After Silence

Award Category
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
A Tolstoyan epic on love, war, death and the power of music. Staggeringly beautiful and unbearably poignant, After Silence is a tender and devastating story of human survival against the odds.
First 10 Pages


18 August 1941, mid-afternoon

Katya woke from nothing with her mouth closed on a gasp. This sudden coming back to herself, from something that wasn’t sleep: there were no words for it, uncoiling into her body, finding it already moving without her will. She saw her hand first, its five fingers as alien as an undersea creature, unrecognisable, pressed against flesh, red with blood. The feel of it, slick and hot, its unmistakable soft-firmness. Then her hearing, returning with a flood, and her own voice, mid-sentence: “…it’s all right, it’s all right.”

A hand landed on her shoulder and Katya turned. She didn’t know the face, but somehow associated it with wooden boards, open trucks and glances not met, a collection of independent impressions, clattering together like the shifting of stones, trodden on. The face spoke: “They’re coming back.” The eyes in the face were frantic, and the voice seemed to come from very far away, echoey and slowed down. They’re coming back. Katya’s heart shuddered at the words, but she couldn’t have said why. Arms gestured overhead, and something gleamed in the smoke-choked sky, a metallic wink.

Katya got to her feet. The shape at her feet was just a shape, not a body, not a child. Railway carriages lay on their sides, their timbers splintered, and she had a wild urge to laugh at them, as shattered and broken as toys. She coughed instead, and when she started she found she couldn’t stop, her throat ablaze with a rich copper tang. When she spat, she spat blood. Flames crawled up the side of the station building, languorous and unhurried. The noise was unimagined, people and machines grinding their gears together, the sound of the world heaving up its timbers and reforming in an utterly unfamiliar configuration. A plane flew low overhead, and in the pilot’s seat Katya glimpsed a face as pale and blank as a petal. A noise, then, like pebbles in a bucket, but these were not stones. The woman whom Katya did not recognise pulled her back, down, and between the carriages of the train. Dust rose from the ground in plumes. A boy of perhaps eleven ran past, stopped, and fell with abandon, his arms flung heavenward, doing nothing to break his fall. Katya considered fear and discarded it as useless. The ground was cold against her belly, and she rested her face on her blood-streaked hands.

After some time the sound stopped, and Katya got up. She saw the world in a series of still images, unconnected to one another. Broken glass, blood, bodies. Sounds meant nothing. Yet her feet moved, and she was driven by a nameless imperative. Mounting the steps of one of the few railway carriages left standing, she didn’t understand what she saw: a pile of thin, flimsy mattresses, a pair of women huddled on top. “Is it over?” the younger of the pair asked, wild-eyed. “Is it over? Is it over?” Katya didn’t know what she meant – this was all there was; how could it be over? – but she heard herself answer: “I don’t know. It’s gone quiet.”

The women moved. Katya could see that the younger one was shaking down every inch of her body, though her face was calm, aside from her darting eyes. The older one was cut badly on her forehead, the blood clotting in her eyebrow as she swiped at it viciously, seeming to take its incessant trickle as an affront. As they unstacked the mattresses, the children came into view: the smallest ones, four or five, their faces smeared and damp but well past tears now. They were so quiet, clinging onto a motley collection of items: a doll, a coat, a grease-stained package wrapped in brown paper and string, the last remnants of home.

“We should take them out of here,” the older woman said.

“We should,” said Katya. The voice that came out of her mouth sounded like the voice of a woman in control, someone who knew what she was doing. She was a vehicle driven by someone else.

“Is it safe?” the younger woman asked. Her voice trembled as much as her body, each syllable juddering into the next.

“We’re no safer here,” the older woman said. Her voice was firm.

“Smell that smoke! The carriage could go up in minutes.”

“The fields,” said Katya. As she spoke, an image of a field floated into her mind, warm brown and furrowed, the fecund smell of earth. It was as if she was understanding for the first time what a field was. The older woman nodded.

