Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-1: East




I

April, 1996

It was a million to one chance, maybe even more.

‘That comes to £108.99, with the shirts.’   The woman took the Burtons Card, swiped it and began to wrap the purchases.

‘I’ll wear the trousers, if you don’t mind.’

‘Let me remove the labels.’

So that was one job done this Saturday before the Easter weekend. It was always a pleasant drive up the A2, parking near Greenwich and taking the boat to the city.

Exiting Debenham's, such thoughts were interrupted by two sirens before him, two obviously foreign sirens and his throat went dry.

True, London was a city of foreigners but these two were something else again. They had to be those ice dancers you see on television ... they were definitely continental, the way they moved ... he had to find out.

‘Excuse me,’ he asked quickly, lest they walked past and out of his life, ‘but are you … er … Russian?’

‘Da, mi Russkiye,' the one with the golden hair replied, taking in everything of note - the cheeky grin, the now balding pate, the nerve in even addressing her; she thought she liked his sheer gall.

II

In the 12ème arrondissement, Cafe Noir was quiet today.

Nicolette Vasseaur curled a strand of fair hair round her little finger and shuffled on her bar stool, observing the other woman. ‘Will you take Philippe's name?’

In her eyes, Geneviève should long ago have pushed her Casanova into tying the knot but Mlle Lavacquerie was not the type to push, she was seriously indecisive. The events of five years ago in Paris had sent them both over the edge, they'd both vowed revenge on every man who'd ever treated a woman that way and Nicolette had arranged for her best friend to meet this Philippe Legrande, the only one in Bercy, so she'd been told, who would take their idea for a security section seriously.

He hadn't laughed, Philippe, he'd seen the value of Section 37, ostensibly to expose corrupt officials but it had other distinct political possibilities as well, he'd taken a shine to Geneviève and as usually happened with her, she'd fallen in love in return, he'd organized the finance and they were off and running.

‘The most Philippe can expect is a hyphenation,’ she murmured. ‘Anyway, he’s not even broached it. If I could think of a way, Nikki, I'd have done it already, the nightmares are back too.’

‘I can deputize.’

‘No, I have to know how the money’s getting through, why they don't just wire it to us. Why must I fly there and why in cash?’

‘Russian law perhaps? I can go if you want.’

‘No, I’ll send Marc, that's more in his line. Besides, there's no point going yet, the next collect's not until July - he'll go a week ahead of me.’

'Seriously, does it really matter? You return with the money, we do what we do, what's the problem?'

'I am. I'm the problem.'

III

‘Do either of you speak English?’ he asked, customers sweeping past as he tried to maintain a place by the counter.

‘Yes, a little,’ replied Golden Hair. That seemed to be the end of that and as he racked his brain for something else to ask, she stepped into the breach: ‘We do shopping but you can come.’

‘Maybe I could even help you.’

They ran the gamut of the perfume counters and every so often they’d poke a fragrant wrist under his nose, then Dark Hair suddenly asked: ‘What do they call you?’

‘Er … Hugh Jensen. And you?’

‘Dilyara … and that’s Anya. I see you prefer blondinki, da?’

‘Not at all. Whatever gave you that idea? Are you hungry, ladies?’

‘Da,’ replied Anya but Dilyara wasn’t so sure they should go down this path.  He wasn't exactly what ... well, within the range of what they'd hoped to find.   Anya seemed interested in playing this out though, so she sighed and went along with it.

.o0o.

Eventually, they decided to try McDonalds and as they ate in the sidestreet of Oxford Street, perched on the black wrought-iron railing surrounding a tree, Anya seemed nonplussed.

‘Hugh?’ she whispered.

‘Yep?’

‘How do you eat this thing?’

‘With your hands.’

‘I don’t need a spork or a foon?’

He glanced to see if she was pulling his leg but actually, she was deadly serious. ‘Use your hands – hold it in the paper wrapper if you like.’

.o0o.

Greenwich Park was the obvious choice - tube - tickets - the boat with the hollow, distorted commentary booming through the tannoy, all good stuff and an hour later, the three were seated, cross-legged, on the grass near the flower bed fence, soaking up the sunshine and warming to this new association.

‘Where are you both from, may I ask?’

‘From Russia,’ answered Anya.

‘I gathered that, but from where in Russia?’

‘You wouldn’t know it – it’s a town called Shadzhara.’

‘Actually, I do know it - an academic from there visited our school - not long back. Care to tell me?’

‘Hmmm. It’s in the east, halfway to the Urals, as you call them. We have about a million people, half Russian, half Shadzhari and about 80 other nationalities.’

‘You speak good English.’

‘We learn it nine years,” said Dilyara. ‘We’re on Berlitz course,’ she thought to add, ‘for Anya’s job, you know and I came too.’

‘Do you teach English? I mean, what’s your interest in it?’

‘Anya works for airline company; I do this and that.’

That caused a lull in the conversation and he realized he’d have to do something to keep the momentum going.

‘Would you like to see the deer?’

