The new novel ‘Finnish Boys has now been released and as a celebration of my birthday (happy birthday to me!), I am publishing the beginning of chapter one on the web page today.
The story begins in 1940, on the eve of the Red Terror, when the new Soviet government arrests ten thousand people across the country to send via trains to Siberia.
Chapter One (June 1941)
Märt loved the smell of fresh bread. Ever since childhood, the aroma of baking had made him relax. At least for a short part of the day he could feel good about himself; for there always seemed to be something that would set him off into a spiral of regret. Märt smiled at the thoughts.
Why so cynical today? You have a good business here. People like you – when you let them get close enough.
Kari was preparing to unlock the front door and open the shutters to let in the grey morning. Always arriving early to work, she radiated a warmth that brought people through the door. Even in the dark times that they lived in, she still tried to keep positive.
‘I wish I could learn from you,’ Märt muttered.
Kari looked up and smiled, even though Märt knew she had not heard. Always bright, always happy. Still a looker, Märt thought. Had there not been ten years difference, Märt would have considered his chances. Ten years and a husband, of course. Märt felt like laughing at the thought of romance. At forty years of age, it was a bit late to go chasing girls – especially older ones.
‘It’s going to be a fine June day,’ Kari said.
‘I will probably sleep,’ Märt replied. Then realising how melancholic he sounded, he added.
‘Maybe I should go fishing later on, Kari.’
‘Yes, you could sleep by the river.’
‘Well, let’s sell some bread first,’ Märt said with a flicker of a smile. ‘I will get some peppermint tea, it always relaxes me.’
Märt normally spent most of the working day preparing the dough, baking or the final cleaning of the back area. Today he felt he deserved the luxury of making an appearance at the counter and bask in the morning sunshine.
He made two mugs of hot water and added some herbs. The aroma was calming, and he managed a smile as he walked into the shop and saw the line of people waiting to buy bread.
They like my bread.
Märt always felt satisfaction at the thought. He placed the mugs on the table.
The front door burst open, as a man swaggered into the bread shop. It was a deliberate act, to maximise the melodrama. He slammed a paper on the counter and produced a small nail and hammer. He fixed the nail through the paper into the counter, then turned to face his audience.
‘By order of the Rapla Workers Committee, this bakery is hereby nationalised. It will now be worked by the people, for the people. The shop is closed for today.’
The man stormed out without another word. He hadn’t even looked at Märt.
The whole room was stunned by the audacity of his action, but the red armband that he wore on his coat had paralysed them.
Slowly and sadly, the customers turned and shuffled back out of the shop, leaving Märt and Kari staring at the empty room. Märt grabbed the paper, ripping it from the smooth counter he had crafted himself.
‘I don’t think you are supposed to move it,’ Kari whispered.
‘Screw them!’ Märt replied
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. But as Märt read the words on the paper, he knew there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to screw it into a ball, but he could not put it down.
‘He is one of the morons working for the People’s committee,’ Kari said with a sigh. ‘An outsider from the villages. Liisbet says he is a lazy man, no interest in honest work.’
‘Ideal job credentials,’ Märt snapped.
He had prepared a fresh batch of dough that morning, ready for it to rise and sour as the days went by. Now he all his good work would be taken away from him.
‘I’m going, Märt, I’m leaving Rapla,’ Kari said. ‘I can’t work for them. All the Reds seem to walk around like him; as if they have the right to do anything they want.’
‘Your Liisbet is one of them,’ Märt said. He knew his disappointment at the young woman’s actions made him spit the words out. He always found Liisbet a friendly, happy child.
As she had grown however, the young people’s zeal to change the world had begun to grow within her. Unfortunately, her path involved joining up with the Red bullies.
‘I can’t stop my niece from making her choices,’ Kari replied. ‘Although one day she will regret them, I fear. Märt, my husband was talking about escaping to the forest. I did not believe it was that bad. Now…’
‘I understand,’ Märt watched the door move slowly in the breeze. He went to shut it. The conversation was private, and you never knew who would listen in – or who they would tell.
‘You would go to join the forest brothers?’
‘Märt, I see no future in staying in the town. There are some rumours. They frighten me.’
Märt nodded slowly. ‘Take whatever bread you want – you will need it.’
‘You could come too.’
‘Honestly, Kari, I don’t know what to do. This place, it’s my life. Without the bakery, it ends.’
She came up and squeezed his hand.
‘Don’t wait too long.’
Märt sat in the bakery shop for hours, until the sun’s setting rays began to filter through the shutters. At one point, he slept with his head on the counter and had been rewarded with a stiff neck for his trouble.
He still did not know what to do; should he give up his life and all he had built up or drown in the shame of submitting to the new order?
Märt cursed as the door of the tiny shop opened. He was sure he had locked it. To his surprise, it was Liisbet. Märt had little patience for her. It reminded him too much of the drama of the morning, as he gazed at her red armband.
