Dimitri was an English teacher’s dream. Intelligent, without being too clever, hard-working, and with a self-effacing humour that was very infectious. With Dimitri in the classroom, even crunching through tenses on a cold Moscow morning was painless.
His aptitude for comedy was apparent in the first lesson.
Teacher (me): “So, why have you come to learn English?”
Dimitri: “To escape from my wife!”
“No, seriously. Do you want to get a better job?”
“Yes. In England. And seriously escape from my wife!”
Whenever he talked about his wife — invariably causing the whole class to roar with laughter — we never thought that he might be lying. After all, why tell lies to a group of strangers in an English class?
He had a kindliness about him, and being in his early forties — the oldest student by far — he easily assumed the role of ‘father of the class’, encouraging others, invariably with a joke. But he had a serious side— A fount of witticisms, yes, but he never lost his focus.
He carried a brand new leather briefcase, was always smartly dressed with a tie and, if it wasn’t hot, an expensive black leather jacket. He was medium height and build, with dark hair, cut short and neat. His small round face was clean-shaven, not particularly good-looking. In all respects Dimitri was… average. Apart from his eyes. Their colour was brown. Not dark brown, or distinctive in any way, just muddy brown. But they had a mischievous twinkle that warmed you to him.
Although the eyes signalled a spark of comedy, they would never lead you to suspect deception. But I’m being unkind, ‘deception’ is not the right word. Not quite fair. ‘Half truth’. ‘Half truth’ is better.
The other thing his eyes had was a sense of control, a kind of quiet omnipotence that was so natural, so implicit, that I didn’t really notice it until it was missing.
I was teaching how to write a formal letter, such as a job application. I was fishing for examples of work experience from the students. I turned to Dimitri and asked, “So, what job do you do?” He paused. Or rather he froze. The omnipotence fractured.
“I... I... work in a bank.”
“And what do you do at the Bank?”
“I... I am a clerk.”
Dimitri was clearly uneasy. I had sprung the question on him, but this was more than surprise. I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable, so I did what any good teacher would do and diverted attention to another student. I thought nothing of it... until the following week.
A new student joined the class, Sasha. A young man in his early twenties.
He worked in a bank.
Sasha settled in well, and after his second lesson, he joined some of us for a drink. It had become our custom to go to a bar after class. Dimitri was not there, but it did not take long for the conversation to get round to the hilarity he had caused during the lesson. Sasha went to the bar to buy drinks, and I joined him to help pay.
“I love when he makes up the stories of his wife,” said Sasha.
“I think they’re true,” I said. “That’s what makes them so funny.”
“He is not married,” said Sasha. “His wife is dead. Three years ago, I think. He doesn’t know me, but my sister knows him. She lives in the same block.”
“Well, if he’s making it up, he must have his reasons,” I said, “Maybe he’s still grieving. Using other stories to cover-up the pain. It doesn’t really matter. He certainly brightens up the class. You’ll probably get on well with him. He works in a bank.”
“No, he doesn’t,” replied Sasha.
“That’s what he said.”
“I don’t think so. When I told him I worked in a bank, he asked me for dollar exchange rate. If he works in bank, he knows this.”
‘Using stories to cover-up pain.’ Even as I said the words, I don’t think I really believed them. Especially not when I pictured Dimitri’s quiet omnipotence. He wasn’t covering up pain. He was just covering up.
I put the issue aside. Who was I to judge? Besides, Dimitri ‘brightens up the class’. His covering up was remarkable, because his classroom dialogue was disarmingly open.
Teacher: “We are looking for examples of things that disappoint us. Dimitri?”
“When someone you love, someone you trust hurt you. Your father, your mother. It is like the knife in the heart. When the knife comes out, it still hurt, and you do not know if you will ever trust again.”
Teacher: “Thank you, Dimitri.”
He divulged feelings and opinions with total transparency. Always speaking with those kindly all-knowing eyes. More than some of the students could take. He often talked of trust, and broken trust. Brutally honest, but devoid of detail, especially concerning his current life — apart from references to his non existent wife. At times when he talked to the class, it seemed that he was primarily talking to me. As if he trusted me.
He began inviting me for coffee, meals — though never to his home. He cultivated our friendship. And I let him. Despite the evidence that he was lying, I felt that he was trustworthy.
One evening after class, some of the younger students wanted to go to a night-club rather than a bar. They swayed the consensus. Dimitri came. He positively enjoyed being cajoled by the younger females:
“Come on, Dimitri. You’re not as old as all that.”
“I bet you can teach us a thing or two on the dance floor.”
A dozen of us went to the night-club. But even this cohort of friends and acquaintances was no defence against what was to come.
