The Bletchley Communist society lacked many things, like a regular meeting place, funds of any nature whatsoever and more than three members, but Archie was fond of it anyway. Irrationally fond, Charles said, but Archie had always found a swift kicking to be the perfect retort. Thinking about it always buoyed him through the first interminable parts of any meeting, when Comrade Bobby read the minutes and proved his real vocation was creative writing.
"Happy New Year, Comrades!" Archie said, bounding through the door of Comrade Maggie's sitting room on a cold January afternoon. "1942'll be the year when the Revolution comes, I can feel it!" He paused at the unusual sight of a room full of people. Or at least full of more than three people. "Erm, hello?" he said to the very tall young man balanced between a chair and the mantelpiece, carefully tacking the society's one and only poster (Victory to the Glorious Workers' Struggle and Biscuits For All!) above the fireplace. "Who are you, then?"
"Ah," the man said through a mouthful of tacks, "I am visitor!" He coughed pathetically. "I swallow tack. Oh, well!" He spat the rest of the tacks into his hand and smiled over his shoulder. "You are Comrade Archie, yes? Happy New Year!"
Archie stood there, open-mouthed, and then grabbed Comrade Bobby by the arm. "Bobby!" he said, wide-eyed. "His accent -"
"Och, aye," Bobby said, vague pride in his voice. "Bletchley Communist Society has a Russian member! And there's another two in the kitchen with Maggie."
"I am just visitor!" their new Russian comrade said jovially. He regarded the poster critically. "Is straight," he said to himself, "Will suffice." He pocketed the tacks, neatened the long scarf about his neck, stepped down and seized Archie by the shoulders. "Comrade!"
"Gerroff!" Archie shrieked as he was kissed on either cheek.
"No punching of fellow communists!" Bobby said, and Archie reluctantly unballed his fists.
"You're in England," he said. "We shake hands here, Comrade - er, Comrade - what is your name?"
"He's Comrade Ivan," Bobby said.
"Is very common Russian name," Comrade Ivan said seriously. "Is completely normal and unsuspicious for Russian man to be called Ivan. So, I am Ivan!"
"Well, welcome, Comrade Ivan," Archie said, feeling he'd get a crick in his neck unless they all sat down soon and he didn't have to look up all the time. "They make 'em big in the Soviet Union - what do they feed you on?"
"Vodka and pierogi," Ivan said and giggled. "But I like English food very much."
As if on cue Maggie come in carrying a large plate of sandwiches. Two young men followed her, a taller, dark haired one carrying a tray laden with crockery, the fair haired one with glasses following behind carrying a tea pot.
"Hello, Archie," she said, "sandwich? I thought I'd have to make do with a scrape of paste, but our Russian comrades brought a present. Caviar, just think!"
"Caviar sandwiches, eh? Nice one," Archie said taking one, and holding up his other hand protectively as the young men smiled at him. "No need to kiss me, Comrades, I'll take your revolutionary fraternal greetings as understood." Charles'll be jealous, he thought examining his sandwich, and took a bite. He managed to keep a smile on his face as he chewed and swallowed. God, it was foul. Why did bourgeois idiots like Charles go on about it like it was something to want?
"Is this really whole of Bletchley society?" Ivan said looking round. He sounded a little plaintive. "I thought more people are interested in heroic proletarian struggle -"
The two lads pouring tea muttered to each other. Archie didn't know much Russian other than Hello, vodka, the principal parts of tractors and how to say Long live the glorious victory of the proletariat! Crush the bourgeois oppressors! but working with Charles day-in day-out had given his ear a fine tuning for detecting sarcasm, even in other languages. Especially in other languages, given Charles.
"Got something to add, Comrades?" he said as Bobby rushed in to say,
"Och, we've got a few auxiliary members, haven't we? Archie, when are Minka and Gordon going to come to another meeting?"
"They said they'd be along in a bit," Archie said, still looking at the lads, puzzled by their expressions that suggested they had been found nicking sweets, assuming that the theft of sweets was a capital crime, and they thought they'd be up against the wall in short-order. Their eyes flicked to Ivan and back, so fast that Archie wondered if he'd seen it and then they smiled the sorts of smiles Archie had himself given plenty of times to people who held his future in their hands.
"No English," the fair haired one said, handing a cup to Archie.
The dark-haired one nodded and smiled. "No English."
"Our Russian comrades were very helpful - they made the sandwiches and the tea for me," Maggie said, eyeing them wistfully as they handed round cups of tea as if she wished she were ten years younger or they were ten years older.
Not every woman is Mrs Best, Archie reminded himself, wondering just how much comprehension No English entailed. Maggie is merely interested in discussing class struggle.
"In Soviet Union is equality between men and women," Ivan said happily. "Men also cook and clean."
"Really?" Maggie said, her eyes wide.
"Pah, in Poland men also cook and clean, if they know what is good for them," Minka said, appearing in their midst as suddenly as if she had stepped out of thin air.
"Gah!" everyone shrieked.