‘Kari said you would be here still’, she said
‘Well, Kari was right,’
Märt looked down at the proclamation again. He did not need to see the words; nothing was going to change. Märt looked around his small shop, noting that flour dust still lay on the empty shelves from loaves now sold. He had spent so many years building up his business, from the time he had left the Kaitseliit, the civil defence. He had been learning every day in his bakery. Learning to make good bread. Learning to run a shop. Learning to like himself once more.
‘She said you had a visit today.’ Liisbet said.
‘Cowards!’ Märt muttered, as he thought of the scene once more. Hope your people’s bread poisons you. Hope you choke on it.
‘You know this already or you are not a good party member, Liisbet.’
‘What is going to happen?’ Liisbet asked.
Märt paused to look at the counter and for once appreciate the smoothness of the wood.
‘I will not bake any more bread, ever.’
He was angry at his own words, spoken out loud. They hurt him; the truth hurt him. He felt helpless, but he would not change his mind.
Traditionally, people baked their own bread in Estonia, sharing a communal oven. In many parts, the population was spread over a distance in small farms and logging camps. As Rapla grew, people became more urban in thought. Märt had put a simple idea to a small group. I bake your bread and you have time to earn more coin.
Märt looked at the word ‘Leib‘ painted on the window. It was nothing fancy, although people at first were suspicious of him. Then slowly they came. He smiled to himself.
‘They liked my bread.’
‘They still like your bread.’
‘They will never get to taste it again.’
Liisbet looked at him for a long time. She had taken to wearing a beret and a dark jacket to try and appear to be part of the militia. With her youthful appearance and small frame, she looked more like a sea cadet.
‘I have a friend who is in trouble, would you hear him out?’
Märt was surprised by the words and forced a noncommittal shrug. Liisbet opened the door fractionally, making a faint hand signal.
In seconds and without much noise, the Englishman swept in, shutting the door behind him. Märt did not know the man’s name, he was just known as the Englishman in this town.
The man was always trying to make conversation, mainly about things that Märt found irrelevant. He was of medium build and probably in his forties.
Märt felt he himself probably looked the same these days. His once sandy hair was now almost completely bleached. He certainly felt old before his time, even if he was probably younger than this man.
‘Good evening,’ the Englishman said politely, nodding to Märt.
Märt nodded back without a word, there was no need for more mindless chat. The man stayed at the doorway, but his eyes looked at the paper still held in Märt’s hand.
‘Or perhaps not so good. I heard.’
‘What will you do?’ Liisbet asked.
Märt shrugged. ‘Dig ditches, I don’t know. I’m not staying here for sure.’
‘Where would you go?’ The man asked and Märt tensed.
‘What do you care? Why is it your business?’
‘You bake good bread. I think there are many who are jealous of this and your success,’ Liisbet replied.
It means nothing here,’ Märt snapped. ‘Success is rewarded by a knock on the door in the night. A long journey east to Siberia on some charge invented for the purpose.’
He stopped. Why talk to this girl? He used to think fondly of her, but she had matured to be quite a single-minded woman. She had her own ideas and was not afraid to let others know of it.
Now she had joined the militia, she could have him imprisoned for what he had just said. Yet something was odd about the whole visit.
‘How the hell did you get here anyway? There’s a curfew in town.’
Liisbet made a face, ‘It doesn’t stop those who are careful, or those with friends. Why do you run, Märt? Why not just keep your head down and wait for it all to settle down?’
‘When will that happen?’
‘The British will influence Stalin. They will make sure that Estonia gets a fair deal,’ the Englishman said. ‘It’s been a few months, that’s all. Give it time.’
Märt’s frustrations exploded in his reply. ‘Do you know what you say? You are a fool. Russia thinks they own us. Germany thinks they own us. Whoever wins this war will not leave.’
‘So, live with it, learn to adapt.’
Märt felt he was being pushed to anger.
‘Who the hell are you to tell us how to think? You do not know what you are talking about. If someone started shooting down your passenger aeroplanes, then forced their soldiers onto your lands. If they then said you were part of their country, how would you feel? You hypocrite!
Germany is beating London to a pulp and your Churchill stands defiant showing two fingers to Hitler. Yet you still tell us to roll-over and submit?’
‘Keep your voice down,’ Liisbet said. ‘There are patrols in this town at night.’
Märt thumped the wall in his anger. ‘Stalin is your ally; you’re probably a spy anyway.’
‘The Reds want me dead,’ the man said calmly. ‘I have seen too much. I just wanted to see if you had also.’
There was a brief pause, and then Liisbet spoke quietly.
‘He needs a guide.’
‘To where?’ Märt said.
‘To the coast.’
‘So, take him. What use is this journey anyway? The Russians destroyed all of our boats to stop people escaping.’
‘And why should I?’ Märt demanded.
Liisbet produced a crumpled piece of paper which she gave to Märt.
‘You are on this. They will come tonight.’
