When Katharine answers her London doorbell one summer morning, she finds Axel, her old lover from Moscow, standing on the doorstep. It's ten years since he disappeared without a word of explanation. Now he he has come to ask for her help. It's July 1990, the Berlin Wall is down, German reunification is the hot topic of the day. But Axel knows dangerous secrets, and the KGB is hard on his trail.
Katharine has no desire to help him, but she can't refuse. Reluctantly, she helps Axel escape to France. Twenty-four hours later, the KGB catch up with them. The encounter ends with a body on the floor at midnight. Katharine finds herself driving Axel across first France, then Germany. He claims he is heading for Moscow - but then it turns out he really has to go to Prague.
During their flight across Europe, the old passion revives. Listening to music at Goethe's Garden House, Axel and Katharine realize they still love each other despite the years of separation. But then Katharine discovers that Axel has been lying to her since the moment they met, and Axel sees that his life has gone so badly wrong he may never get it right again.
Music at the Garden House was conceived as the second part of a Soviet trilogy exploring the moral compromises forced on the individual in a police state. The first book in the series is The Angels of Russia and the third is Caf? Maracanda.
My father had expressed the wish not to set foot in the new millenium, and the cancer that had been eating away at his intestines granted his request. He said he had seen enough already. He had been born in a peasant's hut in Tambov oblast, and he died in the Moscow apartment they had given him when he became a general in the Soviet Army in 1976. My father had come a long way. He had seen patriotic war, cold war, fraternal war, the end of history, and the bombing of Chechnya. By the end, he was sick of it all. For much of his life, he had believed in Progress, the advent of Socialism, and the creation of a New Soviet Man. He had been disappointed on all counts. At the end of the twentieth century, Russia was plundered and destitute. Whatever was in store for the twenty-first century, he didn't want to see it. "It's going too fast, I can't keep up," he whispered to me the day I arrived from Germany. It was the week before he died. He had difficulty speaking by then, and he slept for most of the day. I was shocked by his appearance. In the six weeks since I had seen him, he had wasted away. His face had fallen in, his legs were like sticks, he was unable to move, He had to be turned over every two hours. I was amazed to see someone who had been energetic and decisive suddenly so helpless. He was beyond dignity and beyond hope. It seemed like a terrible way to end your existence.
My mother, my sister and I took turns sitting by his bedside. He had insisted some months earlier on moving his bed into his study, ostensibly to allow my mother to sleep, in reality to feel his life tangibly around him. The room was lined with books, photos and military memorabilia. During my spells by the bedside, I spent a lot of time looking at the photos and dipping into the books. It was like entering a foreign country. I had no idea why he had underlined certain passages in the books. I could not put names to the faces in the photos, with the exception of Yuri Andropov, glass in hand, with my father at some Kremlin reception. Why my father had been photographed with Andropov, I had no idea, and I realized that now I would never know. There were photos of some of the houses we had lived in, which I remembered more or less distinctly, as well as the rather palatial villa where my mother had been brought up in pre-war Koenigsberg, and the much more modest hut where my father had been born. I spent a lot of time staring at the latter, trying to discern how it had made my father what he was, searching too for some sense of my own links to that log-built cabin with the plank floor and the tiled stove. I could find nothing. My father's past was closed to me, and it was only now that I understood how much. I could not imagine how it must have felt to get up in that hut every morning and feed the animals and till the fields. Without communism, my father was fond of saying, he would not have got an education, never left Tambov oblast, not become what he did. Until the age of sixty, he had believed implicitly in the Party. Like so many military men, it was the war in Afghanistan that had made him see things differently. When the sealed coffins began returning from the battlefield, his faith in the Party was shattered. The young men in those coffins were my age. Though he never admitted it, he began to be thankful I had not followed him into the army as he had always wanted.
The three of us kept vigil alone. Irina's husband was in St. Petersburg, my wife was in Germany, the grandchildren were away at school or university. I don't think any of us missed them. This was the last time we would be together as a family, just the four of us, as we were in the beginning, when my father's postings took us across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. Once or twice a day, we congregated in the study, all three of us together, and reminisced in low voices. The picnic in Rostov where Irina lost her doll, the courtyard in Kaliningrad where Axel used to hide behind the dustbins, Mama's friend Yulia in Vladivostok. Once, in a low voice, barely above a whisper, my mother told the familiar tale of how she had first met my father, in 1945, in what was still Koenigsberg. The war had been over for three months, and Germany was ruined. She was scavenging for food, and he had given her a piece of bread. She broke off and began to cry quietly. Hearing is the last of the five senses to go, and I like to think that he could travel back into the past with us, even though he could no longer see us clearly nor feel which of us was holding his hand. We had been with him then, we were with him now, and the memories we shared were as real as the books on the shelves and the photos on the walls.