IV

With eight lanes of traffic gridlocked below on Leningradskaya, Sergei Safin was tearing at his dried fish. Before him on the table sat two empty glasses and one half full bottle of Kristalnaya Vodka.

Safin watched the man opposite out of the corner of his eye and it put him off his food. The Beast was gross, he'd seen military service, he’d done time for some minor infraction after leaving the army and then, unable to find gainful employment of the kind he’d hoped for, had simply devoted himself to the task of making money hand over fist, money Safin envied.

Attaching himself to an organization which made such money, The Beast had soon accrued some powerful protection, in return for certain favours of a delicate nature. A good arrangement all round, but today he’d been compromised.

‘Sirozh,’ he said quietly, ‘you appear to have me over a barrel,’ indicating the graphic photo on the table, turning it face down with his podgy fingers. ‘What exactly do you want, while you still can?’

‘I'd like to feel, Oleg Alexandrovich, that there'll be no accident to the head of the family.’

‘You’re in security – what could possibly happen?’ The younger man smiled, a point not lost on the Beast. ‘Why didn’t you just ask me, Sirozh? I would have agreed, without all this - this high drama. Your sister was perfectly happy to -’

‘We need a guarantee.’

‘And now you’re certain you’ve bought that?’

The younger man wasn’t certain, no and he’d had to use his sister as a sort of family insurance policy; it now looked increasingly as if it might not have been enough.

He hoped his sister would understand.

V

The executive meeting at the south London school on the second Monday was grimmer than usual, the Principal’s mouth a tight line as he came through, settled down, arranged his notes and began.

The prognosis was not good.

Basically, someone in the school’s recent past – the bad old days - had been cooking the books, contracting sub-standard constructors for the basic edifice and the whole thing had finally imploded. Even the damning accounts had disappeared and this was not good in such a small school, particularly in these new days with Ofsted starting to throw its weight about.

Robin Wilson gave a little cough and spoke. ‘I need hardly remind you that we can’t meet the cost of the renovations at this moment, given the monthly salaries we’re currently paying and something will have to give, I’m afraid. Any suggestions?’

Ashen faces stared back at him and they waited for the bottom line but there was not to be one. ‘Thank you. Give it some thought and we’ll discuss this on Thursday, at 16:20. Anyone can't make that?’

The staff trooped out and he took Hugh and Paul Medhurst aside to ask them from where they felt the first cuts should come.

Both promised to think on’t.

‘Fancy a pint?’ asked Paul as they stepped onto the flagstones, a weak sun popping out from behind a bank of clouds and immediately hiding itself again.

‘Why not?’

Silence prevailed all the way over to the Rose and Crown but the first pint loosened Paul’s tongue. ‘I know it’s not the done thing but I can guess your salary as Prep Head, given mine as Head of the Sixth Form College. You catch my drift?’

‘Loud and clear.’

‘We’d save Robin the requisite deposit on the repairs, along with four who’d be offloaded anyway – French and Maths for a start.’

They sipped silently for a minute.

‘You’d probably be retained as Junior Head,’ said Paul, ‘but on half the money. You present well.’

‘As do you. I’m obviously not going to suggest it to him but I think Robin should retain Lisa as nominal head and take on the admin himself.’

‘Josephine could double up with my role.’

‘I don't feel the school owes me anything.   Nor I think does Robin.  Look, it was nice to find some stability after I came down here.  Holed up in Mill Hill, scanning the TES on Fridays and visiting Hendon Aircraft Museum to break the monotony is not my idea of a future.   I thought landing Prep School Head was a bit of a miracle -'

'Many did.  I don't mean to be cruel but you were hardly experienced at it.  Not a bad job done, mind, no one's moaning.   Bit of a pisser for both of us though, isn't it - to get that, everything then seems fine ... and now this.'

'I was told you'd turned down Pocklington for this - why?'

'Stay in London.  Family moves up from Horsham.   It's nice.   Not insulting you or anything but I didn't really want to go north.'

'What would you do if it came to it, Paul?’

‘Not sure really. Maybe go back to Horsham, find some work at my old school. You?’

‘I think I might do something remarkably crazy.’

‘Such as?’

‘Going to Russia.’

.o0o.

Three evenings later, at a small table at the Traveller’s Arms down the A2, sat an Infant Mistress and a soon to be ex-Prep School Head.

Lisa James gazed over and knew she was expected to comment. ‘What do you want from me, Hugh … to give you the seal of approval? You jumped before you were pushed - I would have waited - but still you tell me it was inevitable.’ She suddenly grinned. ‘I can guess what really precipitated it though.’

‘Does it look bad from where you sit?’

‘Which of them are you looking at?’ she asked, taking a mouthful.

‘I have Anya in mind.’

‘I thought as much. Bit of an age difference.’

‘So forget it, eh?’

‘I didn’t say that. What about children? Where would you live? How would you live on a Russian salary - what is it these days - sixty pounds a month? How would the family accept you anyway, with your track record – two wives and no children - doesn’t look so good.’

‘There were children.’

