Mikhail tossed restlessly in bed and then sat up to thump the pillow. He was searching for a cool spot to lay his head.
“Lie still,” said Alexey soothingly, “the more you move the hotter you’ll get.”
“But I can’t breathe,” moaned Mikhail. “It’s so airless in here.”
“We’ve got all the windows open. There’s nothing more I can do. Relax and go back to sleep.”
“We could get air conditioning like they have in America!”
“Have you any idea how much that costs?” laughed Alexey. “And we’d only be using it for a couple of weeks a year.”
“We’d be using it now,” came the grumpy reply.
“Look, if you’re really uncomfortable, Misha, I’ll see if we can track down a fan tomorrow. I don’t know if there’ll be any in the shops. You have to remember that Russia hasn’t experienced temperatures like this for decades.”
Hot, sticky, and in no mood to listen to a discourse on Russia’s meteorological trends, Mikhail deliberately turned his back on his partner and made a show of curling up to go back to sleep. Alexey sighed. The heat wave was difficult for everyone and it made performing on stage at the Mariinsky Theatre a misery for the dancers who finished each performance dripping with sweat. Mikhail seemed to suffer more than most and Alexey kept a careful eye on him to ensure that he never succumbed to dehydration or heat exhaustion. It wasn’t so easy to deal with Mikhail’s irritability, though, and Alexey had to use all his wiles to distract his volatile partner before ill temper descended into full scale tantrum.
Alexey lay back and spread his bare arms and legs to maximise the cooling effect of any breeze getting into their third floor apartment. He made a conscious effort to relax and was just beginning to drift off when Mikhail launched into another bout of extravagant tossing and turning.
This time Alexey didn’t hesitate. “Get up and get dressed,” he instructed in a tone which brooked no argument.
Mikhail’s eyes turned at once to the clock on the bedside table, its hands clearly visible in the light streaming through the uncurtained window. It confirmed his first thought; it was still the middle of the night. During the White Nights of June and July, when the sun never set in St Petersburg, it was easy to misjudge the hour, but Mikhail’s body was telling him it wasn’t time to get up.
“It’s two thirty in the morning,” he said rather uncertainly. Over the years, he had learned to judge from Alexey’s tone, even from his body language, when it was okay to argue and when it was prudent to obey. This time he knew it would pay to follow orders but he couldn’t help looking questioningly at Alexey just to check there was no mistake.
Alexey didn’t indulge him with further clarification, concentrating instead on getting dressed himself. Mikhail was still only sitting up in bed when Alexey picked up his shoes and left the room saying, “I want you dressed and ready to go out by the time I get back.”
Mikhail swung his feet to the floor and walked disconsolately to the bathroom before returning to put on a short sleeved shirt and lightweight trousers. All discomfort at the excessive heat was banished by concern that he had finally pushed Alexey too far with his whingeing and moaning in bed, to say nothing of the deliberate tossing and turning. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Alexey had elected to give him a swift spanking, warming his backside to really give him some heat to complain of. Mikhail acknowledged wryly to himself that he certainly deserved it for taking out his discomfort and frustration on his partner who must have been equally hot and miserable in the airless bedroom. But if he was about to be punished, Mikhail couldn’t begin to guess what was in store for him if it involved leaving the apartment in the middle of the night.
When Alexey re-entered the bedroom he had their small rucksack on his back but he made no comment about it, merely asking Mikhail if he was ready to leave. In silence, the two men descended the stone staircase leading down from their apartment to the communal entrance onto St Isaac’s Square. Nothing was said but they both turned automatically towards the Neva River which always beckoned when they went out for a walk.
Reaching the Angliyskaya Embankment, they found they were by no means the only ones out strolling in the middle of the night. The intense heat of the day had given way to gentle warmth, tempered by a cooling breeze off the river. The tradition for locals and tourists to walk along the river bank and canals of St Petersburg during the White Nights had clearly received a boost during the heat wave. The tourist brochures described it as a romantic activity and there were a number of couples walking hand in hand. Mikhail edged closer to Alexey until they were bumping shoulders. “I’m sorry, Alesha,” he finally whispered.
“You know, for being such a nuisance in bed, for keeping you awake.”
“You were hot and uncomfortable.”
“So were you. I shouldn’t have made it worse.”
“You didn’t make it worse, love. You’re not responsible for the weather.”
“I’m responsible for my bad temper. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“If it made you feel a bit better, I don’t mind, Misha. We’ll see if we can buy a fan tomorrow and then you won’t get so overheated in bed.”
“Don’t be nice to me, Alesha. It just makes me feel worse. ”
“Okay, I won’t be nice to you, so you can just get a move on, my lad. We’re heading out to the Peter and Paul Fortress and I’ve got something lined up for you when we get there.”
