MIkhail and Alexey ~ Chapter 1: Don't Throw your Dream Away

Mikhail Galayev woke later than he intended in the narrow bed under the window of his small rented room. The day was cold and overcast and he felt no inclination to get out into the chill of an unheated apartment and dodge round the four other young men who between them shared the remaining two rooms in this basic three bedroom apartment. Their lodging — it didn’t feel like a home — was on the tenth floor of a brutal concrete tower block on the outskirts of St Petersburg. All five of them got moving at about the same time in the morning which created pressure in their tiny kitchen and put time spent in the bathroom at a premium for them all.

When Mikhail judged the bathroom was free he reluctantly got out of bed and hastily washed, shaved and combed his thick blond hair whilst hopping about to keep his bare feet off the cold black and white tiles. The bathroom was so uninviting in the morning that he preferred to take a shower at the theatre each day after rehearsal. The showers there were communal but at least the water was always piping hot and the water pressure was high. This morning he looked at himself critically in the bathroom mirror. His grey eyes seemed to have lost some of their sparkle and zest for life. His skin seemed very pale and his shoulders rather bony. He had the lithe build of a dancer and didn’t carry one ounce of fat but he needed to build muscle strength and he was grimly aware that he had lost rather than gained weight in recent months.

They all needed to be out of the apartment in good time to catch the tram into the city and they could never be sure that the lift was working. Many mornings it was necessary to take the narrow concrete stairs at a run. His four flat mates were dressed conservatively for office jobs and were already leaving the apartment as Mikhail pulled on casual wear for his journey to the Mariinsky Theatre where he had just joined the corps de ballet. There was the regular dance class starting promptly at 8.30 followed, after a short break, by rehearsals for the forthcoming production, the first in which Mikhail would have a small part. He had dreamed as a youngster of joining the famous Kirov Ballet which in recent years had reverted to its pre-soviet name of The Mariinsky Ballet. Now he was living his dream, but the actual reality was proving harder to cope with than he had imagined in his boyhood fantasies.

Mikhail wandered into the now empty kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee while he waited for an egg to boil. He cut a slice of black rye bread, trimming the crusts to make the stale loaf more palatable. By the time he'd finished his meagre breakfast he was already running late. He glanced into his capacious shoulder bag and noted the clean tee shirt on top of a pile of dancewear. He couldn’t remember what he'd packed the previous evening but there was no time to check. He was sure he must have put at least one of all the essentials into his bag. If he didn’t leave at once he would be late for class and then it wouldn’t matter whether he had all his gear or not if the formidable ballet director, Victor Nikolaevich Pavel, banished him to the bench for tardiness.

He left the apartment at a run and then waited impatiently as the lift made its slow descent, stopping at every floor as residents left the building for work. By the time he exited at street level he was just in time to see a packed tram draw away from the stop. At this distance from the city centre it would be a good ten minute wait for the next one, with the morning traffic congestion getting heavier all the time. Mikhail glanced with growing panic at his watch. He would be lucky now to arrive before 8.30 and that left no time at all to change and warm up before Victor began the morning class.

The Mariinsky Theatre expected high standards from all its artistes. Lateness wasn’t tolerated; it smacked of a less than professional attitude. There were a host of talented young dancers clamouring for a chance with the Mariinsky and the newest recruit could always be replaced. Surprised, after his final audition, to be offered of a place in the company, Mikhail was also delighted when Victor told him that he possessed a raw talent which, properly trained and channelled, could take him to the very top of his profession.

“But it will cost you, boy,” he said. “You will have to give this every ounce of your energy and commitment. No slacking, no shortcuts and, above all, total dedication to the traditions and standards of the Mariinsky. I expect you to give your all whether on the stage in the main auditorium or just in the practice hall doing warm ups, whether I am watching you or not.”

Mikhail recalled his words with trepidation as he finally jumped off his tram at the stop closest to the Mariinsky Theatre and dodged through the heavy morning traffic in Theatre Square to reach the stage door. There was no way now he would be on time for the morning dance class.

As Mikhail took a seat on the bench in the deserted male dressing room he began rummaging quickly through his shoulder bag for a full set of practice dancewear. He rapidly located a clean dance belt, a couple of pairs of canvas ballet shoes, an impressive number of vests and tops in varying states of cleanliness, a towel, toiletries and assorted jars and tubes of cream and lotion. But the essential item of clothing was missing. He hadn’t packed any footless tights despite the fact that he had numerous thick, dark pairs for practice sessions in his chest of drawers back at the apartment.

In desperation he tipped all the contents of his bag onto the floor for a last, thorough search which yielded nothing more than lost coins, food wrappers and screwed up paper handkerchiefs. He now had no alternative. Mikhail took the key to his personal locker and removed the fine, professional white tights for which he had only just been fitted in preparation for his debut, albeit a brief one, on the Mariinsky’s main stage. As he glanced at himself in the mirror he registered how well fitting these tights were. They made him look like a principal dancer and were clearly quite inappropriate for the youngest member of the company in a practice session.

