A Master And A Slave

When I was in my mid teens I felt a sudden urge to do
some reading and give myself an education. For want of a
personal guide, I took the advice of the wise people at
Penguin. If the book had a black spine (classics) or a grey
spine (modern classics) then it must at least be worthy of
my consideration. Orange spines were risky. They might
be second-rate, frivolous even, and I wanted serious
After Kafka, Flaubert and Plato I felt obliged to wade
into the Russians. I don’t think I ever finished one and
after all these years I only remember how long it took
carriages to get our aristocratic hero from the gates of his
estate to the front door of the house. But I do remember
reading an introductory essay on Ivan Turgenev that told
me that at fifteen (my age) a kitchen maid was sent by his
mother to his room to initiate him in the ways of love. I
found this a transfixing thought. I was profoundly envious
back then; now I am merely delighted by the imaginative
possibilities, and no amount of hard-headed knowledge
about the plight of the Russian poor and the abuse of
power can spoil it.

As Turgenev remembered it decades later, the girl came
up behind him and took handfuls of his hair and said
‘Come.’ That’s all. Now, the future novelist was a tall lad,
later to run to fat and be known as the ‘gentle barbarian’,
so we may suppose he was seated, reading a slim volume
of poetry, soft-bound in chamois leather, perhaps in the
conservatory after dinner before the long summer twilight.
He was engrossed in the romantic visions of Pushkin and
did not hear Anna slip into the room.
She pulls back his head by his clean, black hair and
they look at each other upside down. He must be very
confused. He has noticed Anna and been disturbed by her
but she has never touched him and no one, least of all a
servant, has ever stood over him in this way. But he senses
something new and closes his book and remains as she has
placed him, looking up into her strange inverted eyes, the
cane chair creaking and the low reddening light blushing
her throat. A coil of blond hair escapes from her cap and
bounces gently. Anna holds this moment of reversed roles
for as long as she dare, looking into his soft, smooth face,
the healthy teeth in the half-opened mouth, then down to
the large, clean, unbroken hands on the book.
She speaks her single word. It is enough. He is used to
unexplained orders from his mother and supposes that by
some roundabout means this is one of them. When the girl
lets fall his hair and leaves the room, he follows.
It is 1833 and Anna is a serf. She may be sold, flogged,
separated from her f****y, branded or banished to Siberia.
Without permission of her masters she may not leave the
estate, rent land, borrow money, earn wages, own property
or marry. She has not chosen to work in the kitchen of the
great house but she considers herself fortunate. While
Ivan’s mother is a fearsome, half-mad sadist who beats her
c***dren and servants daily for the most trivial offences

and often for the pleasure of it, Anna enjoys the constant
proximity of food, a clean, dry room and existence on the
periphery of gracious living. And better the exhausting
heat of the ovens than the annual struggle to endure the
interminable Russian winter down in the village.
Anna leads on upstairs, very slowly, trying to glide
within her skirts, making a soft rustling sound in the quiet
of the evening, bathing as much in the pleasure of being
excused her normal duties as in the prospect of her new
and special role. Her hand on the balustrade is white from
baking, where normally by now it would be red from potscrubbing.
It may be an order and she may have no choice, but this
is a private matter and she glances along the landing
before slipping into Ivan’s room and closing the door.
Though she has seen it many times when helping the
chambermaids, on this occasion it is utterly new. Where
she was an outsider, hurrying a task, fearful of displeasing
her mistress, now she belongs, is here for a purpose of her
own, to share this room, command this room, even if only
for a while. She looks at the brass bed with its rich
mountain of white linen and smiles. That evil bitch; what
can she know of this?
Ivan follows Anna into his room and for him too it is
quite changed. What was merely a place of retreat from
the capricious tyranny of his mother is now alive with the
intensity of…something. He is not sure what. Oh, the
mechanics, yes – gentleman or serf, they are all country
people – but something more than that and he doesn’t
want to know, not articulate it, pin it down with words in
his usual way. He senses that he should say nothing, think
nothing; just experience.
Anna turns to him, steps close and looks up and their
eyes meet again, but this time the right way round. They