‘Two, maybe three o’clock. When everyone is asleep,’ the Englishman said
Märt stepped forward in anger. ‘And how do you know this?’
‘I am on the list also.’
Märt snatched the paper from Liisbet’s hand and scanned it, then looked up slowly.
‘Why?’ he whispered.
‘They want people out of the way who are dangerous.’ Liisbet said. ‘Those who may object to changes or report back to others. People who may organise resistance to their plans.’
‘So, this man is a spy?’ Märt said.
The man shrugged nonchalantly back.
‘I do nothing special. I see what goes on and I tell people what is happening.’
‘That’s what a spy does.’
‘In my day it was called a journalist.’
Märt snorted in contempt and turned to the girl. ‘Why should I bother, Liisbet? The English are allies of Stalin, surely I should want to run to the Germans?’
Liisbet raised her gaze to the roof in frustration. ‘And look what the Germans did here in response. Calling their people back to the motherland, to leave Estonia and resettle. They ran away, is that the sign of a friend? Or have you turned towards those who joined the League of Veterans and become a dedicated fascist?’
‘What do you mean turned? What makes you think I wasn’t a black shirt before?’
She smiled slowly. ‘Now you are testing me. I know you, Märt. What you say, who you sell to? You haven’t ever shown yourself to be one of them. Yes, you have been involved in government work in the past, but you are certainly no Nazi.’
‘How the hell do you know?’
‘From your file, Märt.’
‘The one they have on you. The reason that you are on the list? You are dangerous to them.’
Märt stared at the small shop. He had taken years to build it up and was proud of his achievement.
Now to have these people walk in out of the blue and tell him to throw it all the way? Impossible! And yet, it was precisely what he was thinking. These were very difficult times.
‘Where do they take the people? Is there a camp in Estonia?’
The man shook his head and Liisbet said.
‘They take you to the station in Rapla, then you are herded into cattle trucks and the journey begins. It ends in Siberia and the gulags.’
‘Some have a short time there,’ the Englishman added. ‘Five years, perhaps. Some will die there. Those who are allowed to leave the camps can never return to Estonia.’
‘And where are you going?’ Märt asked.
‘Why not Sweden?’
‘What is your name?’
‘Harold, but don’t worry. The world calls me Harry.’
Märt went for his trusty bottle of vodka and poured himself a shot. He didn’t bother offering one to the others. In truth, he hated the taste, but vodka had many uses. Mixed with black pepper, it settled stomachs. On the skin, it reduces the swelling of bites. Tonight, it dulled the pain of all that was and that had been.
There was a long silence, Märt then grabbed a bucket of dough and spread flour on the counter.
He took hold of a handful of the dough and slapped it down, beginning to knead it.
‘What are you doing?’ Liisbet asked.
‘We will need food, for it is a long journey ahead. The fire is still warm enough to bake.’
‘You will take him with you?’
Märt snorted in derision. ‘For sure, I just said so, didn’t I? How you expect me to get from here to anywhere or anything, this is beyond me. I have no vehicle and it is a long walk to the coast. Where will you find a boat?’
‘You get me to the coast – and I will find a boat, don’t worry. Are you sure that you want this?’ Harry asked.
‘I don’t want this, but I have no life here. That paper tells me it is so. You had better accept what I say before I change my mind.’
‘Do you have a message for anyone here?’
Märt shook his head. ‘You know this is a dangerous thought, Liisbet. ‘
Harry looked towards Liisbet. ‘Are you sure you will not come also?’
She shook her head. ‘I will be alright here. There are still people to care for.’
He went to hold her.
‘Listen my dear girl, the people who are coming are killers. They do not value life and those they send out to do their bidding, they are so scared for their own skins, they will not think twice of committing a crime. If you find a chance to leave, take it. This is a dangerous land.’
She hugged him tightly. Her eyes blurred with tears and then looked across to Märt. It was the closest to affection that he would get, he knew. Then she slipped through the shop door and was gone into the night.
Märt moved towards the new batch of dough that he had souring for the next week’s bread He had a feeling it would be a good batch, one of his better ones. Even the old folk would lick their lips in appreciation. It was so unfair, but then nothing had been fair for a long time.
‘You know when I thought it would change,’ Märt said. ‘When we won our independence and we felt free and Estonian.
Then the freedom became less and less. Then there was the corruption. I didn’t feel concerned, I thought we would prevail. Even when the Reds tried to rise up in ’24, I didn’t feel worried. Then Konstantin Päts ruled as a dictator for twelve years. Now this. My world feels empty. I have no hope, no land, no life and no future.’
Märt looked across to Harry and said. ‘And now I have no choice left. For sure I am coming with you! I have nowhere else to go.’
He picked up the new batch of dough that was maturing and looked on it sadly.
‘At least a day’s work left on this stuff and I am going to throw it out into the back-alley for the rats to feed on. At least they know they are rats. I will deprive those who do not.’