“I’ll take whatever you think I deserve. I’m so sorry for how I’ve been behaving during the hot weather. And I promise I’ll lie still when we get back in bed and not get myself all hot and bothered.”
Alexey suppressed a smile at the thought of a hot and bothered Mikhail but he said nothing. He wanted to keep his partner guessing for as long as possible but he did want to acknowledge the honesty and generosity of Mikhail’s apology. “Thank you for saying you’re sorry, love. I do appreciate your apology. I think this hot weather is trying everyone’s temper. Don’t worry about it.”
Mikhail felt a bit better, reassured as much by Alexey’s tone as by his words, and he began to enjoy the walk along the river. Picking up the pace as instructed, he still took time to stop and admire the Dvortsovaya Bridge which looked spectacular with its central piers raised as they were every night during the summer. Beyond it he could see the golden spire of the cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress which Alexey had identified as their destination.
Crossing the Neva River they walked round the outside of the fortress to reach the small patch of sand which had been packed with sunbathers throughout the day. Even at that time of night, there were people sitting on the sand or standing at the river’s edge. Alexey found a deserted spot right under the fortress wall, which had retained some of the day’s heat, and the two men sat down, leaning back comfortably against the massive structure.
Alexey had slipped off his small rucksack before sitting down and Mikhail watched apprehensively as he undid the fastening. Clearly, Alexey had brought along something special, the nature of which he had pointedly not disclosed to his partner. Mikhail had a momentary vision of a paddle emerging from the rucksack, only to dismiss the notion as preposterous. Alexey would never subject Mikhail to physical punishment in a public place. The nature of their discipline partnership required a great deal of trust on Mikhail’s part and privacy was one aspect on which he trusted Alexey implicitly.
Mikhail leaned over, intending to peer into the rucksack, but Alexey teasingly blocked his view and plunged a hand into its depths to emerge clutching a small round tin. He passed it to Mikhail who immediately prised off the lid to reveal a pile of blinis.
Mikhail raised delighted eyes to smile at Alexey. “A picnic,” he announced, guessing at once what else must be in the rucksack.
“Got it in one,” Alexey acknowledged. “I thought you could do with a midnight feast…although I suppose it’s an early morning feast now.”
“What a treat, Alesha. I don’t know what I deserved but it certainly wasn’t this. A picnic on the banks of the Neva during the White Nights! Wow! Wait until I tell my mother: she’ll be so impressed.”
Delighted that he had given his partner such a pleasant surprise, Alexey continued to unpack the rest of the picnic which consisted of items he had taken straight from the fridge at home: a carton of soured cream, a small pack of smoked salmon, a lemon and a tin of best beluga caviar. Finally, he pulled out a checked tablecloth and handed it to Mikhail.
“Spread that out, would you, love. We don’t want to get sand in the food. And I brought spoons for the cream and the caviar.”
“You’ve thought of everything… except maybe a tin opener!”
“Our spy network has identified a cunning capitalist invention, comrade,” joked Alexey as he turned the tin over to reveal the ring pull.
“What about drink?”
“Ah, comrade, when it comes to drink, the corrupt capitalists have nothing to offer the nation that invented vodka!”
With that, Alexey brought forth with a flourish a half bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. They were both laughing at Alexey’s absurd imitation of a hard line communist as they opened the packaging and began to spread small helpings of their luxury foods onto the traditional Russian pancakes. By the time they had disposed of all the caviar, smoked salmon and soured cream, there were only a few blinis left and most of the vodka had unaccountably disappeared.
Mikhail sighed contentedly. “What a lovely picnic!” he said, taking care not to slur his words. “I’m going to remember tonight forever.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it, Misha. It was rather special, wasn’t it?” agreed Alexey, noticing how the Winter Palace seemed to swim in his vision.
“Oh, yes. Just look at the sky. I don’t know how I’m going to describe the colour to my mother but the clouds are pink aren’t they? It’s been magical, Alesha, truly magical. Thank you.”
“I’ve loved it too, being out here with you. I thought you deserved a special treat to make up for all the sleeplessness and discomfort.”
“How did you know to come here? It’s one of my favourite places.”
“I know it’s where you come when you want to cool off!”
“Oh, that’s below the belt.” Mikhail turned to Alexey in mock outrage and went to thump him on the arm, but missed. “Fancy reminding me of that dreadful night,” he complained, “just when everything has been so perfect. I paid the full penalty and you promised that my crazy swim in the Neva was forgiven and forgotten.”
“Oh, it is, love, all forgiven and forgotten. Never to be referred to… but I just couldn’t resist teasing you. Sorry, sorry, I usually have better impulse control than that.”
“And I usually have better co-ordination. Come on; we should be getting back. Give me a hand to get up.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to sleep when we get back?”
“I think I’ll be out like a light. And I promise I won’t get all hot and bothered again.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, Misha. I’ve got the perfect solution if you get overheated again.”
“A cold shower.”