“I’m James Mason.”
“No, I’m James Mason.”
“I tell you, I’m James Mason.”
“What are you saying it like that for?” demanded Michael, regarding me with a frown. “You sound drunk.”
“That’s how you do a James Mason impersonation,” I told him. “There’s always a hint of drunkenness in his voice.” And I threw out another “I’m James Mason” by way of demonstration.
Michael considered this for a moment. “Perhaps,” he conceded, “but it’s a refined, ‘one port too many with the after dinner cigars’ sort of drunkenness. You sound like you’ve been at the cheap cider again.”
“I still say mine is the best James Mason impersonation,” insisted Michael. And he offered up another of his own, more mellifluent “I’m James Mason”s by way of proof.
“Well, it’s hardly a fair contest,” I complained. “I mean, you’ve actually met the bloke. I bet if we had a competition to see who could do the best impression of Colin from the Uni library I’d win hands down.”
“That’s a pathetic excuse,” returned Michael. “You’ve seen James Mason in films, you know perfectly well what he sounds like.”
“It’s not the same,” I protested weakly.
“I don’t see why not.”
A fairly lengthy silence ensued, neither of us being quite willing to concede the point, before a creeping sense of boredom prompted me to offer up an olive branch. “Maybe we should forget James Mason for now,” I suggested diplomatically. “Tell you what, why don’t we pit my Roger Moore against your Bette Davis again?”
The celebrity impersonations had begun simply as a way of killing time. Our latest travels had brought us to a bitterly cold December day in 1916 St Petersburg (or Petrograd as I really ought to get used to calling it if I didn’t want to find myself lynched from the nearest lamppost by an anti-German mob) where the co-ordinates on the inter-dimensional travel drive indicated that a room of Sturridge’s prison was lurking somewhere amongst a neighbourhood of tightly-knit apartment buildings between the Tsarsko Selo and Nikolaevsky railway stations.
We had begun as usual by making a quick recce of the location in question but had soon become uncomfortably aware that a couple of strangers randomly poking about were unlikely to be made particularly welcome in a country that was both at war and on the brink of revolution. It seemed clear that a little insider help would be required with this job. So, having hit on what seemed like a clever scheme for enlisting official approval for our search, we had made an appointment to see Collegiate Secretary Pavel Illyich Pokrovsky of the City Planning Department for 11am this morning. Unfortunately, it was now almost half past and we hadn’t yet managed to penetrate beyond the anteroom of Secretary Pokrovsky’s office, hence the need for diversionary impressions.
We’d been met on arrival by a tall, thin young woman who had regretfully advised us that a ‘small matter of pressing business’ had come up and asked us to take a seat until Secretary Pokrovsky was ready for us. The muffled thumps and bangs and raised voices that drifted through the tightly shut office door certainly made the business going on within sound pressing, if not particularly small, but the tall young woman had promptly retreated behind a desk in the corner of the anteroom and began clacking efficiently away on a typewriter, thereby deterring any further questions. There seemed nothing for it but to sit and wait and exercise our skills at mimicry in the meantime.
We must have worked our way through half of Hollywood and were engaged in the midst of an extended Jimmy Cagney-off when the office door was suddenly and unexpectedly thrown open and a rather handsome young man in an extravagant fur coat stormed out. His face was deeply flushed, though whether this was due to emotions running high or simply a natural consequence of wearing such a heavy coat indoors was hard to say. He strode directly to the anteroom exit before turning back with a melodramatic swish of his coat and crying out, “You can’t keep me waiting forever Pasha! The honour of all Russia is at stake!” Then, without waiting for a response, he stalked haughtily away down the corridor.
Michael and I gaped after this unexpected vision in rather awed astonishment for a moment or two before our attention was drawn back to matters within the room by the voice of the young woman at the typewriter. “Your visitors from London are here to see you,” she announced briskly to a man standing in the office doorway who could only be Collegiate Secretary Pokrovsky himself.
The Secretary was a rather short but tidy man in his mid-thirties with slick dark hair and a carefully sculpted moustache and beard. He seemed somewhat flustered by the sudden departure of his last visitor for he turned to the typist with an irritable shake of the head, spluttering, “What? Who?”
“The architects from England have arrived,” the typist explained in a tone of infinite patience. “They had an appointment with you for eleven o’clock, remember?”
We took our cue and rose smartly from our seats. “Our credentials sir,” said Michael, performing a neat little bow as he handed the Secretary a letter introducing us as members of a delegation commissioned by His Majesty’s Britannic Government to investigate questions of housing for the working classes throughout the allied nations. (The letter was a very fine piece of work produced for us by a forger in Amsterdam in exchange for a barrel of pickled herrings. The pickled herrings had been obtained from a Cornish fisherman in return for a case of Jamaican rum. The Jamaican rum had been traded to us by a pirate in exchange for a rare timepiece which we had procured from a Romanian Count in return for a collection of high quality Victorian lesbian erotica. The question of how we came to be in possession of a collection of high quality Victorian lesbian erotica is, I’m afraid, rather too long and involved to be covered here.)
