Excerpt – The Mind That Father Made

Ziyi with a Tracker hovering over her. Image by Tapiwa Chibonga. Copyright Uzor Chinukwue


            Roman Borodin’s eyelids fluttered open as he regained consciousness. His clouded mind struggled to give meaning to the environment he now found himself in. It was the tenth of September 2001.

            ‘Where am I?’  was the obvious question his mind presented to him. He searched for an answer and found none.

            A double-decker’s loud horn filled his ears and he covered them, his face temporarily a mask of pain at the harsh sound. He was in London – that much was certain. But why did he think he would be anywhere else? This was his home, wasn’t it?

            He looked dumbly around at the faces around him for any sign of recognition, but no one returned his gaze. This was Communist Britain and everyone learned from an early age to walk with their eyes downward, gazing at the floor, for fear of making eye contact with the wrong person.

            The bus’s horn sounded again, and he grimaced at the noise. He stood up hurriedly, immediately surprised that his legs seemed groggy under him.

            Walking uncertainly, he made his way to a public bathroom, entered and shut the door behind him, turning the lock. Instinctively he looked around the room for cameras. Even in here, the Communist state could nullify the privacy of its citizens: there had been bombs set off in public toilets in the past, enough reason for the BKGB – the strong arm of Russia’s KGB here in the British Isles – and Militsiya.

            There were no cameras – at least, none that he could see. He sighed and leaned against the wall. There was a bad smell coming from one of the three cubicles in the room. His face creased in a frown and he covered his nose in disgust. He decided not to use any of the stalls and instead went to the sink to wash his face. He turned the knob of the water tap. Thankfully, it was working. He cupped some water in his hands and poured it over his face, relishing the coolness of it. Then his eye caught something: written on the back of his hand were the words, “Go to Battersea Power Station.” They were in a small print, barely legible, so that he had to squint to read them.

            The words arrested his mind the moment he saw them. He remembered. Now all these images came to him, from the back of his mind, but they were half-formed thoughts, distorted; they were contorted visions:

            There was a man, maybe a friend, he could not be sure. But it was he who had written the messages. Yes, messages! There were two of them, and written in black ink.

            He searched desperately for the second one. There it was – running along the side of his hand, and to his wrist. It was the same print – the same person had written both notes. This one said: “You are Roman Borodin, Personal Assistant to Colonel Maxim Lykov.”

            He remembered his name. But he did not know this Colonel.

            The man from his memories had written it – recently – yesterday! He struggled for the reason why, and poured some more water on his face. Then the water stopped. He cursed under his breath; twisted the tap’s knob violently. But it was no use. It had run out. Such was the consistency of utilities in the city.

            Roman unlocked the door and stumbled out, temporarily stunned by the sudden confrontation with the sun’s glare. He was now fully alert – the cold water had done some good. He was at Victoria bus station. He remembered now. The problem was his memory. Today was the tenth – that he remembered, but nothing before today. He was gradually losing everything. The faces from his past were now just a blur – a distorted mess of colours and sounds. And that was why the stranger had written the notes.

            “Go to Battersea Power Station.”

            There was a doctor there that would help him. His friend had found the doctor on the black market. The black market! In Communist Britain, the mentally ill were put away conveniently in nefarious mental institutions, treated as burdens to society. Away from friends and family, they were used as human guinea pigs to test drugs and the effectiveness of military torture procedures. So he would find no aid along legal channels. The black market was his only hope for help. He had to keep his condition a secret until he found that help. And so to Battersea Power Station! The notes were his map to safety. The voice of the stranger at the back of his mind came to him, reminding him of his need to keep in the shadows while his ailment persisted.

            He noticed just in time that a police officer had spotted him. He turned away quickly. ‘Stay in the shadows’ – he reminded himself.

            ‘Comrade,’ the officer said, tapping him on the shoulder.

            Roman replied in fluent Russian, ‘Comrade Officer, what is it?’

            ‘Do you require assistance?’

            Roman glanced at the note on his hand and tucked the appendage behind him. ‘Can you please tell me where I can get a bus going to Battersea Power Station? I have an appointment to keep.’

            The officer eyed him, then pointed to buses across the street from where they were. ‘You can get any bus from there,’ he replied, also in Russian – though not as polished as Roman’s. This may have been a factor behind his letting Roman off so easily: even Communist police officers – the Militsiya – needed to avoid stepping on the wrong toes; and Roman’s Russian suggested he was part of the elite, maybe even a real Russian, rather than a British convert.