My father was seventy-six, which was nearly twenty years more than the lifespan of the average Russian male. Many of his friends were dead, and others were too ill to travel. Some of the neighbours came by to pay their respects, and a few of his former colleagues from the Ministry dropped in. Most of them had forgotten by now about the furore I had caused nine years earlier, but I got a few odd looks, and one or two queries which I guessed they would not have dared put to my father. Their curiosity reminded me how much I owed him for his support throughout that whole messy business. He had guided me in my dealings with the media, the Party, the security organs and the other official bodies who were taking an interest in my affairs. He had encouraged me to take advantage of the book deal offered by a German publishing house to leave the Soviet Union. He had even given me the courage to go back and talk to Katya when I thought I had lost her for good. It was because of him that I had been able to put it all behind me and make a new life. I hoped I would be able to do as much for my own son if he ever needed it.
But I hoped too that my son would not live through times that faced him with the kind of decisions I had had to make, and that he would not find himself at the midpoint of his life looking back on a wilderness of failure and betrayal. Karl was seven, and his ambition was to be a fireman. I was inclined to hope he wouldn't change his mind. Firemen didn't need to make moral choices. They saved everybody, and that way they ran no risk of coming face to face with someone they had wronged, as had happened to me only a few days earlier.
I had run into Stephen Maletius on the plane to Moscow. There were no direct flights from Munich, and I had had to change planes in Frankfurt. It was a tight connection, and I was one of the last passengers to board. I groped my way down the aisle, and found my seat next to a middle-aged man in a grey suit. As I sat down he glanced up from Der Spiegel.
"Stephen!" I said.
"Axel!" he said, and we gazed at each other in barely disguised horror.
The plane was full, and there was no chance of either of us changing our seat. I stowed away my hand-luggage and fastened my seat-belt. Stephen stared blankly at the seatback in front of him. The doors closed, the plane shunted away from the airport building, the flight attendant began to talk about oxygen masks and lifebelts. By the time we had reached the runway, the shock was wearing off, and it was clear that we could not sit side by side in silence for the next few hours. Concealing our emotions, we began to talk. Like all strangers on planes, we steered clear of personal topics, at least to begin with. We told each other we were looking well, and inquired about our respective reasons for travelling to Moscow. Stephen was going to Russia for his paper, of which he was now foreign editor. The tenth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall was coming up in a few days' time, and he was scheduled to interview Gorbachev and one or two of his acolytes for the occasion.
The plane took off, and we were issued with lunch trays and mini-bottles of red wine. The conversation reached cruising altitude. I had always enjoyed Stephen's company, whatever my doubts about Stephen as a man. He was perceptive and sometimes witty, he had unexpected opinions and interesting comments. As long as we stuck to the affairs of the day, we were safe. We discussed the collapse of communism, the rise of the robber capitalists, and the craving sometimes expressed by residents of the former East Germany to see the Wall go back up five metres higher. We agreed that the East European countries had expected too much too soon, and that disappointment was inevitable. It all happened too fast, said Stephen. The opening of the wall was like a miracle, and people assumed the miracles would keep on coming. Absolutely right, I said, and described people I had met in East Germany who, after forty years of government-sponsored passivity, were bemused by the need to roll up their sleeves and fight for a share of the capitalist spoils, preferring to sag back defeated and reminisce about how much better things had been in their cosy little country behind the barbed wire.
We ate our cheese and attacked our dessert, a kind of Linzertorte made with jam and cardboard. We were somewhere above Poland by then, although nothing could be seen of it but clouds. Yes, I said, it had all seemed so easy back in 1989. Throw out the communists, embrace the free market, say what you want, and get rich. Ten years later, the East Europeans were just beginning to realize that freedom was the starting point, not the finishing line. It was child's play to take down the physical Wall, brick by brick, and throw it away. The hard part was to destroy the wall that was left in people's heads.
"What about Russia?" said Stephen. "You must be disappointed by the way things have turned out there."