Secretary Pokrovsky scanned through the contents of our forged letter and his frown soon turned into an apologetic smile. “Ah yes, of course, of course,” he said. “I am so sorry to have kept you waiting. I have been very much looking forward to your visit. Olga Fyedorovna, some tea for our guests.” This last remark was issued over his shoulder to the typist as he ushered us enthusiastically into his office.
The room we entered was large and square and filled with over-flowing desks and bulging filing cabinets, all of which combined to give an impression of determined, if not necessarily very efficient, industry. There were two large windows but the grey December light filtering through the grimy glass was so weak that it had to be supplemented by several gas lamps. Secretary Pokrovsky continued to issue effusive apologies as he guided us into two chairs set before a large, paper-strewn desk.
“I am really most sorry to have kept you waiting like this,” he said as he settled into a chair of his own on the other side of the desk. “An urgent matter of business, you understand. My secretary should have offered you some refreshment while you waited. It is quite unforgivable that you have sat so long without even an offer of tea.”
“Oh that’s quite alright,” replied Michael, brushing off the oversight with a casual wave of the hand.
But Secretary Pokrovsky, it appeared, was either unwilling or unable to drop the matter quite so easily. “I must ask you to make allowances for Olga Fyedorovna,” he went on in a confidential tone. “She is a very efficient typist but somewhat lacking in social graces. In truth, it is not an uncommon problem here at the Ministry – the women employed here at the department are generally only here because they cannot find themselves a husband.” He leaned forward with an indulgent chuckle. “But I say to myself that Olga Fyedorovna, for all her faults, is perhaps not an entirely hopeless case. In fact, I have a small wager with Secretary Koshelov of the Transport Department that, one way or another, I will find a husband for her by next Christmas!”
“How do you know she actually wants a husband?” I couldn’t help but wonder. “Have you asked her?”
Secretary Pokrovsky regarded me uncertainly for a moment before he suddenly tipped his head back and broke into a hearty laugh. “Haha! How very modern of you, Miss Everingham! I should have guessed that you would be one of these ‘new’ women we often hear about. But then we do not come across many lady architects in Russia!” He paused and adopted a more serious expression. “But please, you must not think that we are all still living in the middle ages here in Russia, although I fear we have some way still to go before we can call ourselves as enlightened as your current British Government.”
I was about to remark that I didn’t think there was all that much that was enlightened about the British Government of 1916, or indeed of any era, but I was distracted by the sudden realisation that we were not alone in the room. I gave an involuntary start as I caught a glimpse of a wild-haired young man sitting behind a desk to our right.
Secretary Pokrovsky, noticing my reaction, raised his hand in a reassuring gesture. “Please, do not be alarmed. I should perhaps have already introduced to you my junior colleague, Collegiate Registrar Beletsky.”
I nodded uncertainly to the extravagantly bearded figure in the rumpled suit who sat bolt upright staring straight ahead. Michael smiled politely and said, “Nice to meet you,” but there was not a flicker of response.
“I am sorry but Dimitri Ivanovich cannot answer you,” said Secretary Pokrovsky ruefully. “He does not speak.”
“Is he alright?” I asked with some concern.
“Oh yes, certainly, certainly,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky. “Dimitri Ivanovich is one of our finest and brightest young prospects, a graduate in Politics and Philosophy from the University in Moscow. He does not speak by choice. He is currently engaged on a great philosophical experiment regarding the concept of free will.” Secretary Pokrovsky glanced proudly at his colleague before fixing us with an earnest gaze. “Allow me to put before you an important question. Tell me, how do you know that your actions are a result of your own free will and that they are not directed by the will of God?”
“I, er…” I spluttered, taken aback by the unexpected question.
“Er, well, I’m not sure anyone can ever really say for sure…” began Michael before trailing off uncertainly.
“Exactly! Exactly! It is a very difficult question, is it not?” demanded Secretary Pokrovsky excitably. “But a very important one, no? For if, as the religious men tell us, we are all destined to act according to God’s will then what are we but mere slaves and puppets? We must break free of such shackles if man is ever to reach his true potential. Therefore Dimitri Ivanovich has vowed never again to speak a word or perform any significant deed until he can be absolutely certain that he is doing so entirely of his own free will.”
We all turned to look at the motionless young man. “And how is the experiment coming along?” asked Michael cautiously.
“Ah, slowly I must confess,” conceded Secretary Pokrovsky. “It turns out that it is harder to determine what is free will and what is not than you might imagine. After all, if you are being moved by invisible forces, how are you to know?” He shrugged his shoulders in a kind of mild despair at the difficulty of the question. Then he leaned forward and added, “Dimitri Ivanovich has not said a word nor moved from his chair in three years.”
“Three years!” I exclaimed.
Secretary Pokrovsky nodded solemnly. “Such is the extent of Dimitri Ivanovich’s dedication to his cause. But fear not, he will see the challenge through, no matter how long it takes. And at the end, if he achieves nothing else, he will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that he has been true to himself and has not been a mere puppet, directed solely according to the will of God.”
