The Tax Inspector's Visit

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Some people lie because they have to; some lie through choice, but always make sure the story has a good foundation.

Submitted: November 15, 2013

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Submitted: November 15, 2013

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The Tax Inspector’s Visit

Sometimes she dreamed of Russia the way it used to be.  She would stand at the window of her cheap, one-roomed flat in Leningrad and stare at the snow on the tramlines or the drab queue of housewives outside the baker’s shop opposite.  Usually she saw each one of them, could pick out the hunger and tiredness on their pinched faces.  But sometimes, and only rarely these days, the tramlines became the tracks of troikas, laden with richly dressed men and women each covered with a lap rug of fur, jingling gaily on their way to a grand reception at the Winter Palace.  Sometimes the housewives became cooks or housemaids waiting for French pastries stuffed with nuts and cream and all the other delicacies it was impossible to get now.  At these times she would remember what she was before the war and the Revolution spoiled it.

Maria Ulanova kept herself to herself.  She did not talk to her neighbours because she felt she had nothing in common with either.  The man on the right worked in an iron foundry and the woman on the left drove a tractor.  Something with made her shudder for she considered women were made for more delicate occupations. She had been to the woman’s flat once, for a drink on Lenin’s birthday, but never invited her back.  So no one knew that Maria Ulanova’s flat was nicer than the rest.  Cosier, with its plump little cushions, carpet from Tiflis and embroidered tablecloth.  Treasured relics of the days when she was a kept woman.  And a very well kept woman at that.

It did not do these days to boast about one’s past - unless that past had been a part of the Glorious Revolution - and Maria Ulanova’s past was positively imperialistic.  Her past was kept firmly locked behind the flimsy plywood front door and even more firmly behind her heavy lids of her brown eyes.

Evening was falling over Leningrad, which to her would always be St Petersburg.  The trams were clanking back to the depot.  The bakers had shut up their shops leaving too many hungry families with no bread.  Leningrad!  It was becoming as colourless and dour as the man for whom it had been named. 

Maria Ulanova walked away from the window and sat down at the table to wait.  She was waiting for a man from the tax office who was coming to check her Social Credits.  Being unsure of exactly what these were, she was uneasy.  Maybe they were like income tax.  It was hard to tell, the Government kept introducing emergency measures and then repealing them.  It was difficult to keep track. 

At precisely 7.15 she heard boots on the stairs and then a rough, loud knock.  Smoothing the worn black satin of her dress and running a hand quickly over the loose knot of black hair at the nape of her neck, she went to the door and let him in.

At first she was surprised at how young he was.  He stood there, so thin, almost swamped by the greatcoat with its over-long sleeves.  His face was gaunt beneath the peaked cap with its red band, pale with the grayish hue of the malnourished, but his lips were full and almost indecently sensual set in that aesthetic face.  Then she realized that they were getting younger all the time.  No longer did promotion like with age and experience, but with solidarity to the party line and how many of your colleagues you could finger.  She wondered if this man got his superior’s coat along with his job.

In spite of this thought, that should have offered some small comfort, Maria Ulanova felt a cold shiver down her spine.  She thought quickly of her neighbours; of the people she worked with at the department store.  Of those in overcrowded rooms who envied her this solitary space.  Yes, some of those would send you to Siberia for a room like this.  She cleared her throat.  “Come in.”

The man entered, took off his gloves and glanced about him.  She felt that he noticed everything and her mouth dried as he looked at the carpet around his dirty boots.  He carried a cheap cardboard folder under one arm from which he took a piece of yellowish paper.  Without waiting to be asked he sat down at the table and dropped his gloves beside the tea pot.  She wondered if she should offer him tea, but that might seem like a bribe.  One had to be so careful.

“Maria Ulanova,” he said and his voice was thin and harsh, “as you know I am here to investigate your Social Credits.”

She nodded, sat slightly opposite him and smoothed the skirt down over the knees.  Fixing her eyes on his knees she assumed the simplest expression she could.  With these people it was always better to appear stupid.  “Can you tell me please, sir, what are they?  Are they something new?”

He settled back and crossed his legs.  “Yes, they are a new system we are introducing.  We expect every citizen to contribute to our great and glorious Motherland.  Social Credits are a way of finding out if everyone is pulling their weight or if they are parasites living off the backs of their comrades.  All the profits must go to the workers, but if some people don’t work, then they can’t expect to get the same as those that do.  Do you understand?”

She nodded and allowed a half smile to play about her mouth.  “Yes, I think so.”  Well, she was a worker.  Although she often felt that when Stalin and the others talked of ‘the workers’ they were referring to some other body of workers in some other part of Russia and not to the likes of her.  Still she did work and so should be entitled to some of the profits.

“How long have you worked at the Red Star Department store?”

“Ten years.  Since 1922.  I have always worked on children’s shoes.”  She coughed.

“And before that?”

“Before that was the Revolution.”

He gazed at her, his face impassive and she was suddenly frightened.  “What part did you play in the Revolution?”

