NOVEL EXTRACT: Petrograd by Wiliam Owen Roberts

Petrograd by Wiliam Owen Roberts
Translated from Welsh by Elisabeth Roberts

The tramroutes remained unchanged but no one knew the route of history. 

- Ilya Ehrenburg

SUMMER    1916                                         


At the beginning of August, Fyodor Mikhailovich Alexandrov drove his wife Inessa, their two sons and his two nieces, to catch the train for the Crimea. The family chauffeur brought all their trunks, cases and other luggage in a second motor-car to Nicholevski station, where the porters bustled around the platform stacking, sorting and loading it all. Two maids and a cook were also dispatched to look after the family’s needs, as well as the wetnurse for Georgik, who was only six months old.  

Included also in the party was the young governess from Angoulême, who had been with the family for a little over a year. Alyosha’s mother told him, 

‘The four of you will share a couchette.’  


‘Mademoiselle Babin, your two cousins, and yourself.’ 

Alyosha quietly glowed. He was thirteen, and Mademoiselle Babin only eight years older. In the couchette, there were two pairs of comfortable bunk beds opposite each other. Larissa insisted on an upper bunk, above her governess, while Alyosha bagged the other upper bunk, with Margarita below him.  

As the train raced through the vast forests of Russia that night, the three children prepared for bed. Margarita read for a little, but was quickly asleep, so Larissa and Alyosha amused themselves watching her twitch in her sleep as they tickled her with a feather under her nose.

‘I’ve been looking forward to our holiday for weeks,’ whispered Larissa. 

‘Me too.’ 

‘It’s a shame Mamma wouldn’t agree to come with us. We thought we’d persuaded her you know. But she said no in the end...’

‘Shame,’ Alyosha climbed up into his bed and pulled up the blanket to his neck. 

‘But I don’t suppose she would have been in a frame of mind to enjoy a holiday. Not with Papa away in the war. She finds it difficult to enjoy herself at all...’

Larissa soon quietened, her breathing becoming even and heavy. Alyosha lay there, listening to the noises from without, mainly voices coming and going, with an occasional outburst of laughter, and doors opening or banging shut. Ages later, as he was just dozing off, a shaft of light from the corridor flooded over his face for a brief second, before the darkness returned.  

Mademoiselle Babin turned in the narrow space between the bunks, the hem of her dress rustling. He heard an oily click in the keyhole and then the lamp under the lower bunk began giving out a dim glow. In an instant, he could smell the cognac and mint his governess had been sipping earlier and he peeped at her as she began to undress with calm efficiency, and the only glimpse of flesh he managed was the rise and fall of her shoulders. She removed her underclothes from beneath her nightgown, stepped neatly sideways and put them away in her brown leather bag under the bed. She pulled the comb from her hair and shook her head to loosen the pins. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders and humming softly to herself, she sat down to brush it. Finally she knelt at the side of the bed to say her prayers, her nightgown billowing out.  

Alyosha couldn’t settle back to sleep.  L’Heure Bleue filled the compartment and he began to imagine Mademoiselle Babin kissing him, and he kissing her back. He imagined the taste of her skin, as he bit her chin (bit her chin and her smile...) down to her neck (the taste of her neck...) and in his passion (the taste of her sweat...), over her breasts, down to her stomach, lower and lower. Between finger and thumb he squeezed the tip of his erection between two fingernails until he was in agony.  

He’d only ever touched Mademoiselle Babin once, and that was when his father had first introduced her to him and his cousins, Margarita and Larissa, a little over a year ago.  

The three of them had been standing in the centre of the study when his father ushered her in, erect and confident. He remembered how his new stiff collar had rubbed coarsely against his throat, making his skin burn. With one hand buried deep in his shantung jacket, Fyodor Miklhailovich presented them to her in turn.  

‘My brother Kozma’s younger daughter, Larissa Kozmyevna Alexandrov, who is eleven years old.’ 

A curtsey. 

‘And her elder sister, Margarita Kozmyevna Alexandrov who is fourteen.’ 

Another curtsey. 

‘And my son, Alexei Fyodorovitch, who is twelve.’ 

 Alyosha shook her hand formally and her fingers were warm and soft. He was overcome with bashfulness, and couldn’t look her in the eye, but there was no shyness on Mademoiselle Babin’s part, as she gazed at him fearlessly. His father went on to explain  how the three cousins had been close from their infancy. 

‘More like a brother and two sisters?’ suggested Mademoiselle Babin with a smile. 

‘Exactly... there you have it... just like a brother and two sisters.’ 

Fyodor Mikhailovich bared his teeth and smiled at her. From birth, he went on, the three had shared the same wetnurse, the same nursery, the same holidays. He recalled fondly a particular holiday the two families had shared in the Crimea when the three children would only go to sleep if their beloved Daria, a red-faced rustic girl who looked after them at the time, chased them up the stairs, growling on all fours like a bear, reducing them to hysterical laughter as they scampered ahead of her to their beds. Later, when it became time to start their education, they had shared the same private tutors and music teacher.  

Through his feather pillow Alyosha listened to the thrum of the train as it clickety-clacked its way through the night. He moved his fingers slowly over his stomach, through the fine hair of his groin, and squeezed the base of his cock, which seemed unusually warm. He listened intently to the sound of breathing, tossing and turning from the opposite bed and then, as quietly as ever he could, trying to bring to mind that feeling as he shook hands over a year earlier, he began to masturbate. But hard as he tried, his penis turned to cotton-wool. He continued his pumping, this time trying to imagine the taste of Mademoiselle Babin’s breasts, her flesh, her thighs...His breathing came in small gasps, and try though he might to quieten his laboured breathing, it was hard to stifle his grunts.  

Her voice pierced the gloom:  


She sighed softly under her breath before asking wistfully:  

‘Can’t you sleep either?’ 


‘Nor me.’ 

His neck damp with sweat, Alyosha swallowed nervously before venturing, 

‘It’s stuffy in here...’ 

The young Frenchwoman turned onto her back, her arms lying limply on the bed.  

’I’m suffocating...would you mind opening the window just a little...?’ 

Alyosha jumped down from his bunk as softly as he could. 

‘You don’t think it will wake the girls?’ 

The cold night air rushed onto his face. 

‘Can I sleep with you?’ 

‘Can you what?’  

He climbed back up to his bed. 

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that...Can you what?’ 

He pretended he was already falling asleep.    

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