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Authors: Stephan Collishaw

Amber

Stephan Collishaw
Amber

Antanas is a young Lithuanian conscripted to fight in the Soviet War in Afghanistan where he falls in love with a young Afghani nurse. She opens his eyes to the politics of the war, while making bearable the brutal reality of their situation – until her sudden death sends him spiralling into a breakdown and to a psychiatric hospital back home in Vilnius. Vassily, a war comrade, rescues him and teaches him his trade – crafting amber jewellery – helping Antanas to let go of the past.

But Vassily has a guilty secret – eight years later, on his deathbed, he cannot make a full confession, but charges Antanas with retrieving the priceless amber bracelet he smuggled out of Afghanistan during the war. After Antanas reluctantly agrees, he discovers not only that a dangerous rival is also searching for it, but also the terrible price Vassily paid for it. Only then can he truly make peace with the past and with his estranged wife.

Praise for
Amber

‘Collishaw's latest evokes Hemingway's war-torn landscapes with spare language and haunting imagery... a sensuous tale of survival... an intensely moving account of this war and the scars it has left.'
GOOD BOOK GUIDE

‘Gripping... A haunting and ultimately uplifting tale of love, friendship and betrayal.'
WATERSTONE'S BOOK QUARTERLY

‘Collishaw is impressive in his descriptions of war... The struggle of a man to return from such horrors and try to live as a loving husband and father is described by him in heartbreaking detail. This is a compulsive read.'
NOTTINGHAM EVENING POST

‘A tumultuous tale of friendship distorted by love, greed and the barbaric effects of war... the bittersweet love story at the core of this tale... really strikes the deepest chord... a captivating read.'
YORKSHIRE POST

For Marija

Prologue

‘Here's a tale,' Vassily said, his hand stroking his thick dark beard. ‘There was a trader from Egypt who had in his possession a beautiful jewel. He arrived at the court of Timor the Lame in Samarkand. Amir Timor was away in battle and so it was to his wife, the young queen, that the trader was introduced.

‘When the wife of the Amir Timor first laid eyes upon the jewel the Egyptian was carrying, she knew she must have it to present as a gift to her husband when he came home. The great Amir Timor was a ruthless soldier but he was also a lover of art and prized all things beautiful.

‘The trader, seeing the young queen, fell instantly in love with her. When she asked the price of the jewel, he told her she could purchase it with a kiss and that no other price could match its value.

‘The queen was distressed. She reasoned with the trader, but the young man was infatuated with her and would accept nothing else.

‘The queen brought him two eggs, one white and one brown. She laid them on the table before him and said, “On the outside these two eggs look different, but when you eat them they taste the same. So it is with women.”

‘But the trader brought her two glasses. In the one he poured water and in the other vodka. “They look the same,” he said, placing them before her, “but when I drink the vodka it sets fire to my soul. So it is when I look at you.”

‘The young queen was defeated by the trader's logic and allowed him to kiss her. His kiss, however, was so full of passion it burnt a mark on her cheek. When her husband returned home from battle the queen presented him with the jewel. But Amir Timor noticed the mark on her cheek and his wife was forced to explain.

‘Amir Timor flew into a violent rage. The Egyptian trader, hearing of his fury, jumped to his death from the top of a minaret.'

Vassily paused.

‘Sometimes, great beauty is a terrible thing.'

Chapter 1

Vassily was slumped in an armchair beneath a standard lamp, a blanket tucked around his thin legs. It was painful to look at him, to see the damage he had suffered. His strong figure had been ravaged. His beard, once so full and wild, hung limply on his chest. It was late in the evening and I knew he would be tired, that I should go soon. But when I tried to make my excuses, he laid one of his hands, still large, on my knee and prevented me.

‘I'm dying,' he said.

There was no hint of self-pity in his voice. He paused a moment and looked into my eyes. I struggled to find something to say, but no words came.

‘There is something you need to know,' he continued, ‘something I should have told you many years ago, but didn't.'