Walking along the corridor he heard the piano which accompanied the dancers playing a lilting piece by Tchaikovsky, with frequent halts and reprises as Victor coached the company. Clearly the introductory session was long past and Mikhail was about to make an embarrassingly late appearance. He stood awkwardly at the side of the studio and then embarked on the mandatory warm ups which Victor required before any dancer began work. When Victor gave the dancers a short break Mikhail took the opportunity to walk quietly up to him and apologise for his late arrival. Victor accepted his apology with a curt nod and directed him to join the rest of the men who were about to run through a sequence while the girls took a breather.

As Mikhail took his accustomed place in the middle of the troupe he caught the eye of Alexey Baranov whom he'd known from childhood. It was strange to be back in class with the boy who had been his role model as well as his rival throughout their school days. Older, taller and heavier, Alexey always seemed to get the better of him, as well as outperform him, at the Kiev-Ukraine Ballet School which they had both attended from the age of eleven. Then Alexey had left to join the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, leaving the younger boy to complete his schooling back in the Ukraine.

Alexey had changed in their two years apart. His shoulders had broadened and his muscles were more clearly defined. Mikhail looked in admiration, and with some envy, at the rippling strength displayed in chest and thighs through the thin covering of Alexey’s black lycra unitard. And Mikhail was reminded with a jolt of his own inappropriate dancewear. All the other boys were wearing black or navy blue footless tights and some had added baggy legwarmers or were wearing loose fitting jumpers for warmth. Mikhail felt like he was about to go on stage as Prince Seigfried in Swan Lake! No wonder Alexey had looked askance at him. He must have interpreted this as an outright challenge, as though Mikhail were saying, ‘I’m the one destined to make principal dancer, not you’.

As Mikhail’s thoughts dwelt on the awkwardness of his situation his embarrassment turned to anger which blocked out all other perceptions and feelings. He followed the familiar movement of the dance without hearing anything Victor said. His attention was rapidly recaptured as Victor tapped smartly on his thigh with the cane which he always carried in rehearsal and used to reposition the arms and legs of the dancers.

“I asked you to look in the mirror, Mr Galayev. It should be immediately clear to someone of your talent that the angle of this leg is out of line,” and he tapped again with his cane to draw Mikhail’s attention to the problem. “You are in the corps de ballet now, not dancing the lead at some provincial ballet school. The Mariinsky is renowned for the uniformity of its movement,” and he gestured towards the motionless row of male dancers all holding their position.

Mikhail looked carefully at their reflection for the first time that morning and realised that he was indeed the one who marred the perfection of the line. He adjusted his position with an angry snort which Victor could not have missed. Mikhail didn’t care. He was convinced now that Victor was taunting him for coming to rehearsal dressed up as the leading man. It seemed that the joke hadn’t been missed by Alexey either; he was smiling or possibly even sneering at his old schoolmate. Mikhail knew he couldn’t take much more of this humiliation.

As the rehearsal continued, Mikhail was aware that he was the dancer who was most frequently corrected. He suspected that Victor was deliberately picking on him and he imagined that the other dancers were enjoying his discomfiture. His responses became increasingly surly and offhand although Victor continued to give quiet and firm instructions without apparently registering Mikhail’s insolence.

Finally, Victor called the class to attention. Mikhail stood still, seething with anger and imagining himself well away from the dance studio. He was only dimly aware of Victor’s voice calmly and precisely explaining a change he wanted to make in the sequence they were rehearsing. As the pianist began to play again Mikhail effortlessly returned to the practice, his feet and body moving without conscious effort into the well remembered steps of the dance. Except this time he now found himself moving in the opposite direction to the others and causing a minor pile up.

He became aware of Victor’s voice raised in uncharacteristic anger, followed by the sharp sting of his cane, never before used as more than a prompt, cutting across his thinly clad backside. The girls who had been chatting quietly on the bench at the side of the studio had fallen silent at the sound of Victor’s angry voice and the swish of the cane had shocked everyone in the room.

Mikhail turned on them all, moving rapidly out of Victor’s range as the pain from that single flick of the cane made him gasp. “What are you all looking at?” he screamed. “Haven’t you ever seen anyone being bullied in this studio before? You all think you’re so great here in St Petersburg. Don’t think I haven’t seen you laughing at the boy from the provinces. “ Turning to Victor, he shouted,” I don’t have to take this from you, you autocratic bastard,” and with that he ran out of the studio, back to the dressing room and hastily pulled on his outdoor wear.

