'Retinskaya did the X-rays out of hours,' says Lena, naming a radiographer who is new to the department and whom Andrei scarcely knows.
'She's like that with Russov.'
'Lena, how do you know all these things?'
'Because I've got kids. There's only me to look after them, and so I have to know things. Listen, we've been talking too long. Promise me you won't go in for any heroics. A man like Volkov, you don't want him even to know your name. You just have to not be here, that's all it'll take. Call in sick tomorrow.'
The children. Yes, Lena has two children. And no husband, like so many. Andrei never knew him, because Lena's not a Leningrader. She's a Muscovite who moved here after the war. Her husband was a prisoner of war and he died in a German camp. He left behind a girl who must be fourteen now, tall, with long plaits, and a boy a year or so younger. Both of them are much fairer than Lena, and the girl is as slender as a willow, quite different from her dark, stocky mother. The dead man moves inside them like a shadow, in the turn of a head or the gesture of a hand.
Anna has always liked Lena. Kolya likes the girl, too: Vava. Call in sick! If only he could. Anna could call in sick too - a double miracle - and they'd take their bikes and some bread and sausage and cycle out to the dacha for the day. Kolya would be at school, so it would be a real holiday, just the two of them. He'd repair the shutters, and Anna would dig the vegetable garden and then make tea.
But Russov must be crazy to take such a risk with the X-rays. It's inconceivable that he's simply destroyed them. There must be a record. Crazy, or very, very frightened. What can those X-rays have shown? If it's some form of juvenile arthritic disease, then it's legitimate - or at least, semi-legitimate - to shunt the case on to Andrei. Everyone in the hospital knows he runs two JA clinics a week. But X-rays reveal many things - He fights down an urge to find Russov and shake him until he disgorges every bit of information he's got. Let's see if he dares to lie about those X-rays when Andrei's hands are around his throat!
Russov would still lie. What's he got to lose by it? And the radiographer, what's her name, she'll lie too. They'll have calculated that the worst that could happen is that the child might remember being X-rayed; but no one takes much notice of what children say.
Another wave passes through him, but this time it's revulsion rather than anger. The child, in the middle of all this, not suspecting a thing. He's been told what doctors are for: doctors are there to make you better. What have we come to, thinks Andrei, when our patients can make us ashamed of ourselves.
Call in sick... An attack of flu, even though it's midsummer. He can smell the earth as Anna pulls weeds from between her rows of carrots. The soil will be moist after all this rain. The weeds will come out easily, and Anna will throw them on to a heap to wilt and die. He blinks. The blob of sun on the corridor wall wavers. The day shines before him, impossibly ordinary and beautiful. This must be how the dead think of life. All those things they used to take for granted, and can never have again.
He is no brilliant Roskin. He's never likely to be offered trips to America, or the chance to be bamboozled by American spies posing as disinterested fellow researchers who care for nothing but the good of humanity. He's just an ordinary doctor; a good one, it would be false modesty not to recognize that, but still - just a doctor.
That's all he wants; no more, but no less. He wants to live out an ordinary, valuable life. He wants Anna, and their life together, and Kolya too, maddening as Kolya so often is. He wants to come into work early and smile as he passes a colleague in the corridor, with her arms full of files.
The Betrayal © 2010 by Helen Dunmore; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Blood at the Root
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