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Stūra māja means "House on the Corner" or "Corner Building" in Latvian. It refers to a building at Brīvības ielā 61, Riga, which became the head office of the KGB security agency for the Soviet Union in Riga . Under the Soviet rule people only visited this building when they went to inform on someone, enquire about someone or were incarcerated there. It remained closed to public scrutiny until 1991 when the KGB disappeared back over the border. It then became a police station until it was excavated as part of a project for the Museum of Occupation as part of the City of Culture exhibitons in 2014. You can find out more on http://okupacijasmuzejs.lv/en/history-of-occupation-of-latvia/independent-latvia/ .
I visited Latvia several times in the noughties and became fascinated by the country. It was during a visit in 2014 that I saw signs advertising tours of Stūra māja. I managed to book myself on a full tour twice and saw the horrors which had been unveiled in the building. The stories and sights left a lasting impression on me. I decided to return to Riga and saw the exhibiton a third time of the final day of the initial opening. I came away thinking that there was a story to be told which featured the building and its role in history. The result is the novel Stūra māja.
Over the years I have heard many stories of oppression and repression, visited musuems of occupation in different countries, talked to people about their experiences and read books both fiction and non-fiction about the suffering but none made as much an impression as walking around that building one day.
"Come on, Tomass, we're going to miss the ship," shouted Agnetha from the hallway.
"I'm coming. What's the hurry? We've got over an hour before embarking."
"What's the hurry, he says. He's been waiting nearly 50 years for this moment and now he's taking his time and messing about on top of the wardrobe," muttered Agnetha to her daughter.
She looked up to find her husband, in his Sunday best suit, walking through the bedroom door carrying a battered canvas backpack.
"What are you doing with that? We've got enough luggage, dad."
"This is something special. I'm taking it with me to the museum."
"If you must, Dad. Come on, we need to get going. Mother, have you got everything?"
"Yes. Let's go."
Anafrida wheeled the two suitcases out to the lift. Her parents followed behind, her mother still fussing about her father carrying the backpack.
"Why don't you leave that old thing behind? We've got brand new cases for the trip and everything's packed."
"I'm taking it back where it belongs," replied her father hugging the backpack to his chest.
Anafrida let out a sigh of frustration but there was no time to argue if they were to catch their ship to Riga.
Tomass Aboltins lit a match from a matchbook he had picked up at a bar and looked at the alarm clock on his bedside chair. It was 5 am. He smoothed a hand over his short dark hair pushing it into place. He pushed the covers back and got out of bed. He stood; looking at his sleeping wife for a few moments, then went over to the window. Taking a grey curtain in each hand, he pulled them slightly apart. He cleaned a piece of glass with a pyjama sleeve and looked out. The trams and trolley buses would have just left the depot, he thought to himself. It would be another ten or fifteen minutes before the first one appeared on the main street and the city start to come alive with workers. Now, all was silent. Snow had fallen overnight, covering the cobbles and tram rails under the heavy white blanket.
There was light falling across the pristine snow round the base of the lamppost beneath the window. He looked for signs someone had been stood there waiting, and watching, but there were no footprints or cigarette butts. He moved his head to one side and looked towards the corner and Lenin prospekt. There were no tell-tale black Volga cars parked in the street and no one leaning against the door of Molochnyye produkty Magazin on the corner. He let out a breath he had not known he was holding. He turned his head in the opposite direction, towards the covered archway to the courtyard. He still could not see any footprints or cigarette butts. He hoped they were not yet onto him. The red candles in the window of the flat opposite had been extinguished leaving the flat in darkness. He felt alone.
He took a short step forwards and looked farther out. He could see the street corner opposite, and the Baltiyskiy Apteka, across the tramlines. There was undisturbed white snow. He moved a step backwards and took a curtain in each hand. He closed them again with one movement.
It was cold in the two roomed flat. The communal central heating had not come on. He took his dressing gown from the upright chair beside the window and pulled it on and tied the belt as he walked from the bedroom into the hallway. He walked bare footed towards the front door, putting out one hand toward a wall to guide him in the darkness. His hands touched the padded back of the door. He stopped, took a breath and stood silently. Listening. He could not hear footsteps or lowered voices. He waited a few minutes then, slowly, moved aside the metal plate which covered the key hole. There was no light. He returned the plate to its original position. There was no one outside. He could still be safe.
Feeling his way, he returned to the bedroom. He looked at the bed. His wife, Viera, was still sleeping even though she must have known what he had planned to do. Cautiously and silently, he picked up the bundle of winter clothes and canvas backpack he had placed on his bedside chair before he went to bed. Taking everything into the bathroom, he dressed using the illumination from a weak light coming from the courtyard. When he had finished he placed the soap, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste and hand towel on top of his neatly folded pyjamas. He stopped and listened for any sounds. There were none apart from the snuffling from his sleeping wife.