are both startled to bridge so suddenly the chasm of their
social distance. She links her hands behind his neck and
draws him down. It is her first kiss without revulsion,
without holding her breath against the stench of an old
man’s rotten mouth. For Ivan it is simply his first kiss and
the shock unbalances him. He reaches for the cool brass
rail of his bed as Anna steps back.
‘Undress,’ she says, softly, the word stretched and
savoured, but unmistakably an order. It thrills her to give
it. This once only, she will have the knowledge and the
power. She has observed her young master at the miracles
of writing and reading, and so comfortable in the alien
melodies of French and felt ashamed of her ignorance, but
not here and not now.
Ivan struggles out of his boots, still holding on to the
bed. He shrugs his jacket to the floor and pushes his braces
off his shoulders. He treads down his breeches and stands
for a moment before Anna in a long, loose shirt. It is the
primitive, collarless, square-cut undergarment everyone
wears, and Anna sees before her a youth like those who
might be within her reach – were she but given the choice.
She smiles and nods to give him the confidence and Ivan
takes the neck of the shirt and pulls it over his head.
Anna is the same age as Ivan but had to give up her
virginity a year ago. She is betrothed to a man from the
village, a widower friend of her father. He has demanded
and been granted the right to prove his virility and the
girl’s fertility before marrying her, so twice a week the old
goat opens his breeches and f***es her legs apart on a heap
of rags on top of the stove in his hut. The encounters are
mercifully brief but Anna never feels free from the stench
of him or from his ugly, poxy face above her in her
dreams. Her father considers the village postman a good
catch for his daughter and actively sought permission for

the union from Old Turgenev, who himself likes to catch
Anna unawares at her duties and grab her breasts to
bruising. ‘You like a bit of that, don’t you, Anna?’ he
laughs, and she wonders how he could possibly imagine
that she would. He gropes under her skirts and there is
nothing she can do. If she complains, the Mistress will
certainly blame her and she will be beaten and dismissed.
But when this boy before her lifts the shirt up and over
his head and drops it to the floor, it is her turn to be
unbalanced by the glory of him, standing there, clean and
smooth and perfect, and his root standing out in front, tall
and strong. That dried-up bitch. She doesn’t know how
much I want this. Probably thinks it’s a punishment.
Thinks we’re all like her, all skinny and burnt out with
‘Go to bed,’ she whispers. Before they even touch, the
heat in her belly makes sense of the love stories told by
her bedfellows as they sit up round the sewing basket in
those precious moments before sl**p or wash each other’s
hair in gatherings from the meadows.
Ivan flings back the great bag of goose feathers and
throws himself into the centre of the mattress, turning in
the air like a fish. Anna glimpses yellow and red marks on
his back from old and fresh beatings. How that woman
hates beauty. He falls back against the heap of pillows
with a soft thud, sleek and dark in the failing light.
Anna lights a candle, closes the curtains and locks the
door. Returning to the bed, she says, ‘Watch very
carefully, and learn.’
Ivan puts his hands behind his head and raises one
knee. His root sways heavily and his onions slip plump
and shining between his thighs. The horsehair mattress
mutters as he settles.