"Minka!" Archie said, his heart hammering. "I didn't see you there. How do you do that?" The door opened and Gordon came in, looking confused.
"Have you seen Minka?" he asked. "We were meant to come together, but she sort of vanished when I took my eyes off her, but I had to because not blinking for that long was really quite painful - oh, there you are, Minka! How did you move so quickly? I really only did blink once, you know."
"When your country invaded by fascist pig-dogs, you learn to move fast and quiet," Minka said. "Is also good for checking up on quality of men's housework, make sure they do not sweep dust under the carpet."
"You are human being?" Ivan said, curiously poking her.
"Do not poke Minka, giant Russian man, or Minka poke back," she said, narrowing her eyes.
"Seriously, Comrade, don't make her poke you, it's usually fatal," Archie said quickly as Gordon chimed in adoringly,
"She's better than human, she's Polish."
"Correct," Minka said. "You are new comrades helping to overthrow capitalism?"
"Oh, yes. Welcome, Comrade Minka!" Ivan said, and grabbed her in an enthusiastic hug-and-kiss-to-the-cheeks.
Archie winced, expecting to see bloodshed, but Minka merely raised her eyebrows and didn't maim anyone at all. "You can open your eyes, Gordon," he whispered. "Everyone's still alive."
"Are you sure?" Gordon whimpered.
"No one is killed," Minka said dismissively. "I am still on holiday."
"Wait, are more presents - " Ivan rattled a string of Russian off and his friends all but sprinted for the bags Archie now saw put neatly behind the sofa. "First, new posters," Ivan said, handing out a tight roll of paper. Archie and the others clustered round as they were unrolled, oohing and ahhing over the bright colours and crisp printing. I really should learn to read some Russian Archie thought.
"What does this one say?" Maggie said, looking at a picture of a woman helping another one to her feet and gesturing towards a bright future.
"Under socialism, women are not serfs of home," Ivan said cheerily. "Like now, we have all drunk tea, need new pot, yes? New Soviet man is capable of making tea -" he slipped back into Russian and the fair-haired lad grabbed the empty tea pot and bolted for the kitchen.
"Fancy that," Bobby said, his face full of admiration for the achievements of socialism.
"They brought tea as well," Maggie whispered. "Lots of it! We could have given tea to the whole town, almost."
"Maybe we should," Archie said.
"Why? They're not comrades," she said. "- I'm just going to help him with the stove. Edward, I think his name is. That's a good English name -"
Archie blinked as she went out quickly. Comrade Edward would probably be safe, he thought. After all, Maggie knew as little Russian as he did, and was unlikely to be as aggressively adept in the language of love as Mrs Best.
"Russian cigarettes for everyone, and to help keep out cold -" Ivan said, putting two large boxes of cigarette packs on the table and, with a flourish, taking several bottles from the second bag.
Archie's Russian was perfectly adequate to read the most important word on the labels. "Away, man, that's enough vodka to drown a good sized dog!" he said in delight.
"That sort of thing will have to wait till after the meeting," Bobby chided. "Anyway, Maggie doesn't have a dog." Everyone looked at him in bemusement as he smiled vaguely at them and turned to call, "Maggie! We're going to start!"
The reading of the minutes took longer than ever as Bobby kept pausing to translate into Russian, which he spoke no more of than Archie. The torture was finally over, and Ivan raised a hesitant hand.
"Perhaps I could speak for little on great progress that is made in my country?"
"Och, yes," Bobby said. "That'd be nice."
"Yes, please," Maggie said.
"Aye, Comrade, do," Archie agreed.
"Proceed," Minka snapped as Gordon belatedly took his eyes from her, seeming to register that something had been asked.
Ivan smiled sweetly at them all and stood, clearing his throat gently. Afterwards, Archie found he couldn't quite remember anything specifically he'd said, just the gentle smile and the absolute, firm certainty that had shone from him and that, for reasons Archie could never explain, had him waking in a cold sweat for weeks thereafter.
"I am very glad to have chance to foster connections between us and to increase British - and Polish! - comrades' knowledge of communism," Ivan said and took a deep breath. "Now, perhaps, small drink?" He flicked his fingers towards the door and the other Russian lads shot off, returning quickly with what looked to be Maggie's best glasses. She didn't utter a word of complaint - she and the others looked as dazed as Archie felt, and meekly accepted a large glass of vodka. "To dictatorship of proletariat!" Ivan said, and tossed his vodka back, followed by all the others. Everyone seemed more lively again, as if waking up, though Archie felt a little embarrassed at the amount of coughing he and his Bletchley comrades indulged in and the ease with which their Russian friends could treat tumblers of vodka like small shots. Minka was doing well too, he noticed, downing her vodka and mocking it in what passed for a friendly tone of voice from her.
"Russian vodka, pah!" she said. "In Poland, Russian vodka for girls."
"You are girl," Ivan pointed out, refilling her glass.