They each helped with the children: six of them, all around the same age, four boys and two girls. The older woman carried two, one slung on each hip with a grim sort of ease. Katya led two by the hand, trying to hurry them as much as possible while their small feet stumbled over the wrecked ground. One of the small girls was missing a shoe, her white sock grey with grime and puddling around a chubby ankle, and Katya got halfway through the thought her mother’s not going to be pleased about that before her mind jumped to another track. The shaky woman had the last two children by the hand, dark-haired boys with solemn faces who looked like twins, but as soon as the woman got onto the platform her legs went out from under her and she sank to the ground, as inevitable as a building subsiding. Looking around her, she seemed unable to get her breath. Her hands let go of the boys and went to cover her face.

“The children,” said Katya. Her voice was flat. The woman nodded, her face still hidden, but she didn’t move. Flanked on either side by a child, it was a tableau that Katya couldn’t make any sense of. She

had to look after the children, though, she knew that. Hitching the grubby-socked girl onto her hip, she held out her free hand to the small boys and they came to her, unquestioning. The woman still didn’t move, perhaps could not. With her full skirt billowing over her legs she looked like an amputee. Again, Katya had to swallow down a laugh.

The aeroplanes could still be heard in the distance; Katya could not tell whether they were approaching or departing. Neither could the woman with the cut head, and so they told the children, silent and biddable, to lie down in the ditch at the edge of the field until they were sure it was safe. She and the older woman kept watch, not speaking. There was something, now, tugging at the edge of Katya’s awareness, something that she was supposed to do, or supposed to be, an unscratchable itch, irritating and insistent. She didn’t have time to worry about it now. She had to keep the children safe. The older woman spread a blanket over the children, and for a moment Katya wondered why: the day was still warm, the sun spilling wastefully over the ground. Then she realised that the woman wasn’t trying to keep the children warm: she was trying to keep them hidden. The whine of an engine cut through the heavy air, and without thinking, both Katya and the older woman flung themselves into the ditch, putting their bodies between the children and the sky. Katya smelled the rich, heady scent of the soil. The sun was smooth on her back and she felt calm. Beneath her, a child moved, and a hand pushed its way into hers. “It’s all right, Nadya,” Katya said, through the dirt on her lips, “Mama’s here. You’re safe.”


A small girl with dimples like thumbprints. Her older sister, straight-backed and resolute. The feathery float of their hair. Katya’s children. Memory unspooling backwards, Katya’s heart leaped, twisted and

started to hammer. The planes didn’t matter now, nor these children curled up in the ditch, these strange, wrong children. The girls, her girls.

Katya got up, stumbled up the slope, and started to run.




8 September 1941

Wake up.

Katya opened her eyes. The air felt right this morning. It would be today; she was certain. The morning tasted good on her lips, and it had the right heft in her hands.If they were to come, she would have to be ready.

Every morning, the preparations that she had made for them the day before made her shake her head at her own stupidity. To think that she had thought the girls would want pelmeny, when it was obvious that they would be craving syrniki with jam! To think that she had set out their best dresses, when of

course they would be tired and cold and want nothing more than to be wrapped in their oldest, softest clothes! Yesterday’s foolishness always astounded her, but it didn’t matter. Today she would get it right; today they would come.

The rules were complex and they often changed. There were certain things that Katya was not allowed to do. She could not look at the photograph that hung on the wall, last summer near Vyborg, Nadya and Tanya water-slick and grinning, their hair so heavy with damp that it looked almost black. To look at it was to invite in a knife-blade of sorrow that made her gasp, even though there was certainly nothing to be sad about; to take down the picture would be worse. The streets of the city held numerous dangers, things that she had to ignore or avoid. The paper-pasted windows were one thing, the schools another. Children: she could not look a child in the face, and if alone she would cross the road for the sake of her own safety, to stop herself from shuddering to pieces – but mostly she was not alone; mostly she was with Lidiya or Elena, and worse than having to pass within arm’s length of a child was to open herself up to Lidiya’s questions.

Katya dressed quickly, but with care: a dress that Tanya had once said, off-hand, that she liked to see her mother wear. She pinned up her hair in a way that made it look thicker and fuller than it was, and set the kettle on the stove to boil for tea. As she waited, she checked again that all was as it should be, laid out with the precision of a museum. The girls’ clothes were ready for them. Katya had even searched out a favourite frock of Nadya’s, old and too small but a vivid green that Nadya had loved – it had been put aside to give to Elena for Masha, but that didn’t matter now; Katya was sure she could make it fit Nadya still. The food, too: Katya had never had much of an appetite, and in recent days had been eating less and less, subsisting on bread and oil and a little macaroni, so as to keep for the girls the foods that they liked best. There was talk of shortages already, but Katya had not seen any evidence in the shops, which still carried the same array of goods as before the war; it was all a fuss about nothing, anyhow, Yevgeny had said so, and Yevgeny was sure to know. Yevgeny would have – he would have –

“You ready?”

