St Petersburg, 1912
The tall, awkward-looking youth dropped the pack of possessions from his shoulder, and stared at the huge buildings and bustling streets. The sights and sounds of Petersburg were like some frightening apparition. The cabs and rattling trolleybuses seemed to be moving at twice the normal speed. He had never seen so many vibrant and purposeful people before, and flinched whenever anybody passed in close proximity. In comparison, he knew how ridiculous he looked in his hand-me-down suit, and with his long, straw-coloured hair poking out of the sides of his fur hat.
The youth turned to see a long-striding man with a gingery beard zigzagging his way through the crowds, waving his hands.
'You don't recognize me, do you?' he said on reaching him. 'I'm your uncle Gregor. Look how you've grown! I'll be damned. When I last saw you, you were knee-high to a grasshopper.'
Gregor wore an old workers' coat over some overalls. He was of similar height to his nephew, and had the same doll-like eyes, only his were of matching hues.
'What's wrong?' he asked. 'Cat got your tongue?' He laughed, and slapped Ivan on the shoulder so hard he almost fell over. 'Come on. We best get you settled in. You start work first thing tomorrow morning, so best rest up after your long journey.'
The main print-works building was a noisy and intimidating place. Paper thundered through the main press, rising and falling with uniform precision. The shelves holding the inks and printing plates rattled and shook. A harsh chemical smell stung the eyes. In each corner, huge piles of paper were stacked on palettes. Everything was so vast and clamouring, so different from the peaceful fields and wide open spaces of Kruzhlinin.
Feeling overawed, Ivan's first instinct was to reach out and grab his uncle's hand. Gregor seemed to sense this, and putting an arm around his shoulder, walked him across the shop-floor.
A wiry man in overalls came over to meet them.
'This is Volik,' Gregor said to Ivan.
Volik was in his late-twenties, and had dark eyes and a great mop of greasy black hair.
'So, this is our new apprentice, is it? Welcome aboard.' He stared hard at Ivan. 'You're a funny-looking creature, ain't you? Look at those eyes of his, Gregor. I bet the fine young ladies on the Nevsky Prospect will take a real shine to him. And if he don't work out here, we could always sell him on to the Petersburg Circus. They're always on the look out for those that are strange and freakish amongst us. I bet we could get a good price for him, that I do.'
Ivan shot his uncle a worried glance.
'Take no notice,' said Gregor. 'He's only teasing you.'
Two other men wearing similar overalls to Volik joined them.
'Here's Nikolai and Roman,' said Gregor. 'We're like one happy family here. You won't find a better bunch of lads in all of Petersburg.'
Nikolai was a bald, ruddy-faced compositor of forty, and Roman, a well-built machine-minder with cropped hair and colourful tattoos across his forearms. He seemed a little older than Nikolai, but it was hard to tell. He could have been anywhere between forty and sixty, and if he had stated either, no one would have thought to argue. All three shook Ivan by the hand. He was struck by the roughness of their cracked, ink-stained palms, and how incredibly tired they all looked.
'Right,' said Gregor. 'Remember to do exactly what we tell you. An apprentice's life is no bed of roses, that it ain't. It's hard graft. For six years you'll be working alongside us, day in, day out. Only then will you be able to call yourself a proper tradesman. And if we ever overthrow the exploiting classes, you'll be considered king of your own castle. This factory won't be owned by one fat cat of a boss like Slutsky anymore, it'll belong to all us workers.'