"Of course I am. Gorbachev had his faults, but he was basically a decent man. Yeltsin has destroyed the Soviet system, but he's put nothing in its place. He's let the the old nomenklatura take charge of the country's assets and line their pockets at the nation's expense. He's turned us into a nation of money-launderers."
"So in the end, your little trip across Europe with my wife served no useful purpose?"
I looked at him warily. "What do you mean?"
He gestured impatiently. "The papers you got hold of."
"They didn't make any difference. But at least I tried."
"No regrets then?" said Stephen, raising one eyebrow mockingly. His hair was grey now and his face was lined, but age had given him an undeniable air of distinction. Looking at him now, no one would suspect the missteps of his past.
"Some, yes. I regret what I did to you."
"I know, I got your letter. You don't have to apologize, Axel. In the end it made no difference. No one ever found out what happened."
I eyed him curiously. It wasn't the reaction I expected. "Do you mean that?"
"Of course I do. You have to accept the way life turns out. Regret is pointless."
Stephen's brand of journalistic pragmatism was rare in Moscow that autumn. Regret was everywhere: the whole of Russia was tainted with it. I saw it in the shame of the old ladies selling family heirlooms by the entrance to the Metro, the defiance of the pensioners marching for the anniversary of the Revolution, the face of a young woman hesitating over the purchase of a single Western yoghurt. I felt it in the air of my father's study, the forgotten faces gazing from the walls, the books on outdated military strategy that would never be read again. Sitting alone the last evening by the bedside, my thoughts drifted back to Raisa Gorbacheva's funeral. She had died while I was in Moscow six weeks earlier, and my father and I had watched the funeral on television. They had exhumed some old film footage from the archives, and we had seen for the second time Raisa and Mikhail in their prime, ten years earlier, descending airplane steps, receiving bouquets, bringing hope. So much had seemed possible back then, but it had all gone sour. My father's eyes were full of tears. Not for the Gorbachevs, I suspected, for, like many Russians he took a critical view of the last General Secretary. Some remnant of Party loyalty forbade him from accepting that it was not Gorbachev but seven decades of communist mismanagement that had destroyed the Soviet Union. No, his sadness was for Russia, and perhaps himself. He had lost hope twice in his life: once when the Party failed him, and once when perestroika collapsed. It was regret, not cancer, that was killing him.
My father died late in the evening on the ninth of November. He had been sliding away all day. He had stopped eating several days earlier, and today he had not even drunk his tea. He had not spoken for hours. He was letting go. He had done nothing all day but breathe, and in the course of the evening his breathing became laboured and heavy, each breath an effort for his wasted frame. Listening to him was unbearable. My sister came to relieve me about nine o'clock, and sent me to watch television at the other end of the flat. When she came to fetch me an hour later, I was watching the newscast. Gorbachev and Kohl and Bush were waving to the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall had fallen exactly ten years earlier. In a sense, Stephen was right. Some things defied regret. One was the night the Wall opened. Another was the day my father rode into Berlin on a tank and saw the Nazis surrender. Or else there was the crust of bread. He had once told me it was the best thing he ever did in his life.
I followed Irina back up the corridor. My mother was already at his bedside. The rattle had stopped, and his breathing was quieter and much slower.
And you, he had asked me slyly, what was the best thing you ever did? I had hesitated before answering. It was the summer of 1995, and we were sitting on the veranda of the dacha drinking beer. Katya was reading a book a few feet away, the children were playing some mysterious game in the birch trees at the end of the garden. The garden shimmered softly under the white northern sky. I wasn't sure what to say. The crust of bread was hallowed family myth. Perhaps because it was not an act of seduction, but of simple human charity. I didn't think I had anything to match up to that. In the end, I said that the best thing I had ever done was to drive to Koenigsberg with Katya in the summer of 1990. My father looked perplexed.
"You mean Kaliningrad?" he said.
Katya looked up and smiled. "No, Koenigsberg."
"But we didn't get there anyway," I added.
"Of course we did," she said.
Mystified, my father looked from one to the other of us, and we found ourselves telling him the whole story. Some of it he had trouble believing, and if he had been hearing it from me alone, I doubt he would have accepted it as the truth. But Katya was helping me tell the tale, so he went on listening trustfully.
They had always got on well, my father and Katya, and I suddenly wished she was here with him now. But it was too late. My father's life was almost over. For a few minutes longer, he went on breathing, each time more quietly. Once or twice, the breathing seemed to stop, and we glanced at each other questioningly, but then it started up again.
Finally, there was a last long expiration, and that was the end.