‘But not yours. Do you want kids?’

‘Not particularly but if she does, I’m still within range.’

‘Of course she’ll want and why isn’t she married already? You have to consider that too. You know nothing about her and anyway - are you sure she feels the same way about you going there?’

‘Seemed to when I phoned yesterday. Look, this is a firm job offer, so the romantic side hardly matters at this point –’

‘Oh, come off it. I've seen the photo, remember.’

‘All right, true confessions - it wasn't discussed but I'm sure she knew what was on my mind. She made no excuses whatsoever, dropped no hints that it might be a bad idea … it’s just that … well … with this thing imploding here, Lisa, it’s either the dole queue and hours poring over the TES again or else ... well ... let me get the refills.’

She drank the last few drops and gazed at the glass for want of something to do.

When he returned, she said, 'It's all so sudden. Couldn't you hold on until the end of Michaelmas Term? It would help me.'

'I would do but there are a few factors - the cash just isn't there to run both you and me anymore, with this offer from Shadzhara I have somewhere to go and it's only fair on parents and kids that we announce it early and get you prepared. You'll need to work with Robin and start talking to the parents, answering their questions. For me to come back after summer and hang around like a bad smell is no good for anyone.

She looked across at him and finally said, 'I hope you know what you're doing.'

‘Anyway, what about Riccardo?’

She snorted. ‘I’m working on it.’

‘Plenty of time.’

‘I’m approaching thirty. That’s not plenty of time.’

VI

July, 1996

In Shadzhara, in the old part of town, it was cheerful enough today, even if cramped and stuffy in the heat.

Ludmilla Valerievna Petrova congratulated the section, the Sovyetski champagne flowed, they tucked into the kolbasa and red caviar on rye, plus the inevitable salads. The mild sunshine, through one cracked pane of glass, cast a jagged shadow upon the table.

Ksenia Sharova, The Siren they called her only half-jokingly, made the speech, she thanked Ludmilla Valerievna - their coup in London couldn't have been achieved without back up and so on and so on and so on.

She hated being cooped up inside old state buildings with poor ventilation, her nylons flecked with slush from the thawing roads. It still wasn’t wise to complain too fervently; communism might have died as a political force, the oligarchs were running amok in the scramble for the dollar but old habits died hard in the security services and people didn’t appreciate the unappreciative.

In the Russia of the mid-90s, you did what you had to do, so Ksenia kept her own counsel, she and brother Zhenya accepted the accolades and awaited their return to London.

VII

Marc Lacour checked the travel case on his home scales and it weighed in under 14 kilos.

Bon.

He checked the mirror and decided the hair needed cropping before departure.

Sitting at the kitchen table he'd need to replace, he looked over the five pages of notes and frowned - the cash seemed to peter out at Nizhny and restart in Shadzhara, further east. Who was getting paid for what and who was couriering it? More importantly, what sort of business was generating that sort of cash, why was it always in dollars and why did Mademoiselle always have to travel to Shadzhara to get it?

VIII

The Moscow end had been primed, Zhenya had already taken through the first tape and, predictably, had left Ksenia the task of taking through the second and more damaging.

She needed a bunny, someone who was not likely to be searched. It could be one of her countrymen but chances were they knew the ropes.

Yes, she needed a bunny. Looking once more in the mirror, she flashed that smile and knew she'd always have to smile to get what she wanted. When she didn't smile, her face was hard and reflected the life she'd had.

At last, satisfied, she gathered her cabin bag, keys and the door card, looked around, hadn't left anything, took the lift down, paid the Charing Cross receptionist, saw the car pull up and the porter following with her wheelie case.

In the back seat, she thought out how she'd do it, went over it in her mind, then looked out of the window as they joined the M4, wondering who occupied all those little boxes in a row in this green land.

.o0o.

At Orly, Marc sipped one last coffee with the petite Nicolette, she of the anxious grin and the fair hair swept up in a bun.

For her part, she thought he looked quite dashing this morning in his charcoal blouson, polo tee and cords but knowing his lack of interest in things sartorial, concluded there’d been a female behind the choice.

Now who?

Not Genevieve, she was fairly sure - Mademoiselle was more conservative. Hmmm – the fashionable Francine? Nikki hadn’t heard of anything going on there and she’d have been the first to hear.

Ah, she had it - the efficient young Claudette, non?

‘Claudette not travelling with you, Marc?’  The shot found its target. ‘Oh Marc, surely not with Claudette?’

‘What’s wrong with Claudette?’ came the reply.

‘Well ... er ... nothing, nothing at all. Will we hear wedding bells?’

Now it was his turn to grin. ‘The brain works overtime with you, Nikki, doesn’t it?’

He said his farewells and went through, the plane took off and in the next sentient moment, he was once again queuing at Sheremetyevo 2 immigration control, discovering that the stamp on his visa was not sufficiently over the photo and having to fork out the equivalent of $US152 plus 400 roubles for inconveniencing the authorities, all of which bemused rather than annoyed him – he knew all the horror stories of Sheremetyevo and considered he’d got off rather lightly, all told.

