The classroom door blew open and let in a blast of freezing cold air. Dasha, the teacher went to close it firmly and turned to her class.
'Winter has come early this year. we don't often get our first snowfall at the beginning of October .'
' Take out your English books . I want you to write an essay about why you like Winter.'
Marija couldn't help smiling and wanted to shout for joy. She was sitting in the front row and looked at the teacher expectantly.
' For us in Russia, Winter is probably the most significant and meaningful season. Our harsh Winters have protected us from invaders but also have been difficult to survive.
Nowadays life is easier in the large cities. We have ice-skating and lots of warm places to go. Our roads are kept clear and we can travel around. There are lots of festivities and events for us all to enjoy. I know many of you like to jump in the freezing waters and I hope you all know the best way to get warm again.'
Karina, sitting next to Marija nudged her and smothered a laugh.
There was a noise from the back of the classroom and some nervous giggling from the girls. Marija turned round and saw the new boy Petrov blowing kisses to her.
The teacher clapped her hands.
'I'm going to write some English words on the blackboard and I'd like you to include them in your story.'
Survival, soul ,desperation ,tradition,satisfying
The class groaned. Dasha grinned at them.
'Come on ,you're all really good at English and you've got important exams this year. Show me what you can do.'
Marija didn't need any encouragement, she loved Winter. Her pen flew across the page as she wrote quickly. Her immediate thought was to write about the beauty of the Russian soul. How she loved Russian literature. Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky. The anguish and passion of her nation was described in .poetic depth. For some reason though she didn't want to expose herself today. The new boy Petrov had looked at her yesterday in a way that had stirred unfamiliar feelings of excitement
It was her birthday today and her mother had made the traditional Russian cake used for special occasions. Napoleon cake. It was quite complicated and took her all day but the results were amazing and Marija could only describe it as a deeply satisfying cake.
Whenever she ate the rich, creamy dessert that had been made with so much love and care it uplifted her so much that she felt that it had nurtured her very soul. There, she had already used two of the words.
This year Marija was eighteen and her mother said they could have a special celebration with caviar and even a drop of vodka . At least with Anton away at work it would be just the two of them.
Sadly, the Napoleon cake also made Marija think of her grandfather and how much she missed him. He had taken the place of the father that she had never known. He used to tell her stories of his youth, years of sheer desperation. He told her about the siege of his beloved city and what a desperate fight for survival there had been. He told her that they had licked the glue off the wallpaper in their attempts to find nourishment. Once, when she was about six years old, Marija had smeared some of the cream from her birthday cake on the wall in her bedroom. She licked it off trying to imagine what her grandfather must have gone through.
There was more laughter from the back of the class and Dasha called Petrov to the front.
'Go and sit beside Marija and no more talking.'
Marija felt herself go red and had to bend her head over her book to avoid meeting Petrov's clear blue gaze. She checked her essay. She had used all the words. She just hadn't mentioned the real reasons why she loved Winter. There were two. Firstly that she could wear clothes that covered all her body and didn't show the tell tale bruising. Secondly that her mother's new man, Anton, worked all night making sure the streets were clear of snow and then slept all day. Marija's mother, Polina, seemed powerless to protect her daughter from the vicious blows and aggressive language that boomed round their small flat. She told Marija to be patient, that they were safer with a man to look after them now that grandfather had died and to try not to annoy him.
Dasha told them to stop writing .She looked at the pale, pretty girl in the front row and the tall burly young man next to her. Something stirred in Dasha's heart, she felt the age old feeling of attraction between two people and her heart rejoiced. she had heard the rumours about Marija's stepfather.
Dasha called Karina to the front and asked her to read her essay out loud. It was all about ice-skating and buying a new fur coat and not falling over on the icy pavements in her new high heel boots. Petrov caught Marija's eye and smiled broadly. He had such a kind friendly face that Marija couldn't look away and she smiled back.
After that it seemed natural to walk home together. Their words tumbled over in their eagerness to find out all they could about each other. They took the long way home past the frozen lake. Karina was pirouetting around and her mouth fell open when she saw them engrossed in intimate conversation. She collided into Feliks, her boyfriend and they both waved , calling Marija to join them. She shook her head and Petrov took her hand.
Petrov had come to live a few floors below Marija. His father was a doctor, an orthopaedic surgeon and he had come to work at the local hospital. As they neared their apartment block they saw a figure coming towards them. It was Anton, already awake and off to the bar before his evening shift.
Marija tensed with the fear that the sight of Anton's menacing presence always gave her.
'It's my stepfather, be careful.'
Petrov walked calmly up to Anton and held out his hand. He towered above Anton who seemed to shrink . Marija hadn't noticed how powerfully built Petrov was until then. She watched in amazement as Petrov whispered something in her stepfather's ear and slapped him playfully on the back. Anton smiled nervously and turned to Marija.
' Invite your friend in to try your birthday cake Marija. I'll see you tomorrow.'
He walked briskly on and Petrov laughed at the astonished look on her face.
'What did you say to him? What's happening.?'
Petrov put his arm round her.
'I just told him that if he ever wanted to come downstairs to our flat, to just knock on the door and we'd be happy to offer him a hot coffee. I would be delighted to come to have some of your birthday cake and maybe you'll let me take you dancing too.'
Petrov drew Marija towards him and kissed her lightly on the cheek. He had never believed in love at first sight until now. He was sure Anton would not cause any more harm to Marija. What Marija didn't know was that Patrov had whispered 'I know all about you and your bullying ways. Any more of that and you'll have to deal with me.'