Mikhail walked quickly away from the theatre without noticing where he was going. The streets were crowded with shoppers and tourists but he wove gracefully round them, keeping up a pace which was leaving him breathless. He was propelled by his anger, a seething fury that he had been reprimanded in front of the entire company. How dare Victor treat him like that! He couldn’t be expected to stand there and take a humiliating lecture in public, and certainly not the stinging smart of Victor’s cane across his buttocks. He had to get out of the theatre, he had to get away; he couldn’t bear the thought that Victor was angry with him and that Alexey had witnessed his humiliation.

The sheer physical effort of walking so fast was shutting out some of the clamour in his head but, as he slowed down on reaching the embankment, he became conscious of a weight in his heart which felt like a tight band round his chest. If walking out of the Mariinsky Theatre had been the only option open to him, why was he beginning to experience such despair? Letting his emotions rule him so completely, Mikhail always found it difficult to grasp the likely consequences of his actions, but this time there was no escaping the inevitable outcome. He sat down on a bench beside the massive equestrian statue of Peter the Great and, as his body relaxed after his frantic flight, his anger left him and the reality of the situation hit him full force: he had just walked away from the dream which he had struggled all his young life to achieve.

‘You idiot, Mikhail,’ the inner voice accused him. ‘Victor is the most respected ballet director in Russia. What possessed you to challenge him? He offered to make you a great dancer but your pride and arrogance meant you couldn’t accept correction!’

As he continued to examine his own motives, Mikhail began to suspect he had taken the coward’s way out.

‘You saw how angry Victor was,’ he said to himself, ‘and you feared the sting of his cane. You weren’t sure that you could take what you deserved with dignity in front of the other dancers.’

There seemed to be only one possible outcome and Mikhail faced it with a deepening sense of despair.

‘Well, now, this is the end of all your ambitions. You will never dance on the Mariinsky stage. You will never tour the great theatres and opera houses of Europe and America. You’ll have to go home to mama and grandpa and tell them what you’ve done.’

As cold reality hit Mikhail hard, hot tears ran untouched down his cheeks and dripped off his chin onto his tee shirt. He gazed at the striking bronze figure of Peter the Great mounted on his rearing horse and pointing towards the Neva River. Mikail had loved the stories about Peter the Great he had learnt at school and he knew that Peter had been a great Czar who had travelled widely throughout Europe. This much loved statue showed Peter gesturing towards countries beyond the sea. Through his tears Mikhail looked up at Peter the Great and imagined him pointing the way to Covent Garden, La Scala, The Metropolitan Opera House, La Fenice… and Mikhail knew he had to go back. He had to face Victor. He had to make clear that he would accept any reprimand and punishment if only he could be permitted to keep his place in the company. Please God he had not behaved so badly that Victor would refuse to take him back.

Brought up in the godless Soviet Union, Mikhail had, nonetheless, absorbed some of his mother’s and grandfather’s Christian inheritance. He was not a regular worshipper at the newly reinstated Orthodox services but the great golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral caught his attention as he turned away from the river, intent on walking back to the theatre. He was conscious of the fear gripping his heart as he thought of Victor and the events of the morning. He wasn’t even sure he had the courage to walk back into the theatre and make his apologies to Victor and to all the dancers whom he had insulted. And he seriously doubted whether he would have the courage to stand still and take the sting of Victor’s cane, although he fearfully acknowledged to himself that he deserved nothing less. Perhaps he could enlist a little divine assistance.

Coach loads of tourists were pouring into St Isaac’s Cathedral and Mikhail attached himself to one group, his awestruck gaze following theirs upwards to the elaborately painted walls and gilded ceiling. He couldn’t remember the last time he had entered this impressive building, although the golden dome was such a landmark on the St Petersburg skyline. Detaching himself from the tour group who were listening to their English speaking guide, Mikhail searched for the side chapel which was available for private prayer.

Following the lead of the devout old ladies, as well as a surprising number of young people, he approached the icon displayed for veneration by the faithful and he kissed the sacred image, imploring the saint to intercede for him and help him heal the breach with Victor Pavel. He then lit a candle and, as he watched the golden, glowing flame, he realised his heartbeat and breathing were slowing as he calmed down in the quiet, prayerful atmosphere of the chapel. Unsure whether there was a God who was listening to his requests, Mikhail said a final prayer of thanks, just to be on the safe side, and asked once again for the courage to return to the theatre, with the heartfelt plea that he would be allowed to remain a member of the Mariinsky Company. He crossed himself reverently before leaving the chapel and then walked with greater confidence towards the great doors of the cathedral and the route back to Theatre Square.

As he re-entered the theatre through the stage door, Mikhail realised that the dancers who had witnessed his aberration in the morning had all gone home. He breathed a sigh of relief as he realised how very much he did not want Alexey to witness his coming ordeal. However, he could still hear Victor’s voice in the dance studio as he worked with a group of talented children who came to the Mariinsky Theatre after school one day a week. Mikhail went past the practice rooms to his locker to collect his dancewear and changed into a clean vest, his one white pair of tights, leg warmers and ballet shoes, getting himself ready as if for a practice session. He then sat down on the bench and dropped his head into his hands, breathing deeply as he gathered his courage before standing up and walking purposefully back towards the dance studio.

