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Short Story

The Secret Young Life of Dmitri Molchalin

by Caroline Boxall

Prequel to "The Mole of Moscow" - coming soon...

              Chapter One

             “Put him down!”

             Yulia wrenched back Zory’s arms to release her brother.

             “If you do that one more time, I’m going to connect my fist with your face and you’re not going to like that!”

             “Oooh, fighting talk from the girly,” said Zory.

“My brother must be really important for you to give him so much attention,” said Yulia, grabbing Dmitri by the hand and pulling him with her as she stormed off to the other side of the playground.

“Can’t you stick up for yourself?” she said to Dmitri when they were out of earshot.

“He’s bigger than me,” whined Dmitri.

“He’s bigger than me too. In fact, you’re bigger than me, Dmitri, you’ve got to toughen up.”

Dmitri Molchalin was not a strong-looking boy at the age of eleven, but neither was his twin sister. The difference in strength between the two was mental rather than physical. It had begun when their mother died six years earlier and Yulia took on the maternal role.

It was Yulia who prepared the meals, cleaned the house and washed the clothes. Yulia coaxed Dmitri to do his homework, get to bed on time and join the chess club.

“If you don’t want to join in with the sports clubs, at least use your brain,” she’d told him, aged ten. “You need to mix with the other kids.”

Their father, Horik, hadn’t coped well as a single parent and it wasn’t long before his mother, the children’s grandmother to come to live with them.

Anastasia Molchalin was a towering and formidable woman who had brought up her own son with a terrifying system of discipline and punishments. Horik hadn’t wanted his mother to help out but, as usual, it wasn’t his choice.

“You are totally useless, Horik,” said Anastasia as she swept into his house with three suitcases. “You will thank me for taking control of those unruly children.”

Most children in Russia called their grandmother Babushka, but Anastasia insisted on being called Grandmama by Yulia and Dmitri.

“My great grandfather was English, you know,” she said. “The name Grandmama demands respect. And that’s what I require from you. Respect.”

Dmitri was scared of Grandmama, just as his father was, but Yulia simply despised her. She felt she’d managed perfectly well running the house. Her father hadn’t been in the way at all because he was rarely at home, but her grandmother’s presence made for a very tense atmosphere.

Grandmama had never liked children, but she did enjoy seeing them cower under her magnificence. For a time, she had been rich, having inherited a large sum of money from the English great grandfather, however her late husband had squandered all her money on gambling and drink, which perhaps explained Anastasia’s general dislike of men. She had spent a fair amount of money herself during their brief marriage on expensive clothing, and although she had recently been forced to sell many of her extravagant garments, she’d held onto enough to ensure that she always looked as though she was well-to-do, even if she was almost penniless.

Horik worked on a construction site which sometimes paid in goods rather than money. At the end of the month, he might be given a pile of floor tiles or a spare door which he would then sell on. On other occasions he would be paid in bottles of vodka. Horik made just enough money to feed his family by selling the building materials, but he always kept the vodka for Saturday.

Grandmama left the house every Saturday morning early and didn’t return until late into the evening. Yulia and Dmitri never knew where she went, nor did they care, they were just happy to have her out of the way.

On these days Horik would emerge from his room around mid-morning and take up his place in front of the TV, his vodka bottles lined up on a small wooden table next to him. He would usually have the sport channel playing, but he didn’t care much as he systematically worked his way through the bottles until his children dragged him to bed in the evening.

Saturday was Yulia’s favourite day, so it was Dmitri’s favourite too. Their first task was always to find Grandmama’s chocolate stash. Grandmama always had a supply of luxury chocolate which strangely appeared every Sunday afternoon.

“I bet she steals it,” Dmitri suggested.

“Do you think so?” said Yulia. “I think she dresses up to look like she’s rich and goes to sit in a tearoom in Smolensk. Then she seeks out some wealthy-looking gentleman and asks him to join her. I bet they spend the day together and she acts like she’s all charming and then he pays for lots of stuff including chocolates. I reckon that’s more Grandmama’s style.”

Because Dmitri obeyed Grandmama, he would be given a chocolate. Yulia never obeyed Grandmama and was made to sit at the table opposite Dmitri while he ate. Grandmama made him describe the flavours and eat slowly so as to torment Yulia.

Yulia didn’t mind at all. She looked forward to the following Saturday when she and Dmitri would spend up to an hour looking for the secret stash and devouring anything Grandmama hadn’t eaten. Sometimes this wasn’t much, but it could be up to half a box. They could never understand why Grandmama didn’t make a fuss about it when she found the chocolates had gone.