            ‘Thank you, Comrade Officer,’ Roman said, and hurried to the other side of the road. The bus came and he climbed in. They started off toward the power station.

            Roman climbed to the top floor of the double-decker. He sat on the bench closest to the stairs.

            The conductor saw him from the front of the bus and walked slowly to him.

            ‘Fare, Comrade,’ the man said to Roman in English. He had spoken without any kind of attempt to alter his English accent into a Russian one.

            ‘What?’ Roman said, nonplussed.  

‘I know yer type, mate,’ the conductor said. ‘It’s a rough neighbourhood, Comrade.’ He pulled up his jacket so that Roman could see a gun tucked in his trousers, its rusty handle sticking out and within easy reach. ‘Fare,’ he said again.

            Roman showed the man the message, “Go to Battersea Power Station.”

            The conductor took his hand and read it. He looked quizzically at Roman.

            ‘Wha’ are ya then, lad, some sort ‘a chalkboard? ‘Is where ya wan’ ta go?’

            Roman’s English was just as fluent as his Russian. ‘Yes,’ he answered.

            ‘’Is bus stops a’ the old factory. Ya can find yer way from there. But I still needs a fare paid.’

            Roman looked in his pockets and found a note. He handed it to the conductor, who swore.

            ‘’Aven’t got change fer yer,’ he said with a frown.

            ‘I’ve got nothing else,’ Roman said.

            The conductor hissed, but left him alone. He took a seat on one of the benches two rows from Roman. Roman looked away, not wanting to start any conversation. The bell rang for the bus to stop and it did at the next bus stop. Then it started off again.

            ‘’Is ‘ole country’s going to the dogs,’ the conductor said, not able to help himself and starting up a conversation in spite of Roman’s obvious disinterest. ‘They even worse ‘an usual these days. Something’s got ‘em spooked. They says there was an assassination attempt on the Great Leader’s life. You believe that, then?’ He did not wait for Roman to respond, and continued, ‘Who in ‘eir right mind would wan’ ta stage an attempt on the Leader’s life? ‘Ow many times ‘ave ‘ey tried already and failed? E’s surrounded by at least fifty soldiers at any one time – I ‘ear even when he wants ta use the lav, bless ‘im. ‘Ow’s ya think ya can reach ‘im, then?’

            ‘It’s probably someone close to him that could,’ Roman said absentmindedly, replying from a reverie. ‘It usually always is with such a well guarded man.’

            ‘I think not,’ the conductor said. ‘Those fools in ‘is cabinet all ‘ave a free meal ticket – ‘ey wouldn’t risk ‘eir positions fer any plots on the Leader. ‘At’s why he’s chose ‘em. ‘Ey’re people ‘e knew wouldn’t give ‘im any trouble, because ‘ey’re just ‘appy to be in second place. I’ll tell yer the people’s can do it – those gangsters that run the black markets. They ‘ave tunnels running everywhere in the city. Wouldn’t surprise me to know ‘ey ‘ave one running directly in ta the Great Leader’s palace.’ He laughed, showing brown and uneven teeth. ‘Tell ya the truth, and it’s that ‘ey run everything in the black markets – you can get what medicines we ‘ave no chance a getting, us common folk. You can get doctors, protection…’ He stopped to ring the bell.

            ‘You’re into politics?’ Roman asked. There was no escaping the sound of knowledge from his mouth. ‘Have you ever had any dealings with the black market?’

            ‘Everyone in the city ‘as at some point,’ he replied with a haughty snort. ‘Ya can’t ‘elp but to. They’ll provide ya with stuff what will make life a little bearable. Just follow the tunnels to get to them, mate. ‘Is’ll be yer stop, mate; Comrade…’ He got up and rang the bell for the bus to stop. It came to a stuttering halt and Roman climbed out. He watched it continue on, and then turned to examine his surroundings.

            The power station stood with its iconic four chimneys in front of him – a bastion of a thing in what was a derelict neighbourhood. He could see the London Communist Monument Tower in the distance behind him. Even where he was, the building’s imposing presence could be clearly seen – a visionary architect’s tribute to Moscow’s government. How very different from the wealth of the tower was the world he now stood in. This place was a shadow, and every now and again, he would hear a whisper – the old walls protesting, creaking like haunting spirits as the merciless wind from the Thames River bit into them.

            He looked around him. There were old apartment units on either side of the power station, with boarded windows and doors. Well, he had done what the note on his hand said, and was here now, but what was he to do? The place was deserted.