As the door to the studio swung closed, Victor glanced up for a second and registered Mikhail’s arrival but he continued teaching the youngsters and did not respond by word or action to his presence. Mikhail moved to the side of the room and stood in first position, his feet at a perfect one hundred and eighty degree angle, his hands gracefully curved in front of his body, thumb and middle finger of each hand bent towards one another but not touching. He checked his stance from all angles in the wall mirrors which surrounded the studio and then bowed his head in a gesture which he hoped Victor would interpret as one of penitence and submission. It was the best that Mikhail could think of doing. He couldn’t interrupt the lesson and he could stand for as long as necessary in this position with which he began all his ballet warm ups.

Twenty minutes later, as Victor congratulated the children on how hard they'd worked in the afternoon class and dismissed them to the changing rooms, Mikhail revised his opinion on how easy it would be to remain standing immobile in first position. The muscles of his legs were screaming for release, his arms were beginning to cramp and he could feel a crick in his neck from the length of time he'd spent with his head bowed. Now, as the time had come to say the words of apology he had formulated on his walk back from St Isaac’s Cathedral, and practised in his head as he stood motionless, Mikhail’s nerve failed him and he was afraid to move.

Victor took the initiative from him by stating in firm and resolute terms, “Come here”.

Mikhail’s legs took over from his brain and propelled him across the wooden floor of the dance studio to where Victor stood beside the piano.

“Do you want to tell me what you were doing this morning?” Victor asked.

Mikhail stifled a crazy temptation to respond in the negative. Instead he tried desperately to remember the opening sentence of his prepared apology. The words weren’t there. His brain had shut down and the familiar panic and desperate desire to run were beginning to overtake him yet again. He closed his eyes and tried to recapture the sensation of calm he had experienced in the cathedral. Although his breathing was still coming in shallow gasps the memory of his prayer stabilised him a little, just enough for him to begin thinking and speaking. The prepared words were gone but fresh language poured straight from his heart.

“I behaved dreadfully this morning and I’m so sorry. I was embarrassed at arriving late and I was embarrassed about…” he paused, unable to explain the stupid mistake he'd made that morning over his dancewear. “I couldn’t concentrate and every error I made left me feeling even more upset. I wasn’t listening to your instructions and when you corrected me I just got angry with you. I feared you would punish me for that outburst. I was afraid… afraid that you might… that you were going to… to cane me in front of the rest of them. I couldn’t have borne that. I just ran away before I even thought how much the Mariinsky means to me. This is where I’ve wanted to be all my life. I beg you not to throw me out of the company. I’ll accept any punishment you impose and I know that I must apologise to the whole company.”

Mikhail stumbled to a stop in a flood of embarrassment and self recrimination. His eyes had filled with tears but he lowered his head as he was ashamed to make eye contact with Victor and he didn't want Victor to see him struggling not to cry. He was surprised to feel Victor’s hands on his shoulders moving him firmly but gently towards the long piano stool and pulling him down so that they could sit side by side.

“Thank you for acknowledging that your behaviour was disgraceful. I do appreciate that it took courage to come back here and say that to me. Whatever we decide will be an appropriate punishment, I give you my word now that you have not lost your place in the Mariinsky Company. You have the talent to be a great dancer but you need to learn self discipline and you must be prepared to accept guidance, training and criticism. If you can’t do that then you will achieve nothing.”

Somehow it was easier to talk to Victor when sitting beside him rather than standing up and facing him. Mikhail breathed a heartfelt, “Thank you,” followed by a mumbled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I know I have a lot to learn and I can take criticism; really, I can”.

“It will soon become apparent whether or not that claim is true. I intend to work you very hard and you have a number of faults and bad habits which need to be ironed out. Now, about this morning,” Victor’s tone assumed a much firmer and more decisive tone. “I have never had a dancer refuse outright to accept my criticism and then insult me in front of the entire company”.

“I wasn’t… I didn’t mean… I wasn’t intending…” Mikhail stammered and then faltered as Victor turned towards him with a look that very effectively silenced him. There really was nothing he could say in his defence and they both knew it.

“You feared I would cane you for your insolence,” Victor continued, ignoring Mikhail’s interruption, “but I have never used this cane to administer a punishment. It’s a teaching aid. A tap on the leg is all a dancer requires to correct a position, a sharper sting occasionally for carelessness or forgetfulness. That’s the traditional use of the cane in the Russian ballet, going right back to the time of Diaghilev. I would never have publicly humiliated you.”

Mikhail breathed a sigh of relief which was short lived as Victor continued, “However, we are now alone and on this occasion only I think it is appropriate to use this cane to punish conduct which, as you recognise yourself, was nothing short of disgraceful, an insult not just to me but to the great tradition of the Ballet Russe. Are you willing to accept a caning from me?”

