It finally happened. What everyone dreads. The knock on the door in the middle of the night. Ivan stole from his bed and went to answer before the knocking could become insistent enough to wake his family, before the knocking became kicking and heaving and the door came crashing into the room.
“That’s him!” Ivan could see his weasel-faced neighbour behind the shoulders of the Cossacks. “That’s the one.”
Ivan rubbed his eyes – using both hands.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he tried to keep his voice steady, “Good evening, Gregor. What can I do for you at this ungodly hour?”
An imperceptible signal passed between the guards. Their broad shoulders were made wider by their bearskin cloaks; they seized Ivan, pulling him from his doorstep with rough-gloved hands.
“Ivan?” came a voice from behind him. An old woman, terrified, was halfway down the stairs, barely able to hold her candle still.
“Go back to bed, Mama,” Ivan hissed over his shoulder. “I’ll deal with these gentlemen and then I’ll bring you some tea.”
The Cossacks grunted in amusement at this idea. Where he was going there would be no tea.
They hustled him away to a covered cart and bundled him onto the back.
“Wait!” Gregor the weasel, Gregor the snitch, cried out.
Wordlessly, one of the Cossacks handed the informer a purse of coins.
“Why, Gregor?” Ivan clutched the bars across the back of the cart. “What did I ever do to you?”
Gregor spat on the ground. “Can’t be having the likes of you near my kids,” he said, his eyes flashing with hatred.
“What are you talking about? Only the other day, your Sasha was playing on this very spot. He threw me the ball and I threw it back. I don’t understand.”
“You might have fooled everybody around here,” Gregor sneered. “You might have fooled your own mother – that will be determined by interrogation. If it’s found that she was harbouring a – a –” He spat again.
“What have I done?” Ivan sobbed. “I thought we were neighbours. I thought we were friends.”
“To think, I almost fell for it: your clumsy ways, your terrible handwriting – but now, I know the truth and this neighbourhood will be a better place without your kind.”
Ivan’s face fell. There was no use pretending. After a lifetime of pretending, and covering up, and lying.
“When did you know?” he asked, as the Cossacks directed Gregor to stand aside.
“When you caught Sasha’s ball,” Gregor sounded triumphant. “You caught it, without thinking. You caught it with your left hand, Ivan. And you know that’s against the law.”