A taxi took him to the station for eastbound trains and it was now a case of killing a few hours until the 19.28 departure. He checked his bag in at the left luggage and went for a wander.

IX

Aeroflot SU 241 for Moscow was open for check-in at Heathrow.

In the slow moving queue, about the only excitement, Hugh felt, was when a young lady accidentally fell against him, knocking his cabin bag to the ground just as he was opening it to get a mini-Toblerone, spilling all the documents, photos, Toblerones and bits and pieces over the concourse floor.

At second glance, he wondered if they cloned them over there - sculpted face, athletic figure, high cheek bones and blue-grey, melancholy eyes.

She apologized profusely in heavily accented English, scrambling over the floor, helping put them back in his pack but when he protested, she simply disappeared. Not that there was anything valuable in there – the cash and documents were in his special underpants with the holdall gusset, one of his inventions but still - he did an inventory as far as he could remember.

All through that flight, her eyes remained on his mind. Did they all have melancholy eyes?

.o0o.

Over Russia proper, he looked down from the cabin window onto the forest below; it was easy to make out a long straight road with bumper to bumper traffic and he could see a cruise ship on the meandering river - that might be something nice to try out one day, he thought, as the last of the whisky in the plastic beaker went down the throat neatly.

.o0o.

The moment they hit the ground in Moscow, passengers were out of their seats, scrambling for baggage from the stowage lockers, the hostess pleading through the intercom for them to remain seated - he grinned - then, in next to no time, they were in the customs area.

Two uniformed, auburn haired women were sharing a private joke; one took up her place in the booth. She seemed friendly enough, which augured well and it certainly began pleasantly enough - until her eye caught the visa.

The face fell, the pouting lips tightened, she left the booth to consult with her superior; an eternity later she returned; there was a problem with the photograph, the stamp hadn’t been placed correctly over the corner; no it wasn’t incidental, he’d have to wait to one side and his bags would be held for the next plane back in the morning.

One of the airline officials now slid over to him and spoke soothingly. ‘It can be resolved, my friend, don’t worry, the consulate can solve this problem of yours.’

Nervous waiting followed, interminable waiting but eventually the official returned with a spring in his step and a bundle of documents; all was well. Did Mr. Jensen have dollars? A little matter of $US152 plus 400 roubles fine for inconveniencing the authorities.

Anyway, it got the clunk of stamp on passport and now followed the unwanted attentions of the unofficial, deregulated taxi drivers, vying with each other for his fare. He’d prepaid Intourist for a taxi to the station and his lift was meant to have been here by 17:00 but there was still no sign.

He bought a drink, about the only thing not a rip-off, found a free table and watched the door for a man in a hurry.

.o0o.

The driver rushed in at 17:45, thin and wiry, rubbing his moustache, well aware he was late. He also knew how to cut through Moscow’s peak hour traffic, Hugh’s hands gripping the door handle as the Muscovite mounted footpaths and shaved parked cars with his wheel arches, all the while keeping up a jaunty monologue.

‘You only true Moskvitch if you born inside Garden Circle ring road.’

‘Watch the old lady!’

‘Da, da ... ya Moskvitch –’

‘Tovarishch, the old lady! For goodness sake.’

‘No to worry, friend,’ puzzlement on his face. ‘Vsyo normal, khorosho.’

.o0o.

The Volga shot through gaps and brushed curbsides but they got to the train on time, screeching to a halt at an angle to the traffic, the driver grabbing Hugh’s case and shoving his way through the throng towards the carriage in its grey-green livery, with him tagging along as best he could, avoiding random passengers lugging tartan pvc bags, carrying their worldly possessions most like.

He’d taken half a ‘lux’ and was relieved to see a frizzy-haired chap with stubble, French as it turned out, which augured well. Expecting to have to speak Russian, he could practise his French instead, that is if the other could stand it and if not well, the man was bound to fancy a tipple or two.

.o0o.

The train gave a shudder at 19:28, creaked a little, then shuffled out of Moscow into the more open countryside, slowly picking up speed.

The wooden sliding door was flung open, and with the increased noise came a uniformed woman, perching on the olive vinyl bench with a sort of bus conductor’s leather satchel at the ready. Some passing girl in the corridor said they wanted tickets, passports and some money; after she’d collected, neatly folded and stowed the items in her satchel for the night and offered heavily sugared tea in glasses jammed into ornate metal holders, there was relative peace and both finally felt they could relax for the first time.

The silver birch trees began to rollick past outside as the train settled into its rhythm and both men settled back on their bunks.

Neither Hugh’s French nor the Frenchman’s Russian passed muster, so they settled on English as the medium, both wanting to know what the other was doing heading for this eastern outpost.

Marc thought Hugh’s story the most romantic he’d heard in a long while.

‘Do you really think so?’ asked Hugh. ‘Tell you what, if you give me your mobile number, Marc, I’ll give it to her best friend Dilyara tomorrow –’

‘Not to Anya herself?’ he smiled.