A thousand thoughts raced through her head.  Fear.  Regret.  Rage.  Images flickered internally past those brown eyes.  Images so awful, so unforgettable, that only death would erase from her poor brain.

Of running through the streets to find her protector when she heard about the killings, running so hard she thought her heart would burst, or she would die of fright before she got there.  And then to find him so. 

What part had she played in the Revolution?  No part.  She had hated it and would have stopped it if she could.  But simple hatred had not been enough and with what terrible bitterness she had watched those despised Bolsheviks steal the life of ease and luxury she had worked so hard for. 

She could tell him of the hunger.  How she had stolen scraps of food, only scraps not fit for a dog.  She could tell him of her prayers, those thousands of prayers to the Blessed Virgin to save her from that self-righteous and blood-lusted mob that might have torn her apart if one miserable and jealous person has pointed the finger.

Many things she could have said, thoughts that had boiled inside her for years.  But instead she said: “I was a nurse.  A volunteer nurse, in a fever hospital.”

“We had no fever in Russia after the Revolution.”

No fever!  She wanted to laugh in his face.  He’d been a mere child, not even out of short trousers, and yet he presumed to lecture her on the Glorious Revolution.  No food, no medicine, no firewood, no law, no justice.  This stupid young boy who knew nothing but what he had been told in school.  And yet he could do her more harm than any of the horrors she had lived through.

“No, what I meant was, it was a fever hospital in the old days, but when I was there we had no fever.”  She felt her palms grow sticky, so loosely clenched her fists.  It would not do to let him know she was nervous.

“What did you do before the Revolution?”

“Nothing.”

“Were you married?”

She thought of lying, after all most of the records had been destroyed, but he might know the truth.  It popped up in the most unlikely places. Leaning forward and straining to see what was written on the paper, she said “No”.

“But you had a child.  A boy.”

Maria Ulanova paled.  Her chest constricted and she couldn’t breathe.  It was something to do with Sasha.  He had turned up, like the rotten egg he was, and she was going to get into trouble.  “Yes, I had a child, but he disappeared long ago. I haven’t seen him since the War. I think he went to enlist. He was the most ungrateful boy.”

The man glanced at the sheet of paper.  “Do you receive any money from your son?”

“Why do you talk about my son?  I’ve already told you, I haven’t seen him for years.  I don’t even know if he is dead or alive.”

“It’s a very strange situation.  Why didn’t you try and find him after the war?  A mother’s love is the strongest.  If the Little Father had lost a son he would not rest till he found him.”

Such platitudes!  That was all they taught them in school today, platitudes and propaganda. 

“Not my son.  My son was such trouble. I sent the boy to University and he got in with a bad crowd,” she was going to say ‘radicals and revolutionaries’ but said instead: “gamblers and drunkards.  Got himself into bad trouble, I didn’t like it and I told him so. We had many, many arguments and he finally ran away.  And I was glad to see the back of him.”

That was an understatement.  She had positively rejoiced when he left.  And his father also.  They had washed their hands of him.  The ungrateful boy.  He had been given everything, every opportunity.  Visits abroad, letters of credit, things other boys would have killed for.  And as for his future, no boy could have asked for a better future.  Perhaps he would have spent most of his life abroad, but surely that was no bad thing.  It was those others that made him feel the sting of his illegitimacy.  They turned him against his family, made him spiteful and ungrateful.  He never really cared about those fancy ideas of Marx and Lenin; he was just swayed by a group of discontented and envious middle class moralists.

“Did you know the father of your child?”

She raised her hands and would have liked to strike him.  “Of course I know him.  What sort of woman do you take me for?”

A picture of Alexander Petrovich flashed through her mind.  In full dress uniform riding his white stallion ready for one of the grand parades at Krasnoie-Selo, or sauntering gaily through the street to her door, his silver topped ebony cane across his shoulders, with a little trinket of rubies and emeralds tucked inside his waistcoat pocket for her to wear while they were together.

Of course she knew him; she’d worked damn hard to get him.  Hadn’t she been the one to give him a little brat to dandle on his knee and brag about?  Oh the women had been round Alexander Petrovitch like bees round a honey pot, but she had been the one to get him.  He was a prince, an aide-de-camp to the Tsar, and his wife may have had the bluest blood and the sweetest nature in all the Russias, but she couldn’t do that for him.  And a man like Alexander Petrovich needed a son.  Not that Sasha would ever have been a prince, but people would have whispered abut him ‘there goes the son of Prince Alexander Petrovitch’ and it would have been like a novel by Tolstoy.

And yes, Alexander Petrovitch had been a good man who Maria Ulanova had loved, in her own way, and who had provided her with everything she could wish for and a few things she had never even dreamt of.

And those Bolsheviks had shot him. Put him and his wife up against their own kitchen wall and shot them.  Him and that poor half witted, innocent wife of his who sewed all day and prayed all night.  The mob had still been standing round them when Maria Ulanova reached the palace. Alexander Petrovitch’s face was just a bloody pulp after they had pounded their rifle butts into it and then the poor princess was being stripped of her jewels.  One of her rings would not come off and so a man had taken his hatchet and cut off her fingers. 