Saturday afternoons were spent mooching around Smolensk, often by the lake in Lopatinski gardens pretending to be spies or valiant horsemen leading their troops into battle. The rubbish bins in the park often contained interesting props for their games. A broken umbrella became a war ship, empty fast-food boxes became roller skates and once somebody left a wheelchair next to a bench with a note saying,

“No longer needed, please take.”

They had the best afternoon that Saturday, taking it in turns to sit in the chair and to push it, charging up and down the paths hollering war cries. Eventually the park keeper came out to stop them, but that was a good day.

One Saturday Dmitri pulled a large book out of one of the bins in the park. Engineering Made Simple, it said on the front cover in big yellow letters. Dmitri was about to throw it back in the bin, but Yulia took the book and read aloud the words on the back.

“'Learn what it means to be an engineer, understand the laws scientists use to push the limits of speed and safety, and discover a past—and anticipate a future—of amazing machines and constructions.'

“This is it!” she said. “We, the Molchalin Twins are no longer pirates, kings or undercover agents; we are engineers! We will make the name ‘Molchalin’ great!”

From that day, Saturdays became different as Yulia and Dmitri pored over the book and tested different theories. It took months to make a bottle boat, an elastic-band-driven car and a remote-controlled snake which would never work until they found a battery. Every project began and ended with the same mantra: “We will make the name Molchalin great!”

***

One Sunday evening Grandmama had a visitor. A gruff-sounding man arrived and was escorted to the living room. The door was shut and no matter how hard the twins pressed their ears against it, they couldn’t hear what was being said. The following morning was Monday, and Dmitri was vaguely aware of Yulia getting up early. Having dressed, he went to the kitchen for a slice of bread to eat on his way to school and found Yulia crying uncontrollably with Grandmama standing over her looking stern.

“Your sister isn’t well,” she said. “You’ll have to go to school alone today.”

Dmitri went over to his sister and held her shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not well,” said Yulia. “Go to school and Dmitri?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t let Zory bully you.”

“I won’t.”

“And don’t forget to make the name ‘Molchalin’ great.”

***

Dmitri never saw Yulia again. She had disappeared by the time he got home from school and his grandmother wouldn’t tell him why or where she’d gone.

“Yulia won’t be coming home,” she said. “There’ll be more food for us all now.”

Dmitri begged her to let him see her or just let him know that Yulia was safe, but Grandmama ignored him. Horik, if he even knew where his daughter had gone, was too scared of his mother to speak on the subject.

At school, Dmitri became fierce; lashing out at Zory whenever he came near until finally the bully moved to a less feisty victim. Dmitri carried Engineering Made Simple with him at all times, as though it was his link to Yulia. He found a weekend job in an engineering factory in Smolensk and started saving money. He would earn enough to find Yulia; hire a private detective if necessary.

But above all he would make the name ‘Molchalin’ great.

Chapter Two

By the time he was sixteen, Dmitri Molchalin had grown into a tall athletic young man. He left school to work full-time in the engineering factory and, with his knowledge from the book he was quickly recognised as having potential. His salary increased and although his grandmother would never reveal Yulia’s whereabouts, he was ready to start his own investigations.

On the evening he was going to announce to his father and grandmother that he was leaving home to look for Yulia, he was greeted at the front door of his home by two policemen.

“Come inside,” they said. “We’re sorry to have to bring you some bad news.”

Horik had been working at the construction site that afternoon as usual. He had taken the crane lift to the roof girders with his team and stepped out onto one of the joists. The other workers attached themselves to the safety rope, but Horik had stepped out without attaching the security harness.

“They said he ran to the end of the beam and jumped off,” said the policeman. “I’m sorry to tell you that when his body was recovered, an empty bottle of vodka was found still intact in his pocket.”

Dmitri was sorry about his father, but not very. His father had never shown any interest in him, never shown any love and he’d allowed Yulia to be taken away.

 

He decided that same evening to leave. He wasn’t going to stay in the same house as his grandmother for one more night, and he gathered up a small bag of clothes and all his savings which he’d hidden under a floorboard.

For the next two years he searched for Yulia. He decided to go first to Moscow, but the city was vast and nobody had heard the name Yulia Molchalin. He worked his way around some of Moscow’s outer region, cities such as Podolsk, Krasnogorsk and Elektrostal. At one point he found himself in the prestigious residential area of Rublevka, the home of the rich and famous.

“This is where we’re going to live, Yulia,” he said aloud. “This is where we’ll live when we have made the name ‘Molchalin’ great!”