Tomass regulated his breathing. It was important to try and remain calm even though he was a little bit frightened of what he was about to do. He stopped and listened. He picked up the backpack and placed his pyjamas and toiletries inside then pushed them down. They lay on top of the spare set of clothing he had kept ready in the backpack since the first warning note had been pushed inside his jacket at work. When everything was in, he fastened the straps and stood up. He crept out into the dark hallway in his stocking feet.
He was able to open the well-oiled closet door with barely a sound. He took out the thick winter coat, which his grandfather had worn during the war against the Bolsheviks, and his own rubber soled army boots from his conscription days. He carried them into the bathroom. He tied his boots, fastened his coat and pulled on the knitted hat and gloves his mother had made the winter before he got married. Then he picked up the backpack and moved slowly, deliberately, towards kitchen alcove.
Standing to one side of the window, he moved one of the slats of the blind to look down into the courtyard. It was empty. Again, there were no cigarette butts or footsteps lying in the snow. He swallowed and stepped back again away from view. He stood still and listened for the sound of a car engine idling on the street. He did not hear one. He breathed quickly. The windows of most of the other flats were still in darkness. He slid back the bolt on the kitchen door and stood on the metal steps. He looked down, hitched his pack over his shoulders and closing the door behind him made his way down one rung at a time.
With each step, he stopped and looked around him. He used a gloved hand to fluff up the snow on each step he had just walked on. He stopped half way down. He thought he could hear his heart beating. He could certainly feel it. There was a clang of trams in the distance and he could hear the squeal of badly oiled brakes as the trams negotiated bends or pulled up to the stops. The city was waking up. From the last step, he hit the fresh snow with a light thud. He scuffed the snow again to hide his footprints. Keeping close to the wall he made his way to the covered archway. The huge wooden doors to the street were closed. He slid back the bolt, centimetre by centimetre, until it had slid back all the way and he was able to pull one of the doors open enough to slip through. Seconds later he was onto the side street. He looked up and down. He could see people in the distance, their body shapes distorted by bulky winter clothing.
Tomass’s instructions were to make his way to the outdoor market next to Centrālā Dzelzceļa Stacija, the main railway station in Riga. He had been informed, through the grapevine, that there would be someone waiting for him at the kiosk outside the coach station. The man would be studying a map of the old town. Tomass’s instruction was to approach him and ask him if he needed help. The man would give him the map to look at it. There would be a building circled on the map. Tomass had to go to that building and await his next instructions.
As in all past cases, he had only been told what he needed to know and only met the people he had needed to meet. It was a precaution in case any of them were caught. He knew no names only faces, voices and numbers. Everyone in the section had a number.
The first instruction told him go to the market on foot, keeping as far away from the main streets as possible. He was not to draw attention to himself by moving too quickly or too openly. At six o'clock, the market traders would be arriving and it would be safer to move about in the open.
He walked slowly and carefully down the street, keeping his head down and his eyes on the ground. He crossed Lenin prospekt taking care over the tramlines. Room lights came on in random flats as he passed down the street. Sunrise would not happen for a few hours yet and the December day might not get properly light before nightfall. It should be easy to stay in the shadows where they could not differentiate him from the others going about their daily business.
At the end of the street, he turned right. The street ran parallel with Lenin prospekt but led towards the Spilbek district of town, not to the old town. It was not safe to go through the old centre, they had told him. There were too many alleys and narrow streets where he could be surprised. It was best to skirt around and come from the other side. There would be more people around heading for the railway station, the bus station and the main tram stops. A lone man, carrying a small backpack, would not stand out among the workers.
By the time he got to the park, there were indeed more people about. Some of the shop windows illuminated the pavement and there was the tinkle of bells as doors opened and closed. An old man, dressed in several layers of coat and scarf, displaying on his lapel a medal from the Siege of Leningrad, was setting up a chestnut roasting stand in front of the park gates. He had already stamped the snow around him into a compacted carpet ready for his customers.
Tomass stepped in alongside a group of workers, bundled up in thick coats and knitted caps, heading off towards the bus station. He kept his head down and trod in the footprints of the man in front of him. The group stopped at the traffic lights to let the traffic go, and then crossed the street in front of the railway station. They passed the grey concrete bunker which housed a Russian supermarket and a depressing department store. Two middle-aged women carrying string shopping bags saw a queue in front of the supermarket and broke away from the group. They hurried towards it, discussing whether the manager had succeeded in getting some dried fruit from Bulgaria. The rest of the group shuffled off under the badly lit archway towards the Tirgus and the bus station. Some turned left into the railway station yard, some continued ahead towards the factories, some stopped at the roadside bus stops. Tomass moved along with the crowd until the outdoor market.
He trudged through the sludge passing the cobbled-together wooden tables with their meagre display of goods for sale. His eye caught a display of old fashioned clothes, rescued from an attic somewhere, and shrivelled apples, behind which an old babushka sat proudly on her metal stool. He winked at her as he went past. There were already groups of women standing by a wall with small cloths on the ground displaying the goods they had to sell. Tomass looked at the offerings and felt guilty for not stopping to buy something, however small or useless to him at this point in his life. These people really had very little, much less than him. Then, he looked up towards the bus station.
It was the last thing he saw of his homeland.
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