‘- and I’ll say there’s a wonderful Frenchman who came here just for her and who’s expecting her call. What do you say?’

Lacour handed over a card, Hugh apologized that he had no business card in return, they lapsed into silence again, lying on their bunks, until Mark came out with, ‘I’m not really French, you know, though it helps a lot with the girls.’

He had Jensen’s attention.

‘Actually, our family roots are French but two generations ago, they went to Warminster, of all places, settled down and I’m from that branch of the family.’

‘I thought the English was a bit too good, yet you retain the French accent.’

‘My parents returned to Châtelet-en-Brie when I was four, I grew up in Melun and the French generally take me as one of them. Your accent has something in it as well, I think. South African? Educated but it has something else.’

‘Bit of antipodaean, actually - the family’s split between both places.’

‘So we have our first common ground. Let me show you some photos of my two elder sisters.’ 

Hugh scrutinized each in turn and the family resemblance was there – the long-bridged nose, the pleasing curve to the jaw, the wavy hair.

‘And this one?’ Hugh asked.

‘That’s Marie-Ange. I don't know why I brought that really. It's in the past now.'

Hugh produced his, of Anya and Dilyara.'

'Ah, I see.'

.o0o.

The train came to a shuddering halt only two to three hours out of Moscow, Shadzhara still another nine hours or so away.

It had started raining some time earlier, the window of the compartment was partially fogged and droplets were trickling down outside of the pane. Rubbing the glass, Hugh could just make out some figures over by another stationary train – obviously they were at some station and much as he tried to glimpse its name, it was to no avail.

People were jostling for position out there, holding up crystal chandeliers and all sorts of glassware for passengers to peruse; a handful of passengers actually did step down to buy and were immediately set upon by up to fifteen vendors trying to push their wares onto them.

He remembered he’d read about it now - Vekovka, where the workers were paid in their own products and had to sell them to passers-by to survive. This was a legacy of the Soviet days no doubt.

Appalling.

One girl of about twenty, cigarette hanging from her mouth, had become bored, she was now joined by a young spiv, clearly on the make, right under the carriage window and though neither Marc nor Hugh could make out the words, the tone was guttural and the intonation harsh.

‘Fancy her?’ smiled Marc and Hugh’s look said it all.

X

Sergei Safin was bored, waiting for the call.

The tie had been loosened, his shirt opened at the neck, only the pips on the epaulettes of his khaki jacket indicated his rank. Feet up on the other wooden chair in the office, he stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, ran powerful fingers through his unruly fair hair and then the cacophany of the phone began.

‘Da? Khorosho. Da. You’re sure? Khorosho. Kama Camp? Tomorrow morning, all right, I’ll find him; he’ll be the centre of attention, won’t he?’

The woman continued at the other end and Safin assured her: ‘Ladno, I promise - I’ll just observe, that’s all.’

He replaced the receiver and went out for a drink.

XI

07:12 saw Lacour and Jensen both stepping over the tracks at Shadzhara railway station - no roofed in platforms here - and there were three cars waiting to take a largish party, including Hugh, straight down to Kama Camp, the resort by the Kama River. These were his new school colleagues but of Anya and Dilyara, there was no sign.

Marc Lacour bid adieu and seemed to slip into the shadows.

Hugh took one quick look at the Kama as their car pulled out and drove past the imposing white Kremlin with its leaning, brown bricked tower and rattled past low, cream coloured buildings, broad waterways and stone Venetian bridges.

The oppressively hot day was improved not one bit by the potholed road and he settled back for the panorama, the Lada alternately racing ahead and suddenly slowing to a crawl, then back to breakneck again.

.o0o.

An hour later, they turned left into another road and he saw the river on the right.

They eventually slowed, turned right through the Soviet green wrought iron gate – there was an inscription in Cyrillic in the wrought iron archway, which he suspected might say something like Arbeitet Macht Frei and now they came out on a domed, flying saucer shaped building, which, had it been in the west, might have been labelled art deco.

A short distance from this, to the left, was a long table under the silver beriozi trees which they now joined, many guests, many speeches, every new speech by someone further down the table a signal to raise glasses.

A young man standing behind Hugh saw it as his job to keep the foreigner’s glass full of vodka.

.o0o.

The speeches wore on.

.o0o.

They ate.

.o0o.

The day wore on.

.o0o.

He excused himself and stumbled some distance in search of a tree and had just zipped up when Dilyara appeared from the forest, an exotic bird in olive bathing costume and yellow wrap. On autopilot, he kissed her cheek and she nodded - so Mr. Jensen had come to her home after all.

Swaying slightly from the heat and vodka, which impressed her not, he reached into his pocket and extracted Paul’s card.

‘What’s this?’ she asked.

‘It’s a Frenchman who’s patiently awaiting your phone call at his Hotel, handsome chap and he’s heard all about you.’

Dilyara glanced again at the card and commented, ‘And what if I already have a perfectly good boyfriend?’

‘I’m sure you have to beat them off with a stick. Do you think you could show both of us the city tomorrow?’