"Is for little girls. Put more vodka in vodka - now is maybe for twelve-year-olds," Minka said, gesturing for Ivan to fill her glass right to the brim. "Death to fascism!" she said in a jolly way and everyone who originated from east of Britain flung their vodka back while the indigenous members of the Bletchley Communist Society choked and coughed their way to the bottom of their tumblers.
After the third toast and tumbler-full the Internationale was sung, Ivan patiently coaching them in the Russian words and gamely singing along in English as well. After the fourth, Archie felt in dire need of the facilities, and wandered outside. Someone was using it, so he lit a new Woodbine and waited, shifting from foot to foot. Finally the door opened and the dark-haired Russian came out.
"Thanks, Comrade," Archie said, and paused. "What's your name? No one ever said."
"No English," the lad said.
Archie tapped himself on the chest. "Archie. Arch-ie. You?" He pointed.
The door opened as the lad opened his mouth and the blond lad stuck his head out and let fly with a torrent of worried-sounding Russian, his eyes flicking between his friend and Archie.
"We were just chatting, no need to sound like a mother hen," Archie said. He paused. "You do have hens in Russia, Comrades?"
They looked at him with the ingratiating smiles they'd worn before. "No English," they chorused and the blond one grabbed his friend and pulled him inside.
Archie finished his cigarette, and made a sudden dash into the facilities as he remembered why he'd come into the yard in the first place. Odd lads, he thought. They didn't look much older than Gordon, which probably explained it. Missing their mams, he thought. Poor homesick buggers. He went back in and washed his hands in the kitchen, trying to avoid Maggie circling Edward like a rather timid shark. He escaped back to the sitting room and was met by Comrade Ivan cheerfully holding out another tumbler of vodka.
"Archie! You fall behind! Catch up!"
"Er, thanks," Archie said, looking in some worry at the way Gordon appeared to have passed out on the sofa and the way Bobby was swaying. It wouldn't be long till the train noises, he thought. Not that Bobby actually needed to be drunk for that. He sipped at the vodka and coughed as Ivan helpfully put a finger under the glass and tipped it up sharply.
"Too slow! Drink faster! Is plenty more vodka."
"I will drink more vodka," Minka said. "You very large fellow. Minka like very large fellows - you want Minka to demonstrate knowledge of foreign tongue?" She said something in what Archie assumed was Russian, and Ivan blanched and stepped back, holding up his hands protectively.
"No! Is impossible! Already on short acquaintance, I think of you like little sister!"
"Pity," Minka said, and grabbed another bottle.
"My little sister," Ivan muttered to himself, watching her carefully in the manner of a herd animal keeping an eye on a lion, "is also very scary person."
Archie grabbed two caviar sandwiches to help soak up the alcohol. He waved one at the other side of the room where Maggie was now gamely trying to interest Edward in the ideological meanings of a sampler she had embroidered. "He could be well in, there," he said. "Probably all three of you could." Perhaps he hadn't said it as quietly as he meant, he thought, as Maggie went bright red and looked at her feet.
"For shame," Ivan said in mild reproof. "She is your comrade. And he is too old for her."
"Don't you mean 'young'?" Archie said as Ivan stepped away.
"Ah - yes," Ivan said, looking back. "I mean that, yes. Comrade -" He smiled down at Maggie. "Is very good, your needlework." Edward pointed at it and said something in an encouraging way. "He says colours very beautiful," Ivan said cheerfully. "And hammer and sickle very carefully done!" He put a large, gentle hand on her head as she looked up, still blushing. "You come to my house, Comrade, I treat women with respect."
"Archie," Bobby said, "If she's stolen away by the Russians, who'll make the tea at our meetings?"
"Aye, you're right," Archie said, horrified thoughts of tea-less meetings of just him and Bobby rising in his mind. "I'll say sorry to her later."
"We must go," Ivan said, looking at his wrist watch. "Was very nice to meet English comrades. Please continue in fervent class struggle - if more people here are comrades in revolution, England becomes more reasonable to speak with." He shook Bobby's hand fervently, then seized him and kissed his cheeks.
Bugger, Archie thought as the same thing happened to him. At least he had warning this time and could steel himself against the round of kissing everyone. After some time Ivan extricated himself from Minka's embrace and shooed the other Russians out the door. Archie stood with the others, waving their visitors goodbye before going back inside with a sigh. "I'd say Maggie and Minka enjoyed those goodbyes the most," he whispered to Bobby.
"Och, I wouldn't say that," Bobby said. "That Ivan's a very good looking fellow, don't you think? Nice, strong hands - I like a man who has a good firm grip."
"Er. OK," Archie said and smiled winningly at Maggie. "Any chance of another cup of tea, love?"
"Get it yourself, I'm not your serf," she snapped, lighting a Russian cigarette. "And it's 'Comrade', not 'love'."
"Minka agree," Minka said. "Go make tea, Archie. Also more caviar sandwiches."
Archie retreated to the kitchen and lit the gas under the kettle. Not that he ever wanted to agree with Charles on anything ever, he thought as he glumly waited for the water to boil, but maybe you could take equality too far.