Lidiya. Katya was certain she had never spoken more than twenty words to her before, and most of those had just been standard, muttered greetings on the unfortunate occasions that they had met on the stairs. But these days, with two apartments empty now – the Tsvetkovs never having returned from their dacha, and old Ksenia Shirokova gone to join her daughter in Novosibirsk at the start of the war – those remaining in the building rattled around much more than they used to, and this seemed to mean rattling into one another, more often than not: Ilya Nikolayevich, upstairs; the Ignatiyevs across the hall from Katya, Elena moon-faced and anxious since Semyon had insisted on volunteering as soon as war was declared – and Lidiya, sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued, whose presence had always felt to Katya like sandpaper on the skin. This new – whatever it was, not quite intimacy, certainly not friendship, but something else, a binding together – it was unwarranted, unwanted, but creepingly welcome. Since the day that Katya had come back to the apartment, alone, Lidiya had been the one person who had never once asked, which meant that Katya had never once had to

say: either what she knew to be true, or what everyone else believed.

Instead, Lidiya knocked on her door every morning, sometimes with Elena, sometimes alone, not even waiting to be invited in now, putting her head inside and calling for Katya to come and queue for food. It still seemed like a game, the ration cards and the lines outside the shops – Nadya would enjoy the novelty of it, although Tanya would take it too seriously. Katya would have to be careful to keep her from worrying; after all, Tanya would be upset enough about –

That was another thing that wasn’t allowed. “You’re early this morning,” she said to Lidiya.

“The queues are getting longer.”

“I know. Just let me drink my tea first, all right?” Belatedly, Katya realised her rudeness; she was so unaccustomed to treating Lidiya as a guest. “Would you like a cup?”

Lidiya combined a nod and a shrug, economically implying that she didn’t much care either way. Katya poured a cup, passed the sugar, sipped her own tea. Lidiya’s was gone in two gulps, and, impatient, she drummed her fingers on the table, the careful soundlessness of it more irritating than the sound of tapping would have been.

“All right,” Katya said, relenting. There was half an inch of bitter, tepid liquid left in her cup. “Let’s go.”

The mood in the queue was close to jolly: almost all women, the occasional man looking shame-faced or defiant, daring anyone to question why he hadn’t signed up. Lidiya and Katya barely spoke; they had little enough to talk about, and most of the topics they would normally have covered were deemed off-limits by silent collusion. Instead, Katya listened to the talk that eddied around her. One woman imparted news from the Front, her air of self-importance telegraphing that most of what she said was invented. Another repeated the same story about a German spy that Katya had heard at least twice before, always having happened to the colleague or the cousin or the sister-in-law of the speaker. A third told her friend about how her neighbour had reappeared, just a week or two ago, blackened by soot, battered and exhausted, having made her way back from the Front by horse-cart and train and on foot, her nine-year-old son with her –

The girls would walk. Tanya would take Nadya by the hand and they would walk, they would stay far from the roads because they were scared, and at night they would sleep in ditches or under trees or in barns, burrowing under the dry, clean straw with its fresh, rural smell. Tanya knew enough about the movement of the sun that they would go in the right direction, and once they reached the edge of the city they would ask people, they would find their way, they would turn into the street and count their way to the building and they would mount the stairs. They would mount the stairs and they would knock on the door and their mother wouldn’t be there to meet them.

“I have to go.”

Lidiya frowned. “What? Don’t be stupid, we’re only five from the front.”

Katya had already stepped to one side, hoisting her handbag onto one shoulder. The woman behind her moved up into her place, with a jealous sidelong look. Pushing her ration card into Lidiya’s hand, Katya couldn’t quite meet Lidiya’s gaze.

“I’ll be at home. Pick up my ration for me, all right?”

“Are you ill? Do you need me to come with you?”