She murmured, ‘I think Anya has plans for you tomorrow.’

Reason now reached his foggy brain, he went to put the card away but her hand stopped him, she took it and slipped it inside the cup of her costume. ‘Never know what might happen, do we? Did you bring your swimming costume?’

‘Er ... no,’ he slurred.

‘Pity,’ she replied, finding a place on his cheek and kissing him there; she turned and went back to the forest.

He stood there for some seconds, turned and stumbled back to the others.

XII

The next morning, Anya finally turned up with her father in a red Zhigoulie, the local variant of the Lada, she sat in the front, he in the back; the ride wasn’t too bumpy but it was in silence.

.o0o.

The city came into view, they drove through the outskirts and then the father pulled up outside a flat in the Kvartel area - Anya called it ‘the edge of geography’ - one of those long housing blocks, nine storeys high, a hundred and forty flats in one block. Within the kilometre square, houses were interconnected by a labyrinth of service roads, most connecting with others, some not, some leading to archways through one of the houses, all surfaces potholed and in need of urgent repair.

Her own flat was a brisk twelve minute walk away, through the yards between these service roads and houses, bleak yards generally, some leafy and pleasant, all of them with tubular metal rug-beating frames and broken children’s play equipment.

She went inside, then returned some minutes later and a rapid Russian conversation ensued, the father not happy, thick fingers drumming impatiently on the roof of the car. Anya poked her head through the window and announced, ‘They’re redecorating your flat; you can’t stay here. Would you mind staying with me instead?’

‘For how long?’

‘For the rest of the summer.’

Gulp.

All belongings were deposited upstairs at her house, he met her mother in passing and the usual head self-consciously dipped, broad smiled greetings were exchanged - what a honey - then Anya asked, ‘Can you be ready in five minutes? To go to the Garden.’

‘Garden, what garden? Do I need to pack?’

‘Pack?’

‘Clothes, things, you know, to take with me.’

‘Enough for a few days, da.’

Seven minutes later, they were en route for The Garden, to Zhilploshatka, on the outskirts of town and the heat had not become any less oppressive. He stole a glance across at her in the car, she allowed herself the quickest of smiles and just as quickly, it faded. He wondered what was going on here.

He was also wondering why the Russians always had to rush to and fro - was there some legal time limit to each journey or were they just charged by the minute?

XIII

Dilyara met Marc at Cafe Giuseppe, on the broad, tree-lined administrative street called Kryemlyovskaya, high up on the ridge, looking down over the old town. It was shortly after opening, 09:45.

If she was expecting a wolf, she found a lamb, a well-dressed lamb too, with perfect manners and with the grace to ask what her tastes were. She hoped he wouldn’t ask because the silly reason she’d chosen the place was no more than that it was originally called the Hotel France.

Besides, it was the perfect stepping off point for the little tour she’d organized but she’d have to put him straight on alcohol. Also, there was something she’d read, that in France there were certain sensitivities about Muslims in some quarters and she wasn’t sure how Marc was placed that way, whether he’d react negatively once he knew she was Muslim.

After a coffee and cakes made on the premises, he paid up, they embarked on their tour and the conversation was little more than desultory, again using English as the medium, he asking about her family and friends, she asking about Paris and French life in general.

‘You say you live in three rooms?’

‘Da.’

‘You mean three bedrooms?’

‘Three rooms. One’s a living area during the day, one’s a study with books and one’s for storing things. At night, they become bedrooms.’

‘Really?’

They sauntered along the footpath a hundred metres or so and then Dilyara suddenly cut through a clear area between two buildings and they were separated by a stone rampart. When they eventually met up again, she murmured something in Russian, he asked, she explained.

'Privyet na sto lyet. Hello for 100 years. It's for good luck, you know, so we're not separated for real.'

'Ah.'

.o0o.

By Lake Nabak, the two of them leaned over a parapet set above the lower walkway, his calm presence was pleasing, quite different to the local guys, yet his conversation lacked their earthy repartee. His awkward self-assurance, if there was such a thing, was hard to get a line on.

For his part, it was her long dark hair and eyes which did the damage. He'd heard they were exotic in this part of the world and now he saw it was so.

‘When must you leave?’ she asked.

‘This evening – this is the last day.’

‘Will you return?’

‘Now that I have a reason.’

‘You’re French,’ she chuckled nervously, ‘you’d say anything.’

‘Yes?’

‘I’m sorry. I just get a bit nervous when I like someone a lot.’

‘You can visit me in Paris if you like. Would you do that?’ As she didn’t reply, he added quickly, ‘Or I could telephone.’

She smiled and wrote the number on the piece of paper he offered, with the pen he offered. He folded the slip carefully, placed it in his wallet and as he was clearly not going to make any other move himself, she quickly touched his cheek with the fingers of one hand and then her lips, causing him to blush.

XIV

‘Does everyone have a garden outside the city?’ asked Hugh, as the car slowed over a broken section of asphalt.