But after two years there was no sign of Yulia and there was no more money. Dmitri decided to go home, try to get his old job back and start saving for his next search for Yulia.

His grandmother showed no emotion at his return. She had become thinner and frailer but was still just as cold and aloof as ever.

The engineering company was happy to give Dmitri a job but, of course, he had to move down a few levels because his old job had been taken by a new engineer whose name was Zory.

Dmitri was annoyed that his old school rival had elbowed in, but he was no longer fearful of the boy who had once bullied him. That was until Zory caught up with Dmitri in the canteen.

“Don’t even think about trying to get your old job back,” he said.

“Why, are you worried because I’m so obviously better suited to the position?”

“Not worried at all. But in case you get any ideas, I know what happened to your dad.”

Dmitri stalled, but he didn’t have to wait long to discover that Zory knew the truth.

“My dad worked on the same construction site, although in a much higher position, of course. If I think you’re trying to push me out, I’ll tell everyone what happened to your dad.”

Dmitri didn’t want anyone to know about his father’s drinking problem or how he died so he continued to work under Zory for another year, until something happened which changed his life’s direction again.

 

Just before his twentieth birthday, Grandmama caught pneumonia. She lay in bed looking paler and thinner but wouldn’t allow Dmitri to call the doctor.

“Dmitri I have something to say to you,” she rasped  one evening when he arrived home from work.

“Tell me where I can find Yulia,” said Dmitri. “Please tell me.”

His grandmother spoke in a grating whisper, her head leaning back against the pillows, her eyes shut .

“I sent Yulia away for many reasons,” she said. “Yulia was rude and disobedient. She made you into a characterless, cowardly chicken and your father couldn’t afford to keep you both. I made the decision to keep you, but I  made the wrong choice. I should have kept Yulia.”

Dmitri couldn’t speak. He sat listening to his grandmother’s final words.

“You can stop looking for Yulia,” she said. “She died six years ago.”

Grandmama opened her eyes briefly and looked once more at her grandson a bitter smile spread across her thin lips and she stopped breathing.

 

Dmitri shook his grandmother to try to wake her. Surely Yulia wasn’t dead? It couldn’t be true!

“You’re lying,” he shouted. “Why couldn’t you at least have told me where you sent her?”

When he finally understood that his grandmother would never tell him the truth he sat on the end of the bed for the rest of the night, not crying, not even thinking, just repeating Yulia’s final words over and over,

“Make the name ‘Molchalin’ great.”

***

By the time he had reached his twenty-first birthday, Dmitri had left the engineering company and set up on his own. He continued to live in his father’s house, and he had found himself a wife.

To make the name ‘Molchalin’ great meant that he would have to start a dynasty of his own. He started attending dance classes in Smolensk and on the very first evening he met Inga, a strange seventeen-year-old whose first topc of conversation was children.

“How many children do you want?”

“Plenty,” said Dmitri who, having never socialised before wasn’t sure if this was the current way of chatting someone up.

 

Apparently he had answered correctly and Inga practically threw herself at Dmitri, begging him to propose quickly so they could start a family. To begin with, Dmitri thought it was rather useful to have Inga’s mother moving in with them straight after the wedding. She was a good cook and kept Inga company while he worked long hours. However, before long he recognised a characteristic which was unavoidable. She was an old woman, and as the only old woman he had known was his grandmother, he figured, in his now warped mind, that all old women must be wicked.

If only Dmitri had known his mother-in-law was actually a kind, gentle creature who lived in constant bewilderment as to how her daughter had turned out so strangely. But he never gave her a chance.

 

Inga’s pregnancy was a source of great fanfare and excitement.

“Our son will be the beginning of the Molchalin dynasty, the couple would sing as they waited for the arrival of their firstborn.

 

Only once did Inga’s mother suggest the baby might be a girl. Inga slapped her around the face crying, “Mama, this is Ivan, how dare you speak like that!”

When the time came for the baby to be born, Dmitri was at work. One of the midwives called him, but he was in the middle of a very important meeting with suppliers and didn’t arrive at the hospital until it was all over.

“Mr Molchalin please come with me,” said the nurse using the same tone the policemen had used on the night his father had died and his heart filled with dread.

“Your wife is very poorly indeed. We are doing everything we can.”

But what about my son?” asked Dmitri.

The nurse looked confused.

“The baby is a girl,” she said.

THE END

What does the future hold for Dmitri Molchalin?

Will he ever make the name 'Molchalin' great?

What about his baby daughter?

And will Inga completely lose her mind when…(oops, that's a secret!)

Find out in the thrilling "The Mole of Moscow"

Available from June 2024, the first in a 5-part series.

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