Edward Stoneleigh, a British diplomat who has been instructed to oversee the evacuation of the refugees and then leave himself. He is left with a dilemma of what to do with her. She is too young and too traumatised to tell anyone what happened and where she comes from. She knows her name but the only other clue to her identity is a fabulous jewel sewn into her petticoat. He refuses to send her to a Russian orphanage, which are notoriously dreadful places, especially for someone who appears to be of aristocratic stock.
He and his wife are childless, something they both regret, could Lydia fill that gap? He could give her a good life, but would his wife accept her? Would Lydia later blame him for taking her from her homeland? He decides to risk it.
Lydia grows up in the privileged background of a stately home and seems content. But is she? Kolya, another Russian émigré, reminds her of her roots. He sows the seeds of her discontent and persuades her to marry him and go back to Russia with him to look for her real parents. It is the biggest mistake of her life. She finds herself in Russia at the start of the Second World War with a husband who is only interested in searching for more jewels and who is unfaithful to her.
Lydia’s fury was so great it dried her tears and she set about pummelling Kolya with her fists. ‘I knew you were a liar,’ she shouted between thumps. ‘But I never realised you were also an adulterer. I hate you! I hate you!’
He laughed, grabbing her hands and holding them to her sides. ‘Good because I can’t say I have any use for your affection. Terrible disappointment you’ve turned out to be.’
‘Because I lost the Star and cannot tell you the hiding place of the jewels. Well, I’m sorry about that, but you should ask Grigori Stefanovich what happened to them. I bet he knows. Give me back my money and my papers and let me go home.’ She was calmer now; the storm had passed and left her cold. Very cold.
‘You can go where you like,’ he said. ‘but if you think I’m going to help you, you are mistaken. I’ve got plans of my own.’
‘To go back to England?’
‘No, to Minsk. Olga has been given a job in a munitions factory. I’m going with her.’
She slumped into a chair and stared up at him. ‘You are going to abandon me without any means of support?’
‘You can work, can’t you?’
‘But what about Yuri?’
‘What about him?’
‘How can I work when I have to look after him?’
‘I’m sure you’ll manage. When we go, I’ll leave your passport and enough money to get you to Odessa. You can throw yourself on the mercy of the British consul there, though if war is declared, he isn’t likely to have much time for a runaway.’
‘When are you going?’
He shrugged. ‘When Olga’s travel papers come through.’
Wearily she rose and went to take her things from their room. She would not sleep there again. She took her belongings to the old part of the house where the windows were missing and the plaster was falling off the ceilings and walls, where rats and mice scurried, huge spiders built their webs and where the birds nested in the remains of the chimneys. There were even weeds growing up between the tiles on the floor. She made several trips, piling her belongings in a corner, went back for Yuri’s crib and then poked about for something to use as a mattress for herself. A sack and some straw was all she could find.
When she had added that to the rest, she went back to the kitchen to fetch Yuri. Kolya and Olga had gone and so had the baby. She searched frantically for them in the house, running into every room that hadn’t been locked by its occupants. She rushed outside and ran into all the outbuildings but there was no sign of them. They were having a game with her and it made her angry. Returning indoors, she met Svetlana who had just come back from shopping. ‘Have you seen Kolya and Olga?’ she asked her.
‘Yes, I met them in Petrovsk, going to catch a train they said. Olga’s got promotion to a factory in Minsk.’
‘Did they have Yuri with them?’
‘Yes. I thought it was strange but they said you had given him to them….’
Lydia heard no more; she had fallen to the ground in a faint.
When she recovered she was lying on the tiled floor and Svetlana was squatting beside her, fanning her with a newspaper. ‘You gave me a fright.’
It was a moment or two before Lydia’s brain cleared and she remembered. She sat up. ‘How long ago since you saw them? What time does the train go? Was Yuri crying?’
‘He wasn’t crying, why should he? He knows Olga Denisovna as well as he knows you. And the train has gone. I heard it’s whistle as I was walking home.’
Lydia struggled to her feet. ‘I must go after them. What time is the next train?’
‘There isn’t another until tomorrow, not one that goes to Kiev and connects with a train going north.’
‘No. Oh no. It can’t be. It can’t be.’ She sank to the floor again, but Svetlana hauled her up and, putting her arm about her, led her to the kitchen where she sat her down at the table and put a kettle on the stove. ‘A glass of tea, isn’t that the English cure-all?’
‘It won’t cure this, will it?’ She put her arms about herself and rocked to and fro. ‘Yuri, Yuri, my baby. They have stolen him. Why? Why?’
‘I should think because Olga cannot have children of her own.’ Svetlana busied herself brewing tea, while Lydia watched, her mind on a train steaming north. ‘She was married once, you know, but when her husband found she could not have children, he divorced her. It has been her shame ever since.’
‘I didn’t know that, but it’s no excuse for taking Yuri from me. He is all I have, my whole life. I have to go after them and get him back.’ She stood up and began pacing the room. Was this her punishment for not wanting him? But she hadn’t known then what it was like to be a mother, had she? Now she would willingly have died for him.
‘It won’t be easy. Even if you catch them up, Yuri is Kolya’s son and he won’t give him up.’
‘Do you think I’m going to stand by and do nothing? What sort of mother would that make me? I’m going after them. Kolya promised to leave me my passport and a little money.’ She ran from the room and up the stairs to the room she had shared with Kolya. Lying on the crumpled bed was an envelope. She snatched it up. It held her passport and a few roubles but no travel permit. She didn’t want to stay in that room a moment longer than necessary and returned to the kitchen. Svetlana put a glass of tea on the table in front of her. ‘Sit down and drink that. I put some vodka in it. When Grigori comes home, we’ll ask him what he can do to help.’
She was still shaking with a mixture of fear and fury when Grigori came in about eight o’clock. The summer had been hot and dry and the wheat harvest was better than it had been the year before and it looked as though they might meet their quota with a little to spare. He was dusty and tired and had little advice to offer. It was not in his power to arrange travel documents, he said, but he did know the name of factory to which Olga had been posted. ‘You won’t get anywhere near it,’ he added.
‘I’ve got to try. I can’t let them get away with kidnapping my son.’
‘He is Nikolay Nikolayevich’s son too, you know. He will claim him and as he is a good party man and you are who you are, they will give him custody.’
She hadn’t thought of that. ‘I don’t care. I’ll get on the train and hope for the best. Perhaps in Kiev, I can obtain the necessary permits.’
‘I’ll give you the name of the man to ask for.’ He was evidently as anxious to be rid of her as she was to go.
The train left at five-thirty the next morning. Afraid she would oversleep and miss it, she packed a few belongings in a bag and went to Ivan’s izba where she told him of the latest developments and asked him to fetch the Star; she would need every penny she could raise on it. He was shocked but not surprised by what had happened but refrained from saying I told you so. ‘Stay here tonight,’ he said. ‘I’ll make sure you wake in time to catch the train.’
But she would not because if it was discovered he had helped her, he would be in trouble himself and it was best he went on with his quiet life and let her go. They embraced, both of them in tears, and then she left him and walked to the station to spend the night in the waiting room.
The Kirilov Star is out in paperback published by Alison & Busby. ISBN 9780749009496. Also available as an ebook download.