            He wandered around, looking for a way into the station. It had been closed now for over twenty years and just stood there – a mountain that ought to have been torn down, but nevertheless stood defiantly, as if taunting the better Monument Tower building in front of it, to see which of them would stand longer. It remained a symbol of the workers, while the handsome tower spoke to its neo-communists.

            The station was completely sealed and he gave up after walking around it. Then his eyes went to the building at the side of the power station.

The front door was locked.

He looked in the grating on an impulse. Success. He found an old iron key tied together with a smaller one. He put the bigger key in the lock. It worked, and the front door opened with a mighty creak.

He hesitated – if anyone was inside, they would have heard him. And he did not want to walk in on anyone or anything. He was at a disadvantage here, and being unannounced gave him some control. But there was now no choice. He had to find help to get his memory back. On the journey on the bus, he had tried unsuccessfully to remember any acquaintances, any family that might help him. A man with no memory is like a blank slate. There was nothing for him – only this.

            He walked into the darkness. Then something struck him: he knew his way around in spite of the darkness, and it was not for lack of obstructions. There was junk everywhere, and yet he moved expertly in complete darkness. He knew this place!

            He allowed his feet to guide him. To the first floor he went, and to the hundred and first room.

            He knocked.

            There was no reply. Somehow, he knew the smaller of the two keys he had found under the grating outside would fit in the door. It did, and the door parted noiselessly.

            Breathing hard, Roman walked into the front room. There was no one else here. Light streamed in from outside, through windows that had not been boarded up properly. And from the gaps between the boards, he could see the power station to his left. Now he was here, what was he supposed to do? There were certainly no doctors here; no one who could help him.

            He sat down on a desk in the corner, pondering what to do next, when he heard a car outside, and turned to the window behind him.

There, pulling up to an adjacent street, was a Militsiya car. He saw that he was shaking and steeled himself. They were not here for him. How could they be? He was here to meet someone engaged in the illegal markets, but he had done nothing wrong yet. Roman waited to see what they would do, where they would go.

            Three officers climbed out of the ugly, Soviet-made vehicle and wandered out of his view.

            Roman hid himself by the window and gazed out, but still could not see them.

            Even so, he felt tense. They were here for him. He knew it. He was not being paranoid. He started to leave when his eye caught letters on the ground. Why had he not noticed them before? Now he had a handicap, he could not afford to be careless with details. He read the letters: O-P-E-N. And an arrow next to the letters pointed to a wall. He walked to the wall and stood in front of it. Again, somehow, he knew what should come next. There was voice recognition software that was supposed to verify his identity, and the wall would open. There was a secret room behind it. The police were momentarily forgotten and he put his ear against the wall and tapped for signs of hollowness. The wall was solid enough. But he knew! He had done this before. How and why, he did not know. But there were answers behind this wall. He was certain of it. And now he also knew how to open the door.

            He said, reading from his hand, ‘You are Roman Borodin, Personal Assistant to Colonel Maxim Lykov.’

            Inside the secret room, voice recognition software authenticated the voice of Roman Borodin, and released the heavy locks of the false wall. It slid aside, as if Ali Baba himself had spoken the magic words, “Open Sesame”.

            Roman walked in as the lights of the room behind the wall came on automatically, brightly, and to reveal words scratched in huge letters on the wall: “You will kill the Great Leader.”

            He gasped in shock. His eyes darted quickly from one item in the room to another. There were weapons, lots of them – rifles, pistols, and knives. And also computers and monitors, lining the wall in the corner – as if he were in a sort of control room.

            ‘Hello?’ – a voice from outside, in the corridor.

            His eyes went to one of the monitors, and it showed two of the officers he had seen earlier. They were here, standing outside the flat. Their guns were drawn. They were getting ready to enter.

            His eyes darted around and caught a flashgun sitting on a tray on a table. He snatched it, and grabbed a heavy coat that was draped across a chair. He put the heavy coat on and the flashgun in one of the pockets, even as he hurried outside the secret room through the false wall. He pushed against the wall and it automatically slipped back to its former position, concealing the hidden room.

            Roman went to the desk in the front room and sat down on a chair behind it, waiting, and trying desperately to control his hard breathing.

            The police appeared.

            ‘Comrade,’ the first said. ‘Did you not hear us call?’

            Roman stood up. ‘Comrade Officer, I am afraid I am a little deaf from my last tour.’ He tapped on his ear.

            ‘You are a serviceman, Comrade?’ he asked.

            ‘Aren’t we all?’ Roman replied. Then in Russian he said, ‘To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?’

            The other officer now spoke, ‘I would begin, Comrade by advising you to make very slow movements.’ His gun was pointing at him. Roman got the message and nodded.

