Ruth Rosen had just registered the stinging pain of the slap across her cheek when a blur of movement rushed passed her with a roar of outrage. Through the haze of tears she watched in horror as her young upstairs neighbour, Illya Kuryakin, tackled the burglar she had unwittingly disturbed only movements before. In a quick ferocious move Illya had the thief in a deadly, unbreakable chokehold. Even with his left arm encased in a plaster cast from hand to elbow it didn’t appear to be hindering Illya in the slightest. It was the gargled gasp of the intruder that shook Ruth from her state of shock.
“Illya, stop” she cried out, only to be ignored.
Illya had his back to her living room wall ensuring he had plenty of leverage to maintain the lethal hold. Ruth placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed with all the strength in her arthritic hand. She could feel the whipcord strength of his body, belied by the leanness of his frame.
“Illya, please,” she begged. “Let him go.”
She almost cried out in relief when he turned his head and looked at her. The murderous intent that marred his features changed to one of bewilderment.
“He hit you,” he ground out through gritted teeth. “I will kill him.”
“He’s only a boy, Illya. The police will arrest you. You’ll be hung,” she pleaded.
“No police.” He nodded his head towards her window which overlooked a small landscaped park. “I bury body beneath tree.”
“I don’t want you to kill him,” she implored gently. She rubbed her hand across the back of his jumper clad shoulder in an unconscious gesture of comfort. “I beg you, Illya, please let him go.”
A flash of indiscernible emotion crossed his features, but he relaxed his grip and pushed the boy away from him. Illya took her hand from his shoulder and slowly stood up, a look of regret in his eyes. Without another word he walked towards the young thief who tried to scramble away, but was firmly grasped by the collar of his leather jacket and hauled to his feet.
Illya marched him through the small flat and onto the landing. “If you ever raise hand to any woman again, you will wish I killed you today,” he snarled quietly at the boy. “You understand?” The boy nodded his head vigorously and let out a frightened squeak as Illya pushed him towards the stairs. “Go.” Illya commanded, and the boy fled.
Ruth watched as Illya walked back into her flat, his right hand rubbing at his chest. He stopped a few feet from her.
“I am sorry,” his gaze shifted to the floor. “I did not mean to frighten you. I will go. I will ask Mr Waverly if I can return to … company house.” He turned to leave, but Ruth stumbled forward and grabbed the fingers of his left hand.
“Illya, what nonsense is this?” She asked in confusion. “Why would you give up the home you have made here, in this building? With us?”
“But … this is not what you wish? For me to go? You are scared of me, yes? I… leave, it is best.” The look on the young man’s face almost broke Ruth’s heart. He looked so lost and shame shone from his eyes. She had no idea why.
She let go of his fingers and reached up to pull his right hand from his chest. His hand engulfed hers.
“Illya, your actions did scare me,” she confessed. She instinctively knew that she needed to say the right words and they had to also come from the heart, so Illya could see the truth in them. There would be no second chance to mend any misunderstanding. She felt his fingers twitch. “But you don’t frighten me.” She reached up and gently lifted his chin so he had no choice but to look at her. “I like you a great deal, Illya, and if you were to leave, the others and I would miss you greatly.” Ruth knew that Napoleon, the young rascal, had collectively named the women who lived in the building as ‘Illya’s harem’. Illya being the only male who lived in the building and the average age of everyone else was seventy-four. But if Illya left, Ruth knew the building would never feel the same again.
It had taken some time to get to know their stoic Russian neighbour. But the brusque young man had proven to be a gentle soul and was quite the wizard at mending electrical equipment. Illya had slowly become used to their attentions, kissed cheeks, ruffled hair (when he was sat down), home cooked meals and hand knitted jumpers. He looked so much more handsome in one of Betty Hadland’s lambswool jumpers than those ugly, threadbare turtlenecks he seemed to constantly wear.
With him came the brash, light-fingered American Napoleon, who hid his true emotions behind an easy charm and quick smile. His charade didn’t last long. Two broken souls, whose walls were soon breeched by the undemanding acceptance and love of a group of elderly women. They themselves who had their own secrets and heartache and knew the signs of those fearful of revealing their true selves.
Then there was Gaby, a beautiful East German girl, who took no nonsense from the two males. A strong, independent woman, who had gained the trust and respect of her colleagues simply by being herself.
It was also very obvious that the three of them were government agents of some sort. An American, an East German and a Russian was either the start of a very bad joke, or a secret collaboration. Although they lived elsewhere in the city, Gaby and Napoleon were usually at Illya’s flat, or more precisely, in one of the women’s flats, depending on where Illya had been abducted to. They would disappear for weeks on end and at least one of them would come back with some injury. Like Illya. Who Ruth, by the explicit instructions of Napoleon was to keep a close eye on and ensure he did not over exert himself. A job Ruth had failed thanks to a young thief, barely an adult, who had decided to take others possessions instead of having the self-discipline and self-worth to find himself gainful employment to pay for his entertainments.
Ruth realised she had been silent too long when Illya attempted to pull his hand away from hers. She tightened her grip.
“Illya, you could have easily intimidated that boy, he was half your size …”
“He hit you!”
“I’ve had far worse done to me, Illya,” Ruth stated with a hard tone.
“But you were here to protect me,” she interrupted gently. “What if you had killed him, Illya? Could Mr Waverly save you from the gallows? How do you think I would have felt? Knowing that you were hung because of me?”
Illya shook his head. “I have temper. I … it is hard to think when it … comes.” He shook his head again, as if he might un-jumble the words that he need to explain. “Mr Waverly, he makes me see psychologist,” he stumbled over the word, “but it is too hard … I have had temper since I was boy.” He looked at her with such shame that Ruth felt tears gathering in her eyes. “It hurts to say why,” he confessed in a whisper.
“Oh, Illya,” Ruth hugged him as tears rolled down her cheeks. Illya stood stiffly for a moment before she felt his arms wrap round her and gently hug her back.
“It is okay,” he comforted as he placed his head on top of hers. “Gaby and Cowboy, they know about temper. They help me. I am getting better.”
Ruth broke the hug so that she could look at Illya. “I will help you too,” she promised. “I will ask Gaby and Napoleon what to do, if that’s all right?”
Illya gave one of his barely there smiles. “You already help. It is not many who can make me stop with just words. I wish I wasn’t like this,” his smiled disappeared and he frowned, “but …” He gave a self-deprecating shrug in lieu of further words. His right hand started to rub at his chest again.
“You’ve hurt your chest again, haven’t you?” Ruth asked. “And where’s your sling?”
“Arm is better. Nearly healed.”
“Illya, you broke it last week. Even Russian bones don’t heal that fast.” She let out a huff of exasperation. “Go and sit down. I’ll make some tea.” She went to take a step towards the kitchen, but turned back to look at him. “Perhaps I should phone Gaby, tell her what happened. You might need your arm x-rayed again.”
Illya bent and kissed the top of her head. Ruth reached up and gently patted his cheek. “I am fine. Truly. I will sit. I will drink tea with you. Perhaps eat cake too?” He added with a hopeful look.
Ruth smiled. “I think I have some of Lobelia’s cake left. You can read me another chapter of Moby Dick.”
Illya nodded his agreement and walked towards the sofa, picking up the paperback from the coffee table as he sat down.
As she prepared the tea and cake, Ruth decided that it was time to share with Illya her time in the concentration camps during the war. Her family slowly tortured and murdered in front of her, merely for being a Jew. She’d never spoken of her experiences, but perhaps she and Illya could help heal each other. An old woman, still haunted by the guilt of surviving and a young man, so terribly broken somewhere in his past, that it was still too painful to deal with.