The club was darkly lit, but shot through with beams of bright light which lit the smoky air starkly. The music was loud. I could feel it pulsing in my ribcage. After an hour, the dance floor began filling up. I was sitting with a few of my students when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Something that didn’t fit. As a school teacher, I had often dealt with playground incidents. On several occasions I’d intervened to break up fights. With experience you could tell when one was starting, even through a crowd of children. Sometimes you could step in before a blow was struck. You developed an instinct for discerning how the movements were different. That instinct was roused. Two men were standing in front of Dimitri. Their movements were different. They were immaculately dressed in grey suits, hand stitched, made of expensive looking material, the shiny kind. The close cut showed off their muscular physiques; their necks and knuckles spangled with gold. A chill of awareness came over me.
“Dimitri’s in trouble,” I said to the others. They looked in his direction. But they did nothing. Their inactivity made me think this was a joke. I had heard of Kiss-a-grams; maybe Dimitri was receiving a ‘Thug-a-gram’. Then one of the disco lights plucked out Dimitri’s face. It showed a mixture of courage, and terror. I looked at the others again. They were passive, not because it was a joke, but because they knew it was for real. Dimitri was looking hard at one of the men who flanked him. He spat out a word which even I could lip-read at 15 yards.
‘Nyet’ — ‘No’.
Then the beating began.
In an instant, one of them had grabbed Dimitri and was holding him from behind as the other delivered well-aimed punches to his torso. Dimitri undulated, taking each fist as if in slow-motion. I held the moment, spellbound, caught between fear and disbelief. I could just make out Dimitri’s cries above the night-club music. I didn’t know what was going on, or quite what to do. But I jumped up and rushed towards the violence. A solid arm stopped me. It was one of the night club bouncers. He didn’t say a word. His face said it all: ‘Don’t get involved.’
“If you don’t stop this,” I shouted, “I’ll get the police!”
Maybe he didn’t understand English. Maybe he didn’t care. He just stood in the way. All the bouncers were aware of the beating, just making sure no-one got involved.
“I said I’ll get the police!” A hand grabbed my shoulder and swivelled me round. I was now facing a man showing me his badge.
“Yar Paleetsiyar.” (I am the police.) “You are English?”
“Yes! What of it?”
“If you don’t like the life here, go home.”
I pleaded with the policeman, “What is going on!”
“You want something to do? Take your friend to a doctor.”
Dimitri was on the floor. The music was still playing. The two thugs were gone. I looked around. The policeman was gone too. I rushed over to Dimitri.
“Come on, Dimitri. Stay awake. We’re going to get you to a hospital.” Sasha and I helped him up. Carrying Dimitri between us, we stumbled to Sasha’s car, which was parked in the street. We carefully laid Dimitri on the back seat, and Sasha drove us to the hospital.
“Dimitri, what was all that about?” I asked. “Pachemoo? Why?”
He was obviously in great pain as he said word: “Avtoritet.”
“The authorities? What have you done wrong?”
“He means of the criminal authorities,” said Sasha.
“Yes,” said Sasha, “These days, you say the word ‘authority’ and everybody knows what you mean. That is why nobody stopped it.”
“But that policeman was involved.”
“It’s not unusual.”
I sighed. “Dimitri, why is a good man like you with the Mafia?”
Dimitri was having trouble breathing, but he persevered with his answer: “Four years ago. My wife need hospital. I need money. I borrow. The finance company belong to Mafia. And I cannot pay. My wife dies. And they force me to working for them. I have to collect money, from the shops, the small business.”
“That is not unusual either,” said Sasha. “So if the police arrest someone, they arrest him, and not Mafia.”
“So you do work for a kind of bank after all. I can see why they got you to do that. People trust you.”
A shadow of pain came across his face, but not from the beating. “I know,” said Dimitri. “I feel I betray that trust. So I told them, ‘No more.’ I told them I want to be free. So they beat me. They say I must continue or they kill me.”
“Kill you? But you’re just a money collector.”
“That is it,” said Sasha. “If the authorities cannot control a small collector, who can they control?”
For Dimitri, learning English wasn’t a hobby, or a chance for a better job. It was a lifeline — a way to escape and save himself.
I clasped Dimitri’s hand. I didn’t know what to say.
We got to the hospital and Dimitri was wheeled away on a stretcher. An hour later a doctor came to see us. Sasha translated: “Broken nose. Two broken things here.” He pointed to his ribs.
“You are English?” asked the doctor.
“I’m Dimitri’s English teacher. Sasha’s another student.”
“There may be problems with kidney and liver. So he stay here tonight.”
We came to see Dimitri the following day. But he wasn’t there. He hadn’t been discharged. He just went missing.
I got Sasha to take me to Dimitri’s flat. I left a note. I left several over the next few days.
I asked Sasha to fill in a ‘missing persons’ form at the police station. Nothing came of it.
I never saw Dimitri again.