Mikhail froze. He could not bring himself to reply in the affirmative but he feared the consequences if he refused.

Victor seemed to appreciate the nature of his internal conflict. He continued kindly but firmly, “I promised that you wouldn’t lose your place in the company and that remains true whatever you decide. We can discuss an alternative punishment if you wish. But I think a caning is what you deserve, and what you need right now. Yes or no?”

There was a long silence during which Mikhail seemed to be genuinely thinking through the implications of the choice he'd been offered. Victor waited patiently while Mikhail struggled with his apprehension and faced up to his guilt. He had expected this penalty and, in his heart of hearts, he knew it would heal the breach between the two of them. Finally he summoned up his courage and replied.

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you. In a moment I will ask you to walk to the barre, lower your tights, grip the barre firmly and then bend over. You will receive ten strokes of this cane.”

With that Victor stood up and collected the familiar rattan cane from the top of the piano, holding a hand out to Mikhail to guide him to the mirrored wall with its wooden ballet barre which ran all around the edge of the room. Mikhail gasped with shock as the full implication of Victor’s words hit home but he let himself be led to the barre where he stood for a full minute looking vacantly at his own reflection in the full length mirror as he gathered the courage to pull down his tights. Eventually he tucked his thumbs under the rolled waistband of his dancewear and slowly pulled the tight fitting, stretch fabric over his hips and down to his knees.

Wearing only a dance belt, Mikhail’s buttocks were fully exposed. As he bent forward his face flushed a deep red with embarrassment as he caught a glimpse of his nakedness from every angle in the full length mirrors. He felt Victor’s hand on his hip pulling him further from the barre as he reached out to grasp it firmly with both hands. The effect was to bend him at a perfect ninety degree angle and to present his buttocks well aligned for the cane. Victor’s foot gently pushed against the inside of Mikhail’s canvas ballet shoes, encouraging him to spread his legs as wide as the stretch tights would allow. Mikhail glanced once again at his reflection in this humiliating position and realised with further shame that the thin, flesh coloured dance belt hardly preserved the decencies when viewed from behind.

He did not have long to worry about his appearance though. He soon heard the swish of the cane as Victor swung, followed by a thwack as it bent round the central curve of his backside. There was just a millisecond as Mikhail mentally counted one before the burning agony fully registered. He was still struggling to catch his breath as the second stripe landed, just below the first, and this time the pain exploded across his buttocks with an accompanying flash of white light across his tightly closed eyelids. Dear God, he wasn’t going to be able to take this. Even as that thought crossed his mind he began to pray, “God help me, God help me, please, please, help me get through this,” and he felt his panic diminish somewhat.

Swish… thwip; the cane marked a third line lower still, just where Mikhail took his weight when sitting. For a man who claimed not to use this cane for punishment, Victor had an accomplished technique and a remarkably straight eye. Mikhail realised that getting to the end of his punishment would only be the first challenge; coping with the aftermath of this caning would be an altogether separate problem. He adjusted his grip on the barre with hands that were becoming slippery with sweat. As he counted the fourth and fifth strokes in his head, Mikhail began to anticipate Victor’s timing and his breathing came in gasps as he tried to contain the pain without crying out.

By the sixth stroke, Mikhail’s determination to take his punishment in silence was pushed beyond endurance. As the cane caught the sensitive skin in the crease at the top of his thighs, he yelped in agony and shifted his weight from one foot to the other in a vain attempt to lessen the sting. His movements didn’t help one bit but Victor’s warm hand fell gently in the small of his back and rubbed wide circles throughout a short break in the punishment and that helped a lot. Nothing was said, but the unspoken sympathy and support gave Mikhail the confidence that he would get through the ordeal.

As Victor removed his hand, Mikhail braced his arms and legs, locking them in position, but he could not prevent himself from yelling in pain as the next two strokes fell in quick succession. Swish… thwap; as the ninth stroke fell his determination to endure this punishment with his dignity intact finally failed him. His slippery hands lost their grip on the barre and he instinctively reached behind to rub his flaming cheeks. At the same time his body reared upright and his eyes, though blurred with tears, caught the reflection of Alexey standing motionless with one hand still on the studio door and gazing with shock at the red and purple stripes across Mikhail’s bottom.

Despite the searing agony in his backside, Mikhail was conscious of an even worse constriction in his heart. Alexey, who had laughed when he got into trouble at school, who despised him for his lack of self control, who doubted his talent as a dancer, Alexey had watched as he was bent over the barre and caned! Mikhail felt that his heart would break with despair that Alexey, of all people, had witnessed his punishment. Now everyone would know and would laugh at him. And Alexey would tell at home and mama and grandpa would hear of it. Oh dear God! He no longer cared for the physical pain and bent wearily back to the barre with a whispered, “Sorry,” and took the final, hardest stroke of all without a murmur.