“Enemies of the people, Comrades,” the man had said pocketing the rings as he slipped them from her bloody hands.

Maria Ulanova leant against the wall.  She felt faint and sick but knew she must not pass out.  It only took one cry of recognition and she too would lie bloody and broken on the cobbles. 

“Enemies of the people,” someone else shouted.  “Long live the Revolution”.

‘I am one of the people,’ she thought, ‘and he was no enemy of mine’.

And now, after all those years, she still felt the loss of him, and the loss of her life.  And she was so weary of the Glorious Revolution.  There had been nothing wrong with her life; she had not been ashamed of it then.  But now there was only suspicion and the fear of saying the wrong thing.  She had lived a lie for so long and always hoped that one day it would be over.  But she suddenly realized that she would have to live it until she died.  Death was never easy but it was easier to die in this little flat than in the cold of Siberia.  And the likes of him would send her to Siberia. He followed the same of Party line and so must she.

“The father of my son was an engineer,” she said simply.  “He died in an accident before we could be married, while they were laying the railway line through to Turkistan.”

The tax inspector looked around the room; at the ornaments on the sideboard, the tiny porcelain tea pot for one, the faded embroidery of the table cloth.  “You live well here.  On your salary.”

“I am frugal.  I have saved everything.  Some of this is so old.  This table cloth, I made it when my son was a baby.  I always kept it for best, now it’s the only one I have.”

“Other people do not have embroidered cloths.”

“Perhaps other people cannot embroider.”

“Other people do not have time.  They work for the good of the country.  What good is this to Russia or her people?”

“Of no good.”

“Some may say it is a sign of decadence, to cover a good Russian table with such a cloth.”

“I can remove it,” Maria Ulanova said meekly.  Very meekly, for people had been sent to Siberia for less.

“No matter.  It’s a good Russian cloth embroidered by a good Communist.  You are a good Communist, Maria Ulanova?”

“I believe I am, sir.”

“I sincerely hope so, Maria Ulanova, because people notice things like this.  They notice you have wall paper when paint will do. And some people think that shows a bad attitude.  And make no mistake, attitude counts.  You must see a lot of that in the department store.  People buying two pairs of shoes when one will do.  People with the money to buy two pairs of shoes.  That’s a bad attitude for it means that there won’t be enough shoes to go round and some children will have to go barefoot.  That’s what I mean by attitude.”  He paused and leaned back in the chair.

If he was waiting for her to tell on someone, then he would have a very long wait. It would be a cold day in hell before she turned anyone in for buying two pairs of shoes.

“Yes sir, I understand.”  She fixed her eyes back on his knees and assumed her stupid look.

“Very good.”  He put the paper back in the file, picked up his gloves, stood up and buttoned his coat.  “Remember, Maria Ulanova, your attitude has been noticed, and may well be watched.”

She dodged in front of him and put her hand on the door handle.  “Sir, before you go, are my social credits . . . ?

“All perfectly in order.”

She opened the door and he left.  She stood still leaning against the door until she was sure his footsteps had disappeared down the stairs.  Then shakily she went to the cupboard in the kitchen and took out from beneath the sink a half bottle of vodka.  Forgetting her manners she gulped it from the bottle.

‘Her attitude had been noticed.’  Good God were they reading her thoughts now?

Several weeks passed and nothing further was heard from the tax office.  Maria Ulanova watched her colleagues and neighbours closely, but they showed no undue interest in either her or her attitude.  Slowly her life settled back to its humdrum way.  Until one Tuesday, when she visited the staff toilets in the department store.

Maria Ulanova had just entered the cubicle and locked the door when there, staring down from the neatly torn pages of Pravda, was a picture of Prince Alexander.  Then she realized it was not the Prince, but her very own son, Sasha, who was now the spitting image of his father for anyone who had the eyes to see and the wit to know.

Pulling the paper from its nail she sat down to read it.  The article, which was incomplete, told of the promotion of one Gregor Popov to a post with the Russian Delegation in Paris.  It stated that Popov was born in Leningrad, the son of a railway engineer who had died while laying the Trans-Siberian Railway, and a nurse who died in a troop train derailment while returning from the German front.

Tax inspector indeed!  Social credits indeed!  Secret police no more no less.  That crafty boy had spun some fine yarn and someone had been checking up on him. Maybe he had been checking up on her, proving his new identity, she’d probably never know.

Now he was no better than her, not for all his revolutionary zeal.  He’d schemed and lied for what was important to him just as she had done, and she had unwittingly backed him up.  One day soon he might be very glad if she was out of the country.

Maria Ulanova licked her fat lips and thought of Vienna or even Venice.  Carefully she folded the paper and hid it inside her bodice.  She knew that when she got home she would put it in the tin box underneath the floorboards along with the photograph of Prince Alexander, the account of his crimes and death, and her son’s birth certificate.  One never knew when these things might suddenly become useful.


© Copyright 2018 Balinovsky. All rights reserved.

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