It was summer when Nicky’s parents left to find work in Moscow. He was sent to live with his grandmother, Baba Yudina, in Archangel.
The rooms were filled with china. ‘You’re not to touch anything,’ Baba said.
Nicky spent the days kicking a ball around the yard, ducking under the flap of washing on a nylon line. Then winter came and put its boots through the windows one after the other, cracking pipes and freezing the milk at breakfast.
Nicky tried running around to keep warm, but the rooms were too small.
‘Do you want to bring the whole place down around our ears?’ Baba cried. ‘When did you get so tall, huh? Look at you! Ten years old and too big already.’
She said it again when the two men came: ‘Look at him, so tall!’
This time, she sounded proud, pointing her finger. ‘My grandson.’ She spoke in English, her words cracked like the palms of her hands. ‘He is Nicky.’
One of the men had his name across his sweatshirt: Ted Baker. The other had a black bag like a doctor’s. Ted crouched close. ‘You like football, Nicky?’
Nicky nodded. He did like football, but Baba wouldn’t let him play inside the house, and it was too cold in the yard.
‘Lots of football in England.’ Ted put his hands on Nicky’s knees and felt all the way down to his ankles. ‘Strong legs. Bet you’ve got a belting kick. Right to the back of the net, yeah?’
‘How about your stamina?’
Nicky looked at Baba, wrinkling his nose. ‘Stamina?’
She translated. It meant how long he could run without his chest hurting.
‘Good,’ Nicky said, nodding. ‘Great.’
‘Better take a listen anyway.’ Ted’s friend opened his bag and took out a stethoscope.
Nicky knew what it was from the textbook at school, the shape of it in English too big for his mouth: ‘Steth-o-scope.’
‘Shirt off.’ Ted tapped the shiny steel against Nicky’s collarbone.
Nicky stripped, shivering when the metal touched his chest.
‘Good lungs.’ Ted held out a hand to his friend who put a little torch into it. Ted shone the torch in Nicky’s eyes, making him blink. ‘Good… Great!’
Ted’s friend put away the torch and stethoscope, snapping shut the mouth of the doctor’s bag. The two men looked across the room at Baba.
‘Well?’ she said.
In England, Ted said, Nicky would earn enough money to bring his mother and father home from Moscow. Enough to buy Baba a new house, somewhere where it was always warm. He’d play football every day.
On the boat, they played the game Paper, Scissors, Stone.
Nicky stuck out his hand and Ted pretended to cut it with his fingers, snip-snip.
In England, it is said, a man will sell his grandmother for a season ticket.
Baba Yudina sold her grandson Nicky for the equivalent of forty thousand pounds.