As instructed, Ivan studies each move of Anna’s
undressing with the greatest care. She is wearing most of
what she possesses. There are four skirts in all, each
delayed by knotted tapes which must be swung to the front
in a whisper of promise. He watches her soft, stubby
fingers tease open the tie, fold the cloth and drop it over
the bed-rail with a fluttering of the candle. After the
fourth, there is only the hem of her shirt to mid-thigh, and
Anna observes his root leap and she fears to spoil the
‘Be still,’ she says, ‘don’t hold yourself tight.’
Ivan breathes deep and slow as Anna lifts each knee in
turn towards his face and reaches to remove a canvas
slipper. He peers into the dark between her legs but the fall
of the shirt and the position of the candle allow him no
more than possibility.
Anna straightens up and looks to the lacing of her tightfitting
bodice. Her bosom swells above it as she inhales.
How full I am, like a tree in blossom. In a few years it will
have passed, but this is my time and I must have it.
When she draws the lace from its rings, the restraint
falls away and her body can relax into its natural shape
inside the shirt. Unlike Ivan’s, hers is slit to the waist and
closed with little bows of red ribbon. The area usually
hidden by the bodice is decorated with patterns in
coloured thread; the secret creativity of the servant-girls’
bed in the attic. No one else has seen it before. It is more
private than her body. Almost as private is her hair. She
pulls off her cap and the hidden treasure spills to her
shoulders, dark gold in the candle-light.
Ivan watches Anna untie each bow in turn and Anna
watches in case his cream should burst out and pool in his
birth-scar. She knows that she might fall for a c***d with
that cream and knows that she would be sent away and

married off quickly – probably to someone lower than the
postman. But a serf, particularly a girl, does not live by
future hopes, but by whatever she has now. And what she
has is right here. With or without orders she would not be
elsewhere and is prepared to take her chance.
The last bow is undone and Anna pauses to observe the
beautiful lines up the side of the boy’s chest and upraised
arms, framing his head. Now she draws the shirt up and
away and Ivan sees how her breasts bob solidly when she
lowers her arms, how her ample flesh folds above her hips,
how her belly is as rounded as a d***ken puppy’s, how her
face is as smooth and beautiful as a peach and how she
smiles as she raises one knee and places it beside his hip
and lifts the other up and over him. She leans forward to
kiss him full and deep and Ivan takes a heavy breast in
each hand and breathes the camomile in her hair. Anna
pulls away from his mouth and sits up and lowers all her
weight onto his root, so that it lies between her lilies and
she slides on her juice, slowly back and forth.
She cannot wait, and nor can he. She raises herself and
takes his root with both hands and guides it to the place.
Ivan is holding the folds at her waist as she sinks onto him
and she feels him burst into her immediately. She senses
some similar explosion in her own body, just out of reach.
‘That’s just a beginning. There is much more.’
Ivan is unable to reply.
Anna runs her hands over his chest, keeping him inside.
He is magnificent, and so is she, and what they have done
feels like everything she needs. Ivan’s hands on her back
find her own recent wounds and she winces. That scrawny
bitch. I wish she was watching. I’d love to show her what
she’s never had. Make her cry.
Anna lifts herself a little and Ivan’s root falls wetly and
heavily out of her. She slips to the side of him and places
her head in the hollow of his shoulder. He begins to
explore the sumptuous richness of her, from her hair to her
throat to her breasts to…ah yes. Oh yes, how quickly he
learns, this boy. She opens herself, arms and legs and
mouth, and they roll in the crisp linen and she feels that
fire rising again; a little nearer this time. She is full of rude
ideas that excite and amaze her. She darts down and gives
the end of his root a quick lick. It leaps to readiness and
she throws herself back with a laugh which turns to a gasp
as he enters her. As she reaches for that burning and feels
it coming, coming, she has time to relish her triumph.
I will make him love me and she will send him away to
school in the city and he will hate her for the rest of her
Later, as the evening cools, they pull up the goosefeather
bag and stare into each other’s eyes in the last of
the candle. They have spoken very little. Language can
only divide them. When Ivan falls asl**p with his arms
around her, Anna peers through half-closed eyes at the
candle-stars on the brass rails and comes to a certainty.
She will fight her marriage, she will find herself a
young man. She will shame her father and Old Turgenev
with her youth and if they take no notice, which is very
likely, she will still find herself a young man. She cannot
live without this pleasure and this beauty. When all the
rest of her life will be so hard, she must have this, and
later the memory of this, to bear it.