Victor stepped back to the piano and dropped the cane onto the polished wooden lid with a loud clatter. Turning, he walked rapidly to Mikhail’s side and lifted him with strong hands under his chest. Then, with immense care he rolled Mikhail’s tights back up to his waist. Mikhail was no longer bothered about the tears that were coursing down his cheeks or his breathing which was hitching in silent sobs but, as Victor turned his dark eyes to gaze intently on him, his attention was captured without falter.

“I told you it took courage to return and face me. It took far more courage to accept that punishment voluntarily,” Victor said with sincerity. “Well done! The matter is now closed. As far as I am concerned your conduct this morning will be totally forgotten once you have apologised to the company before class in the morning. Don’t worry about it overnight either, one simple sentence will do and I will help and support you when the time comes. And no-one will know what happened here this afternoon, I assure you. Yes, it will hurt to dance tomorrow and for some days afterwards but a dancer learns to manage pain and smile for the audience. It will be just one more hard lesson on your career path. Go home now and get some rest.”

Mikhail inclined his head in acknowledgement. He couldn’t manage any words and clearly Victor was unaware of the unexpected visitor who had witnessed proceedings. He turned slowly and stiffly to walk back to the communal dressing room. He had to change before catching the tram back to his lonely room in the grim, soviet built apartment block where he lived. His only hope now was that he would not have to face Alexey that afternoon. All his reserves of energy and courage were used up. He could cope with nothing more.

As he pushed open the door of the male dressing room his worst fear was realised. Alexey stood in the centre of the room and appeared to be waiting for him. Mikhail dragged his eyes upwards to Alexey’s face expecting to see a sneer or even a laugh. Instead the dark eyes held immense sympathy and his arms opened wide in an enveloping hug of concern. Crushed in arms which held him tightly, unable to struggle free, Mikhail’s resistance suddenly crumbled and his silent sobs erupted into loud, choking tears. He was beyond caring that he was making an exhibition of himself in front of the one man whom he thought despised him. He just reacted to the physical comfort of those strong arms and cried out all his shame, confusion and despair. Alexey never let go of him but moved him gently to the bench and sat holding him and quietly comforting him with childish words of affection until his grief had run its course.

Then embarrassment set in but Alexey changed his tone to brisk, neutral instructions which Mikhail responded to with instinctive obedience. He took the proffered handkerchief, blew his nose and wiped his eyes and wet cheeks. The sheer commonplace task of opening his locker and collecting his clothes took the awkwardness out of the situation although Mikhail hesitated when it came to removing his tights. Instead of looking tactfully the other way, Alexey ran his fingertips over Mikhail’s burning backside.

“Well, you got what was coming to you there! There’s no doubt that Victor has not lost his touch. As straight and as evenly spaced as I remember. You will carry those marks for a good few days but he hasn’t broken the skin at all.”

Mikhail missed the significance of Alexey’s initial comments, focusing only on his own surprise that he wasn’t bleeding. He ran his fingertips lightly across his bottom, feeling the raised lines of the welts. He then double checked his fingertips for any signs of blood before twisting right round to see the damage for himself at close quarters. The separate strokes were clearly visible. Alexey glanced back at the mirror and found himself silently counting again from one to ten. He pulled one cheek sideways with his hand and noticed how the bruising was beginning to turn each stripe a deep purple.

“Come on. Stop admiring Victor’s handiwork.” Affection mingled with laughter in Alexey’s voice. “Let’s get you dressed and then you’re coming home with me. You look exhausted and the last thing you need is a long tram journey out of the city. I have an apartment in one of the old buildings near the theatre. We can walk home and you can be comfortable in no time. No, I’m taking no argument from you”, he added, as Mikhail started to insist that he could manage the journey home and would be fine on his own. “You’re not going to spend the evening brooding and working yourself into a state. You need to be on good form to face the company tomorrow and you are going to do it gracefully and with your head held high. Now come on.”

Too tired to protest, Mikhail finished dressing, gathered up his things and followed Mikhail to the stage door and down the road towards St Isaac’s Square. This was a beautiful residential part of old St Petersburg where the nineteenth century buildings reflected the traditional lifestyle of the historic city. Vast drainpipes ran down the outside of the buildings, designed to sluice huge quantities of melt water directly onto the pavement as the winter snows receded. That day, however, the pavements were dry and soon Mikhail found himself following Alexey through a communal entrance up a dark stone staircase to the third floor door into Alexey’s apartment.

Once inside, Mikhail gasped in amazement at the size of the entrance hall with its high plastered ceiling. He copied Alexey’s lead, hanging his jacket and bag on one of the coat hooks and heeling off his outdoor shoes. As he was led into the main room he gravitated immediately to the tall sash windows with a breathtaking view across the Neva River, the golden spire of the cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress just visible in the distance. Alexey’s hands on his shoulders propelled him onwards without comment into the guest bedroom. Clean soft towels were pressed into his hands and he was instructed to take a shower, with an invitation to help himself to any toiletries he needed.