He paused again, watching me intently, trying to read, perhaps, the expression on my face.

‘Should have, but couldn't.

‘There was a bracelet,' he said, after a few moments.

‘I feel, perhaps, I should tell you this story in a spirit befitting legends and fairy tales…'

His breath came. unevenly. When he took the glass of water from the table beside him, his hand shook. Drawing the glass to his lips,he took a small sip, just enough to wet his mouth.

‘Once upon a time there was a bracelet. It was exquisite, with a history as glorious as it was beautiful. Ah, what a jewel that was, Antanas, comrade, more beautiful than anything you have seen. More beautiful than any of the jewels we have worked on through the years. And how did it fall into my hands, this bracelet? Because, after all, it was not something a poor bastard like me could ever have afforded. That is a story!'

I laughed softly. That is a story! How many times had I heard those words from his lips? Vassily was a great teller of tales. In the years we had known each other he had told me many stories and taught me all I knew about jewellery. But Vassily did not smile. He looked up at me ruefully and then turned his eyes away.

‘That is a story,' he whispered. He seemed about to say something more. His mouth worked but no words came out. He swallowed them back.

‘It was in Ghazis,' he said finally, his eyes darting away into the shadows, ‘the
kishlak
in the Hindu Kush. You remember it, yes? Of course you do. For so many years now we have avoided talking about that time – that place. But the time has come when we must, before it's too late.'

My scalp prickled. I had a sudden urge to stop him, to get up and say ‘Well, just look at the time', and ‘I mustn't tire you', and ‘Tomorrow I will come again', but Vassily continued.

‘It was just after midday. The air was thick with heat even there in the mountains, where, in the nights, it got so cold, so bone-crackingly cold. I was with Kirov and Kolya. We had slipped away from the unit, which was standing guard for the Agitprop Brigade, and disappeared into the narrow backstreets of the town. Kirov had arranged to meet a merchant there.'

The room felt suddenly hot, unbearably so, and the scent of death hung heavily in the air. I got up. Striding across to the window, I drew back the thin curtain. From the oblong of darkness my face gazed back at me, blurred, panicked.

‘Do you mind?' I said, but Vassily was not listening.

I opened the window a crack and inhaled deeply the cool night air. As I pressed my forehead against the sharp wooden edge of the window frame I felt it bite into my flesh. I pictured Ghazis. The heat, the noise, the whirl of figures, the squeal of music from the loudspeakers they had erected by the Agitprop Brigade‘s armoured personnel carrier.

‘The man we met in a dark corner of the market was one of · Kirov's informers, a dirty, repulsive-looking Tajik.' Vassily ran a hand across his face. His voice was muffled, as if it came from a great distance. ‘The hair did not grow on one side of his scalp and his ear seemed to have melted off his head. He had been caught in one of our raids a couple of years before.'

Closing the window, I turned back to Vassily.

‘It is late,' I forced myself to say. My voice was thin and shaky. I cleared my throat. ‘You're tired. I will come back tomorrow.' I attempted a smile.

The uneven flow of electricity caused the bulb in the standard lamp to flare up before it settled back down to a dim glow, barely illuminating a metre of the small room. Vassily looked up. His face was shrunken. His skin hung in dark folds. His eyes, which had once glowed with life, now gazed wearily into the distance. For a moment I thought he had not heard me.

‘Tomorrow I may be dead,' he said.

‘Don't be silly…'

‘The tale must be told, comrade. Sit down. For too 7 long I have kept this secret. For years I have hidden it deep in my heart. Buried it. But it has eaten me away from the inside.' His hand clutched his belly, where the cancer had almost done its work. ‘It has devoured me. Let me finish my story.'

I lowered myself back down into the chair opposite him. By my arm, on a low table, was a bottle of vodka, untouched. Vassily was unable to do more than wet the inside of his mouth without suffering discomfort now, and out of respect for him I had not opened it, despite his urging. I longed for a drink. Longed for the oblivion it offered.

