The Blue Door
THE BLUE DOOR
Leningrad December 1942.
If Vacek had possessed more courage he would have offered himself rather than allowing Tanya to be taken through the blue door. He had wanted to volunteer but somehow the words had failed him and so Tanya, poor Tanya, would go instead. She had protested, pleading for someone to take her place, someone more vulnerable than her, but her voice, feeble and hoarse, betrayed her fragility. Like the others, Vacek had avoided her stare as Dmitri gently lifted her to her feet. He looked instead at the filthy wooden floorboards – eyes flicking from one place to another, not registering their discoveries but rather seeking anything but her pleading face. The sound of the shelling outside was distant, but the nearby staccato “brrrrt” of machine-gun fire reminded them of their predicament. They had sought shelter in the building in June, not thinking for a moment that six months later they would still be hiding there. Dmitri was carrying the slight frame of Tanya towards the door. Was there really no other choice?
The same old questions flicked across Vacek's mind. He tried to push the thoughts away but they refused to leave him, buzzing around his head like angry bees. How many had been through the blue door now? Three? Four? What a terrible thing to forget. Emil had been the last, before that Pavel, then Yvette. Who had he forgotten? Ah – Manfred – it was Manfred. Manfred had been the first. Disturbed by the movement, the dust motes rising from the floor were illuminated by the shafts of cold sunlight crossing the room from the boarded-up windows. Vacek lifted his head and watched as Tanya and Dmitri seemed to dance slowly across the floor towards the blue door, his ragged arms holding Tanya in what seemed to be a lover's embrace. The door must have been splendid once, eggshell blue with brass handles shaped like lions heads. Now it was hanging loosely on its hinges, the paint chipped and faded, handle tarnished and dull, looking for all the world like some dreadful maw, hanging open to welcome its next meal. Tanya's feet barely touched the ragged carpet covering the floorboards, its threadbare weave hinting at an opulence barely visible now. Dmitri pushed open the blue door and the dreadful smell of the room beyond seeped through. Vacek noticed that Dimitri was wearing a black suit jacket several sizes too big for him, the sleeves leaving his fingers only partly visible. They were thin, dirty, their nails full of the scum of the place. A wedding ring was still hanging on to a bony knuckle, its golden hue long since dulled. The skin on his face paper-thin, his unkempt beard decorated with dust and spittle. Tanya's eyes had closed. Perhaps she had died already. No – Vacek saw her sigh, then open her eyes once more. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion – perhaps the world itself was slowing down and stopping. It would make no less sense than the reality of what they were experiencing now. It had all been Vacek's idea originally and how he wished that he could reverse things, go back to before this madness started. “We must survive” he had said. They had all agreed - but at such a terrible cost. He must have been driven mad by hunger to come up with such a plan. “I'll go instead”. Vacek heard his own voice utter the words, and some part of him seemed to scream simultaneously in both pain and relief. Dmitri turned and faced him. Tanya simply stared. A tear rolled down her grimy, pretty, sad face. Vacek pushed himself to his feet, his legs shaking through fear or weakness or both. As he walked across the room to the blue door, Dmitri stepped towards him and blocked his way.
“Are you sure brother?” He said.
*I am “ replied Vacek.
“do you need my help?”
Dmitri steps to one side and allows Vacek to pass, handing him the revolver as he brushes past. Vacek hears a rushing sound as he walks forward. Suddenly - a blinding light – followed by a moment of questioning as to what might have just occurred, processing in his mind. Now the blue door alone stands in front of him, everything else gone, replaced only by a blue-white fog that obscures all else. The door is new once more. How can that be? The paint vibrant, the chips and cracks gone, the handle bright and burnished. In the doorway stands Emil, together with Pavel, Yvette and Manfred. Vacek steps forward and embraces them all, one by one.
“A fine thing you did there Vacek” says Manfred and beckons him to follow.
The shell had landed directly on the building, instantly reducing it to rubble. None of the 20 inhabitants had survived. The remains of a blue door were clearly visible in amongst the mess of stone, plaster, wood and bones.
The siege of Leningrad during the second world war lasted 900 days. More than a million people died and those that survived would be permanently marked by what they had endured. A report by the NKVD (the secret police of the Soviet Union), commented:-
“The situation in Leningrad is hopeless. So many people are dying of hunger. All cats and dogs have been eaten and now they are starting on people. Human meat is being sold in the markets.”