The shower was a huge chrome affair mounted over the bath and looked as though it must be contemporary with the building. Despite Mikhail’s reservations, however, the water was steaming hot and gushed over his body with a force sufficient to relax the tense muscles of his neck and shoulders. He kept his sore bottom out of the full flow of the hot water and finally turned down the temperature to run cooler water over his stinging welts. Drying off with care, Mikhail began to wonder what he should do next. He wrapped a dry towel round his waist and walked back into the guest bedroom where he saw that Alexey had laid out a clean tee shirt and boxers on the bed for him. He put them on thankfully, finding that although they were a bit too big for him, they were loose and warm and would be comfortable to sleep in.

At that point Alexey called him and, following the direction of the voice, he entered a large kitchen where Alexey was just lifting a pan of steaming soup onto the granite work surface. Gesturing to the place laid for Mikhail at the kitchen table, in front of a chair thoughtfully provided with a thick cushion. Alexey ladled out a bowl of bortch, the traditional beetroot soup which looked and smelt just like the soup his mother made. Ready to formulate polite words about not being hungry he changed his mind as he responded to the appetizing smell. It was clear too, from the look that Alexey gave him, that he had anticipated a refusal and was not going to allow his house guest to go to bed without eating. A thick slice of dark rye bread was put beside his soup bowl and Mikhail began to eat with relish as he realised that he'd had nothing since his very meagre breakfast that morning. Alexey sat down opposite him in companionable silence although he just drank a cup of coffee and then made a cup for Mikhail when he finished his soup and bread.

“Right, let’s get you to bed.”

Mikhail glanced at the clock. It was still early evening but Alexey had interpreted correctly Mikhail’s silence, drooping blonde head and grey, tired eyes. He was physically and emotionally wrung out and was in no mood to argue with the man who had rescued him this evening. Like all residents of St Petersburg he was used to sleeping through white nights when, in this northerly latitude, the sun never fully set in the summer months. The light which permeated through and round the curtains which Alexey drew in the bedroom did not bother him. He crawled gratefully under the covers which Alexey drew back for him and smiled as he was tucked in just as his mother still did for him when he returned to their cramped old flat, sleeping in the bedroom which he still had to share with grandpa. By comparison, Alexey’s flat was enormous and the bed was the most comfortable he had ever slept in, although he soon decided that his backside would feel less sore if he rolled over onto his stomach. Within minutes he was asleep.

The sound of the shower splashing in the big old bathroom adjoining the guest bedroom woke Mikhail early the next morning. He waited until he heard Alexey head for the kitchen and then got gingerly out of bed and headed into the bathroom to relieve himself, wash and shave. He dressed swiftly in the clothes he had worn the previous day. The soreness in his backside had diminished somewhat but it provided a constant reminder of his shameful conduct at the theatre and what would be required of him that morning to wipe the slate clean.

Mikhail was never good at facing up to the consequences of his actions and as he began to contemplate the prospect of making a public apology he felt his temper rising. Somewhere at the back of his brain, he knew this was an inappropriate reaction. There was no one to blame for his present predicament but himself. However, this did not prevent him getting angry at Victor for requiring an apology and angry at Alexey for imagined provocation the previous day. He conveniently blocked out the kindness and care that both men had shown him on many occasions. He even managed to ignore the fact that he was currently a guest in Alexey’s apartment.

Called to the kitchen for breakfast he refused everything offered except the buttermilk which reminded him of the breakfast he always enjoyed at home with mama and then, because Alexey insisted that he take something solid, he cut some thin slices of cheese and spread them on a slice of soft rye bread.

“Did you sleep well?” asked Alexey, breaking the uncomfortable silence as he got up to clear the table.

“Yes, thank you," responded Mikhail and then, aware that his response was less than generous, added, “The bed was wonderfully comfortable. I slept like the dead all night.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have believed it. You seem very out of sorts this morning.”

Mikhail glanced irritably at Alexey but his glance was returned with an intense stare which seemed to look into the depths of his soul. His attempt to break eye contact was thwarted by Alexey who placed a firm hand under his chin and turned his face back to look straight into his own. “Now tell me what your problem is this morning,” he said firmly and without the slightest expectation that Mikhail would refuse to respond.

Mikhail struggled briefly with the temptation to invent some social lie and then gave in to the implacable demand from those brown eyes which left no space for evasion. “I’m afraid of facing the company this morning. Victor is going to make me apologise to you all, and I know I must say sorry to him publicly too. I just… I don’t know what to say, and even if I work out the words now I don’t know whether I’ll be able to say them in front of everyone. I’ve been feeling sick at the thought since I woke up. That is… that’s why I said I wasn’t hungry. I really didn’t think I could swallow anything.”

