The hat slips over my eyes. Serves me right for stealing it – but it's cold. Ice-cream headache cold, though I've not experienced such a thing since I was a child.
Lucky thing, coming across the hat. The red star caught my eye, catching the accents of the boy's blood on the snow. The pack of dogs had moved on, over the next rise, so I took the hat. It might have belonged to the boy, but he must have bartered for it at one of the soldiers' markets. Maybe in Yekaterinburg or further afield in one of the old garrison towns. Or perhaps it had been his grandfather's. It's mine now and I'm truly glad of it. I pull my coat tight around me. A woman gave it to me in exchange for a beet I had found in a wheelbarrow in Nizhny Tagil. I carried that beet for three days. A lesser man would have eaten it, I know.
The Urals rise before me. I am on the virtual border between Russia and Asia. There are no checkpoints here. My bones feel brittle, cold; as if all the calcium has turned to glass and the marrow to freezing snow. I look down at my boots and wonder if their symmetrical un-pair is leaving the Motherland via another point of the compass. Mother Russia, who would dare call it such now?
Ahead, on the up-slope, perhaps a kilometre away. I can see a ragged group of people. Cannibals, rievers at best. I clasp the bottle in my pocket. The green glass that had come from so far away: the message inside in a lost, arcane language. One the spies of my youth used to learn before postings to Berlin,Vienna and the place that used to be London. I do not take the bottle from my pocket as I have done many times in the past. The fingers of my gloves would freeze to the glass. Besides, I know the message in the bottle by heart. It has given me my only ambition. The thing that, perhaps, keeps me alive – or at least ensures I still have the desire to remain so. The toothless crone who gave me the bottle had been near to death herself. She claimed to have found it on a beach near Vladivostok. She might have been young when she found it, for Vladi has been as remote as the moon since the pipelines were stoppered for good.
I observe the rievers – or cannibals – whichever they might be, take shelter in a skeletal coppice on the hillside. This solitary feature of the landscape is in my two o'clock, a little less than a kilometre away now. I will take the chance; take my course as 12 o'clock. They will enjoy their shelter, or they will pursue. It is all one. I am heading for Lindisfarne, wherever that turns out to be.