Right now – right now the girls were in the hallway, knocking on the locked door, sitting on the step to wait. Katya could see them, their knees grimy beneath their skirts, the set of Tanya’s jaw and the

querulous tremble of Nadya’s lower lip.

“I’m fine, I promise. Just – I’ll see you at home.”

As Katya walked, the hope pushed its way into her stomach, up her throat, clouding around her heart, making breathing difficult. She had never thought that incipient happiness would feel so much like

panic. She could not run: that was another rule. Instead, she pressed her handbag tight against her ribs, walking with a loping, stiff-legged stride that would have been comical in any other circumstance. Turn, turn again, and there was the corner. Perhaps they had not yet gone inside, perhaps she would see them on the street, still, with their dull gold hair above their pale dresses. But no: they must be indoors, then, mounting the stairs, or already waiting outside the apartment. Katya could not run, but the heels of her shoes knocked loudly on the steps and she looked up for the two fair heads peering over the banister. Her hand on the rail was damp with sweat, and her heart felt less like it was beating

than squeezing into a tighter and tighter ball inside her. She was so certain, she had been so certain that she could just about make out the shadows of the girls in the empty hall, their watery, insubstantial outlines, when the air-raid siren began its howl and wiped out everything but itself.


When Lidiya came home, Katya was so stiff with cold and stillness that she wasn’t sure she could stir from the step. Lidiya didn’t look surprised to find her sitting there; the advice was to stay in the hallway during raids, if you couldn’t make it to a shelter. Lidiya wasn’t to know that Katya hadn’t yet been inside her apartment.

“So, you’re all right,” Lidiya said, eschewing greetings. “Sorry I’ve been such an age. I was in the shelter near the Pioneer Palace and every time I went to move the bloody siren went off again. Well, you know.”

“I suppose it’s starting in earnest, now.” Katya didn’t care. During the raid fear had swept through her like a tide, more like something that was happening to her than something that she was feeling. Now she felt as brittle and hollow as sea-wrack.

“Not just that,” Lidiya said grimly. She extended a hand to Katya.

“Come up onto the roof.”

It was clear from the charred taste of the air that the city was ablaze, so the smoke, when Lidiya pointed to it, was not unexpected.

“What did they hit?” Katya asked. Lidiya snorted.

“Think about it, Katya! What’s over in that direction, and would burn easily?”

Katya thought, with all the dry detachment of a child working out an algebra puzzle – but when the answer came to her, she felt an unexpected chill in the pit of her stomach.

“The warehouses.”

Lidiya nodded. “That’s right. Badaev. They must have been aiming right for them, and now they’ll burn for days.”

Katya said nothing. They watched the clouds, heavy-bellied with sugar and grain and fat, the city’s stores going up in smoke. It could only have been her imagination, but at the back of her throat Katya

could taste a burnt, bitter sweetness.

II: 17 October 1941

Katya realised she had been foolish. Of course the girls wouldn’t come back into the city straight away. Of course someone in the countryside would have spotted two children roaming alone, and taken them in. Katya had heard, by now, of some of the children who had been on the evacuation trains, whose tongues had been tied and whose words had been stopped by the horror of what they had seen; they hadn’t been able to speak for weeks, not even able to pronounce their own names. It was a horrible thought, Tanya and Nadya silent and frightened, but it was less horrible than any alternative, and that made it true. If they had been with Yevgeny when it had happened, if they had seen, why wouldn’t the fear be so much that they couldn’t tell of it?

They could still come at any moment. Perhaps they had recovered enough to tell people where they belonged, or perhaps the family who had rescued them – Katya hoped they were kind, conjuring up a plump, rosy-cheeked peasant woman straight out of a fairy-tale – had become refugees themselves, trailing into the city. She still had to be ready, she still had to be prepared for them. It was becoming harder to go out of the apartment, because Katya never knew when she would be assailed with the certainty that now, right now, they were coming now. The more often that certainty was wrong, the more likely it was that the next time would be right. The queues were the worst, because that was when she had the least to distract her, and the most time to think.

It was cold for October, unsettlingly so, if Katya let herself take the time to consider it: the sort of cold that waited for you to open your mouth so that it could climb down your throat and settle inside you, making itself comfortable in the spaces between your ribs, the unplumbed depths of your lungs, the marrow of your bones.