She turned to face him. ‘Families need somewhere to grow fruit and vegetables for the winter. Only those who work stay in the city – those or the poor.’

The father drove on stolidly, not sure if he liked the yabber yabber yabber of the English language or not.

The rough approach road was like something from ancient photos of cities, bordered by rickety wooden fences.

Eventually they were adjacent to a green painted weatherboard doll’s house, overhung by leafy trees which had grown to full height and width over the decades, the vine-entangled verandah on the far side looking out upon row upon row of cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes, with the berry trees behind that again - all irrigated.  

Garden of Eden.

They went through.

In the far left corner of the allotment, above the toilet, was the Tin Roof she’d said was for suntanning, accessible only by stepladder. In the far right corner was the banya – the Russian sauna they’d apparently enjoy in the early evening.

And in the middle, under a huge apple tree, was The Table, the centrepiece of the whole garden.

From around the corner of the doll’s house now came an elderly couple and the pieces fell into place. It was their garden, their pride and joy. The grandfather was a good looking cove, about his height, with wiry strength in a thin body; the grandmother was not undernourished and now she beamed from ear to ear.

She saw Hugh gazing at The Table and asked, through Anya, ‘Lunch. You must be hungry.’

The reason he’d really been scrutinizing the Table was the mobile telephone carelessly left lying there. In the west - yes at that time but here, in this province … well, he was puzzled and besides, it wasn’t like his chunky vodaphone – it was the small, two piece, snap-open variety.

XV

In an office on the outskirts of Shadzhara, Viktor Igorovich wound up his festivities about 23:00.

His old cronies from the tax police were putting on the regulation knees-up and they fell roughly into two categories – those who understood and wished him all the best with his new English language venture and those who failed to understand how he could give away the camaraderie for some vague notion of self improvement.

Actually, he’d been learning English for years, he'd been part of the soviet youth underground which listened to British music whenever bootleg copies found themselves past the Iron Curtain and there was always the Samizdat. Now he’d made a promise to himself to knuckle down and pursue English to the point where he’d be taken for a native, he’d buy cassettes, he’d travel … if he could scrape together the money, of course.


That day he swore off all but the odd social drink and the cavalier lifestyle. Putting his Paul McCartney cassette into his player, he readied himself for bed, frowning at the triceps in the mirror - ten days off training and he was already going soft.

1-2: The Garden


Chapter 1 here ... Chapter 3 here
HOME

I

The meal in the Garden hit the spot - meat and vegetable soup, marinaded chicken pieces and salad, everything fresh, especially the berries they’d picked to have with the tea and Hugh saw they were a ritualized tea drinking nation - days of the Raj.

Anya explained that the best tea came overland, presumably meaning from Ceylon but surely that meant over the sea?

Never mind.

If language was a barrier, the spirit of goodwill was not and he was being plied with bowl after bowl, until it dawned on him that they were going to keep doing this until he somehow stopped them. Anya’s eyes were creased with laughter and when she judged the moment appropriate, told him to say, ‘Na yel’sa,’ with the stress on the ‘yel’, then, ‘Spasibo.’

Things began to be cleared away.

The two of them went for a wander after that, he in boat shoes and long shorts, she wearing a light cotton shirt reaching down to her knees, gathered in at the waist, flip-flops on her athletic feet and sporting a broad-brimmed straw hat.

.o0o.

The sun was beating down something awful, as five minutes or so later they reached a little lake where she shed her outer shirt, revealing a one piece costume, quite modest but clingy all the same.

Gingerly, she stepped into the water, turned and beckoned him, making it to near the middle of the lake well before him and he was no slouch in the water.

As he swam up, she wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck, laughed, released him and swam hell for leather back to the bank.

.o0o.

At the garden once more, a whiff of smoke emerged from the banya chimney and anxiety gripped yet again - did they … er … expect him to … er … join them there … in the nuddy?

He breached it with her but she explained that no, as foreign guest, he’d be first through - he asked if the grandfather needed any help getting things ready.

Apparently not.

Clutching a towel and a clean change, he followed her to the outer door which creaked open, they went in and this was clearly just the outer room for changing; she now patiently waited for him to do so and noted his redness from the sun.

Then they went into the next room and the heat hit.

Here was a wooden slatted floor, presumably over concrete and it was clearly used to being awash. Big swishes of some birchy type were in the corner and she saw him looking askance at those. Grabbing one, she began to hit her back and neck with it and he understood.

‘You’re doing that to me? Or do I do that to you?’

‘It’s for you, you take it in with you.’

.o0o.

Supper on the verandah two hours later comprised fish, tomatoes, black bread and oukrop [dill], with watermelon then tea for afters. The crystal clear air and the quietness of the Russian countryside, the banya, the food, the grandparents and finally her – they'd all begun to seep into the soul on what was really his first proper Russian day.

It was time to retire for the night; she went to one room with them, he to the other and of course, it had to be like this - all proper and above board.

Deep silence now fell on the Garden but of course he couldn’t sleep, not on this first night of possibility. He turned over on his back, put hands behind his head ... turned on his side, then onto his back again ... restless, listening, waiting.