Mikhail hung his head in shame and didn’t see Alexey stretch his arms out until they closed comfortingly around his body. “Thank you for telling me the truth, Mikhail. Now I know how you’re feeling I can help you get over this. Let’s take some time to plan what you’re going to say and I'll talk to Victor when we get to the theatre and make sure we get your apology over and out the way before class starts. Then you can concentrate on giving your best for our ever demanding ballet director!”

“Victor said it only needed to be a sentence and that he would help me when I had to speak to everyone.”

“There you are then. You’re getting yourself worked up when there’s no need for it. No one is going to hold this against you. We all make mistakes. What you need to do is learn from this mistake, put things right and then move on.”

The two of them sat together at the kitchen table for a further fifteen minutes working out what Mikhail was going to say to Victor and the Mariinsky Company. Alexey didn’t coach him. Instead he asked a number of very challenging questions. Uncharacteristically, Mikhail forced himself to face reality and not to give way to anger. By the time he had responded to each query, sometimes in shamefaced mumbling to Alexey and sometimes, when it was clear a spoken answer was not called for, in the depths of his own heart, he not only knew what he had to say, he was also anxious to put things right with his colleagues and make clear just how much he regretted his rash words and actions.

Mikhail should have been feeling better but two remaining worries hung heavily on his heart. Alexey took in his drooping shoulders and surmised that all his difficulties had not been addressed. He gently prompted Mikhail to bring any further concerns into the open. Averting his gaze Mikhail finally plucked up the courage to ask in one rushed sentence, “Please, please don’t tell anyone that Victor caned me yesterday.”

Alexey’s arms closed round him again in a further hug of reassurance and support. “Of course not, Mikhail. I know how it feels to be punished like that and I know I would have hated it becoming public knowledge. You have my solemn word that not only will I never speak of it to anyone else, I will never raise it again with you.” Mikhail impulsively threw his arms round Alexey’s neck and then to cover what he believed to be an unwelcome overreaction he walked hurriedly into the entrance hall to recover his bag and deal with the second of his worries.

This time he could see there was a simple solution if he asked outright for the loan of clean dancewear for today. Although Alexey was taller and more muscular than he was, dancewear was so stretchy that Mikhail was sure he would look fine in a pair of borrowed tights and a tee shirt or in one of Alexey’s unitards. There would be no need to explain why he was so upset yesterday in his inappropriate dress and how anger at his own careless packing had been transferred to Victor, Alexey, and the other dancers.

Alexey reacted just as expected when asked to help out. He cheerfully took Mikhail into his large and stylish bedroom and opened drawers filled with carefully folded and sorted items of dancewear, pulling out a set of every item required and brushing off Mikhail’s sincere promise that it would all be returned washed and folded exactly as he received it.

By now it was time to depart for the theatre. Both men ran a final check through their packed bags, then Alexey locked the apartment and they began the short walk to the theatre in silence, each of them immersed in thought. The merry chatter in the men’s dressing room quietened a little as they entered and, although no comments were made, it did not escape notice that the two men had arrived together and that Alexey was clearly staying close to Mikhail and protecting him as they both changed for class. He only left his side for a few minutes while he went to have a quiet word with Victor before class started, and nobody spoke to Mikhail during his absence.

By the time they entered the studio all the other dancers were present and Victor called the class to order as he walked over to Mikhail and drew him forward with a protective arm over his shoulder.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Before we begin this morning, I know that Mikhail has something he would like to say to us all.”

Lifting his head, making eye contact with Victor and sweeping his gaze around the assembled company Mikhail quietly but firmly stated, “I want to apologise for my conduct yesterday and for what I said to Mr Pavel and to the members of this company.”

Well, that was the one sentence which Victor had required but Mikhail knew it would not do. He forced himself to continue.

“Victor Nikolaevich, I accused you of bullying me. You have never done so. You have only ever offered me encouragement, honest criticism and helpful advice. You have never, never given me any reason to believe you have anything other than my best interests at heart. Please accept my sincere regrets for my lack of commitment and rudeness yesterday.

“I want to apologise too for what I said to the rest of you. I don’t think I’ve made enough effort to get to know you all and instead I’ve imagined you are ignoring me. Please forgive me for the unjust accusations I made yesterday.

“I know that I'm not the only one here from the provinces. I don’t know if you are all aware that Alexey and I have known one another since childhood and we went to the same school in the Ukraine. I want to thank him for his help yesterday. Without him I wouldn’t be standing here this morning. Thank you Alexey.”

Mikhail smiled hesitantly at Alexey who responded by wrapping an arm round Mikhail’s waist. That simple action broke the tension in the room and the rest of the dancers began to clap to signal their acceptance of Mikhail’s apology and their respect for his courage in speaking with such simple honesty.

Victor rapidly put a stop to the show of support with his order, “Positions please, ladies and gentlemen.”  But the discreet squeeze he gave to Mikhail’s shoulder in passing said more clearly than words: Well done! All is forgiven and forgotten.