‘The Tajik led us down a dark passage to a door in a courtyard. It was quiet in the courtyard and we followed Kirov through. My hands were trembling. It was quite possible we were being lured into a trap, that the mujahidin were inside waiting for us. The doorway led on to some steep stairs. Kirov had climbed them and stood at the top. I could hear low voices. He turned and called for me to come up – it was for me, after all, that this had been arranged.

‘At the top of the stairs was a large room. It was barely furnished; you know what their rooms were like. Hashim was there, by the window, looking out across the market. The windows were open and the noise of the market drifted in. The air was thick with dust, the stench of sweat, oily smoke and diesel fumes.'

Vassily eased himself forwards in his chair, the blanket slipping off his knees on to the floor. For one moment his eyes glowed again, as they used to.

‘We sat on the carpet and Hashim took out some pieces, some stones – nothing significant. I began to think it had been a wasted journey; began, even, to fear that it was a trick after all. And then he took out a 8 leather pouch and came over to me. He took my hand and shook the bracelet out on to my palm.

‘Let me describe it to you, Antanas, comrade, as first I saw it, held it in my youthful hand. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. The sun cut through the awnings, through the window of the room. The noise and the smell, the hustle and commotion, fell away. The jewel was of the most perfect, clear amber, and it glowed in the sunlight as if it were ablaze. It was oval, huge. Ah, but I'm holding back, I know.'

Vassily laughed. He was perspiring heavily and his hands shook as he held them before him, imagining perhaps the bracelet still in his hand.

‘I could describe the band, the intricate gold lacework that glittered as I drew it close to my eyes. Ha! I'm teasing you – myself – for the delight, what caught my breath, made me gasp, was inside the flaming oval of amber. The most beautiful specimens.

‘Hashim grinned as my mouth fell open, seeing them. He nodded as I turned the bracelet to examine them from the underside.'

He paused again and wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve. He was looking at me but I could see that his gaze was elsewhere, back in that room in eastern Afghanistan almost ten years before. His hand clenched into a fist, as if he were gripping the jewel.

‘The most beautiful specimens. Two beetles, perfectly preserved. Caught as the resin oozed from the bark of that ancient pine, millions of years ago. Fucking. Yes, caught for eternity, enshrined in their fiery temple, in the act of love.

‘The gold work was stunning, no doubt about it, but that was of little interest to me. It was those beetles. The bracelet. I had heard of it, had read of it years 9 before. Its history was not unknown to me. I could not believe what I held in my hands. You must understand this, Antanas, my comrade, you must understand the madness that possessed me when I saw it.'

He reached out and touched my knee. His gaze had returned to the present, but there was a haunted, almost tortured expression on his face.

‘It's OK, my friend, it's OK,' I reassured him.

‘You don't understand,' Vassily said, dropping back into his chair, looking suddenly exhausted. ‘And how could you? We have not spoken about those days.'

‘It's not important.‘

‘It is.' Vassily's face creased with anger. ‘I am a coward, and I have never been able to tell you. I loved you, you are my brother, I did not dare do anything that would…'

His voice trailed away. He reached for the glass and this time, as he took it, his hands shook so much the water spilt down the front of his shirt. I leant forward and steadied his hand.

‘When I returned home from Afghanistan,' he continued, ‘Kolya and Kirov were both in prison.' His eyes flicked up again, looking at me, full of remorse. ‘Everything had changed. Ghazis changed everything. I could not sell it after what had happened.' He hesitated. ‘I had arranged to meet our contact, who sold the jewellery we smuggled from Afghanistan, here in Vilnius. We were to meet in Vingis Park, at a concert celebrating independence. I could not do it. I buried the bracelet instead; buried it along with the past. I took you from the hospital and tried to forget about it all, but it never went away. It stayed here.' He thumped his chest. ‘Ghazis… Everything.'

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