“But what if it turns out to have been God’s plan for him to sit in that chair and do nothing for three years?” I felt obliged to ask.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, a flicker of consternation hovering over Secretary Pokrovsky’s face before he suddenly tipped his head back and broke into another of those explosive laughs of his. “Haha! I suspect you are something of a philosopher yourself, Miss Everingham!” he declared.
Before I could either confirm or refute this allegation we were interrupted by the arrival of Olga Fyedorovna bearing three cups of tea on a tray. All philosophical speculation was temporarily shelved whilst questions of milk and sugar were resolved, Secretary Pokrovsky having determined that the tea should be served English-style. When conversation finally resumed Michael made a determined effort to steer the talk in the direction of the reason for our visit.
“We hoped that you could provide us with some sort of official letter authorising us to make a brief inspection of certain dwellings here in the city,” he explained. “It shouldn’t take more than a day or two and we’ll make every effort to keep disruption to a minimum.”
“Ah yes. I see you are conducting an investigation into housing for the lower classes,” said Secretary Pokrovsky, consulting again our faked letter of introduction.
“That’s right,” I lied. “Our government is looking at ways to improve conditions.”
“Of course, of course. A very worthy aim,” murmured Secretary Pokrovsky. “We try to do what we can here in Petrograd but conditions are very difficult right now, what with the war and winter… Though I have heard of a project to provide modern housing for factory workers in Tsaritsyn. Perhaps I could organise a tour…”
“That really won’t be necessary,” said Michael hastily.
“But please, it would be my honour,” said Secretary Pokrovsky enthusiastically. “With the new rail links it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of days to get there.”
“Thank-you but I’m sure we can find everything we need here in Petrograd,” I told him firmly. “In fact, we’ve already identified an ideal area for our survey not far from here.”
“Oh well, I suppose you know your own business,” conceded Secretary Pokrovsky with an air of disappointment. “Though I’m not sure what you hope to learn from our Petrograd tenements other than how to bicker with your neighbour and infect all your buildings with the smell of rotten cabbage.” Secretary Pokrovsky gave a half-hearted chuckle at his own joke. We smiled politely in return.
“You must not think that we here in government do not care for the people,” continued Secretary Pokrovsky earnestly. “There are always demagogues and rabble-rousers ready to stir up trouble but I assure you the Tsar has the best interests of his people at heart. Russian bureaucracy can be cumbersome and unwieldy at times but we will find a way to harness it to the modern world.”
“I’m sure you will,” murmured Michael sympathetically.
We both waited expectantly, anticipating further comment, but Secretary Pokrovsky seemed to have drifted off into a world of his own for the moment, lost in a contemplation of the troubles of the Russian government.
“So, about that letter…” said Michael, attempting to draw the Secretary’s attention back with a discreet cough.
“Oh yes, of course, of course,” said Secretary Pokrovsky, looking up with a start. “You must forgive my chattering on like this. But it is a real treat for me to have such sympathetic minds to converse with. I do not wish to be unkind but some of my colleagues are rather stuck in their ways and naturally there is no conversation to be had from Dimitri Ivanovich these days…”
“Of course,” said Michael with an understanding smile. “It’s just that we are rather eager to get down to work…”
“Certainly, certainly,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky. “I’ll have Olga Fyedorovna draw up the necessary papers for you right away.” With a mild sigh he rose from his chair and set off across the office but he’d got no more than halfway to the door when he suddenly stopped and turned back to us. “That is, I will get you the papers you require on one condition,” he added with an oddly sly expression.
I held my breath. What on earth could he possibly want from us in exchange? We were right out of both pickled herrings and Victorian lesbian erotica. Or had he somehow rumbled us as imposters? Perhaps all that rambling talk about the troubles of the Russian people had been simply a way of holding us in place whilst the Secret Police assembled outside the door.
“And what condition might that be?” Michael hesitantly asked, clearly sharing my trepidation.
“On the condition that you both have dinner with me this evening!” declared Secretary Pokrovsky cheerily. “I have so much enjoyed this brief but frank little discussion of ours. So why not continue it over a good meal? There are still one or two places in Petrograd where good food and wine are available to those in the know.”
I exchanged a nervous glance with Michael. It wasn’t that Secretary Pokrovsky didn’t seem like a perfectly pleasant chap but an evening spent in the company of a Tsarist minister seemed likely to be littered with potential pitfalls. On the other hand, what choice did we have? If he withdrew his support for our investigation then we could probably kiss goodbye to any chance of finding the missing room. Having done my best to convey all these doubts to my companion in one wordless look, I conceded the need for acquiescence with a light shrug. Michael responded with a mild shrug of his own before turning to Secretary Pokrovsky with a polite smile. “Thank-you, we’d be delighted,” he told him.
“Excellent!” cried Secretary Pokrovsky enthusiastically. “Now, let me get that letter for you.”
To be continued…