            ‘Do you suspect me of any wrong, Comrade Officer?’ Roman asked.

            ‘We received a call, and from the BKGB no less,’ the officer said.

            ‘May I?’ Roman asked, gesturing to the chair. ‘Other than my ears, I must say my spine was also injured while away.’

            ‘Where did you tour, Comrade…’

            ‘Soslan,’ Roman said, using the first name that came to mind. ‘Soslan Levkovich. And I was in the frontline in Afghanistan in 1998.’

            The officer wrote this down, while the other asked, ‘And your British name?’

            ‘I have no British name,’ Roman said. He felt the Militsiya would tread a little more carefully if they thought he was from the motherland.

            ‘So you are from the Union,’ the officer said. ‘I hope you do not mind if we confirm this later.’

            ‘Of course not, Comrade Officer,’ Roman said. His hand wrapped itself around the gun and his finger moved slowly toward the trigger. Roman looked at them. His suggestion that he was a citizen of the USSR had indeed thrown them off guard. Emboldened, he said, ‘Now I must ask you, comrades, what you are here for?’

            ‘We received a call from the BKGB to say that this site was being used for terrorist activities.’

            ‘This flat in particular? Comrade, this is a big building. There are hundreds of apartments here. I suggest you continue your search. There are no terrorists here.’

            ‘We know this place; we have been watching it in recent weeks for black market activity’ – Roman winced for a second – ‘and the front doors are usually boarded up. Except this one, that is. So we took leave to enter. You don’t mind, do you?’

            ‘That you showed yourselves in uninvited? No, Comrade.’ He gripped the gun tighter.

            ‘The way I see this,’ the other officer started, moving closer – Roman leaned back in his chair, tried to look casual – ‘I think the constabulary is being set up by the BKGB to take a fall.’

            ‘Officers, I do not know what you are talking about,’ Roman said. ‘I am not into politics. I am no terrorist.’

            ‘That may be,’ the officer said. ‘It is no secret that the BKGB wants to take control of the constabulary. They will succeed if they can prove we are incompetent and should come under their management.’

            ‘Why are you telling me all this?’

            ‘Because I think you are a part of this plot, Comrade Soslan Levkovich.’

            ‘I know of no plot. I told you, I am not into politics.’

‘What I would like to know, though, is why the BKGB did not arrest you themselves; if you are indeed a terrorist, as they claim. Why did they pawn you over to us?’

            ‘Why don’t you ask them?’

            ‘I’m asking you,’ the officer replied. Roman had lost his former advantage when he lied that he was from the USSR, and hence almost untouchable. Terrorists were terrorists, Russian or otherwise.

            ‘I don’t know, Comrade Officer. This is all just some misunderstanding. I am sure it will be cleared up in time.’

            ‘But time, Comrade Levkovich, is something we do not have,’ the officer replied. ‘There’s something big happening, and the police have been kept out of the loop. If it all blows up in our faces, we want to be able to cover our backs.’

            There was obviously a lot of animosity between the local constabulary and the secret police.

             ‘There is a trap somewhere, but I cannot see it. But you will tell me.’

            The net was closing in quickly. ‘Comrade Inspector, I cannot tell you what I do not know.’

            ‘Then we have a problem, Soslan Levkovich,’ he replied.

            The officer started to say something when his partner cleared his throat. They both turned to look at the man.

            ‘What is this on the floor?’ the second officer asked, pointing to the letters O-P-E-N on the ground.

            ‘I don’t know,’ Roman said. His hand tightened on the trigger of the flashgun.

            ‘This is where you live, Comrade Levkovich?’

            Roman struggled for an answer.

            ‘I can only presume, since this is where we met you,’ the officer continued. ‘So you tell me that you do not know what words written on your floor are? Who wrote them?’

            ‘Comrade, I do not know.’

            ‘So this is not your place? What are you doing here, then?’

            Roman said nothing.

            ‘Maybe there was something to the BKGB call after all. Comrade, we will need to detain you until we can get a team in here.’ The officer looked at his partner as he studied the wall behind the letters. He said, ‘There may be a hidden room behind here. Call it in.’

            Roman shifted uncomfortably, wondering what to do. The second officer came toward him. ‘I will need to cuff you, Comrade.’

            ‘You should realise the risk you are taking arresting a Russian citizen, Comrade Officer,’ Roman said uselessly.

            ‘Give me your hands, Comrade. Don’t make this difficult.’

            ‘Wait,’ Roman shouted, even as his hand went to his coat and pulled the flashgun.

@ Uzor Chinukwue 2011


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