He willed her to come, willed her but she didn’t come. She obstinately didn’t.

Then, suddenly, she was there, silhouetted, almost naked in the moonlight, the outline of her dishevelled hair wreaking more havoc than he cared to admit. Sensing he was wide awake, she reached into a drawer for a T-shirt, took one look over her bare shoulder at him and went back to the other room, threw the T-shirt on the chair - she hadn’t needed it anyway - and flopped onto her bed.

Turning onto her side and staring out of the window, the half light crossed her thighs and she didn’t really know what to think. If he’d been sweet on Dilyara, well, she’d have been most annoyed - angry, in fact. He was an opportunist, her Mr. Jensen, trying things out and never having the vaguest notion what he was in for but so was she and he was her captive for the summer.

Did she need that?

Just what were his intentions?

What were hers, if it came to that? She needed to organize her defences.

Why had she invited him here anyway? He was like a fish out of water and it wasn't so much the age but that he had absolutely nothing in common with anyone here.

II

Dilyara occupied the flat her parents had vacated when they’d left the city and retired to the forest.

That much was excellent but the down side was that her younger brother by one year also occupied the flat and despite the agreement they had and despite the good relations between the two, it was next to impossible to bring anyone home.

Lying on her bed, she reasoned she’d have to go to Marc instead but the difficulty was that he’d already left for Nizhny Novgorod that morning.

On a whim, she phoned his mobile and hoped he wouldn’t be angry.

Actually, he was delighted. ‘Oui? Can’t hear you well … Oui … Excellent … Excellent … Pardon? Dilyara, that’s not possible … Non, non, you don’t see … I am on a job from home … they are paying me for results and it is ... well ... delicate … Non, non, not that but I might have to move fast, to go here and there –’

He listened to the low voice at the Shadzhara end, stared at his mobile for a few moments and replied, ‘I know all that … yes, I know you wouldn’t but you would still be my responsibility, if anything happened. These are serious people.’

There was dead silence at her end.

Then he conceded, ‘Alors. All right but when you arrive, you’ll have to take a car to an address I’ll give you now – it’s not exactly where I’m staying … All right?’

He gave the address and the time on the morrow and that was that.

He sighed.

III

The next sound at The Garden was the squawking of the birds in the trees outside the little window next morning, Hugh heard the crackling of potatoes being fried in the kitchenette, yawned, got up, dressed and went outside to greet a lovely day. The grandmother beamed and handed him a towel, indicating the wash basin around the side of the house.

Anya was on tiptoes, picking berries and breakfast was almost ready on the verandah. He wandered over, she kept her eyes trained on the berries above and asked, ‘What do you expect from me, Hugh?’

He smiled. ‘I expect nothing but I hope for everything.’

‘I’m taken, I have … a boyfriend.’

‘Where is he?’

She stewed over that one for a few moments. ‘Shadzhara’s like a village, Hugh - don’t you understand that? People would talk. They’re already talking and it’s still only summer.’

‘Is that a problem?’

‘I didn’t make any promises in London, did I?’

‘No, you didn’t, not at all.  Look, I can stay in my new flat, keep my distance from you and maybe meet someone else, do my year and just return to Britain. No one gets hurt, no one is under any pressure. I’m not asking for anything.’

‘Yes you are. Just by coming all this way, just by accepting my invitation, you’re making a very big statement.’

He accepted her point with a self-conscious smile. ‘We all work on signals, don’t we? I never detected any really negative signals from you and believe me, I’ve listened and looked for them because no one likes rejection. So on that basis, here I am.’

‘Like the smell of blood to a shark.’

‘Did you have to say that?’

‘Don’t mind me, Hugh. I’m defensive when someone gets close. I like someone close but then I close the shutters. I’m not so sure about the long term with you.’

‘As you wish.’

The grandfather took a phone call over at the table and then another call followed. This time he handed the mobile to Hugh.

‘Da?’

‘Mr. Jensen?’ A female voice, Russian, somehow familiar, accented English.

‘Who’s this?’

‘You might remember me from Heathrow – in London.’ He smiled at the ‘in London’. ‘I think I might have dropped my cassette by mistake while I was helping you. Did you find a tape by Linda, by any chance?’

‘I’ll have a look. Linda, you say? We’re not in the city just now. Who are you anyway? What’s your name?’

‘Please put it in an envelope and post it to the address I gave the man I just spoke with.’ There was a pause. ‘Please?’

Hugh handed the mobile to Anya; she closed it and asked the same question, ‘Who is she?’

‘Miss Heathrow.’

‘So let’s look when we go back, which is soon by the way – I’m on duty tomorrow. Can you be ready in an hour?’

IV

Ksenya looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and saw some crow’s feet starting to appear - just the faintest sign of them, which could surely be put down to laugh lines but she was loathe to cake on the makeup, as it tended to put them off.

Golden-haired, blue-eyed, never had to work too hard on the slimming - nature had been kind so far but thirty was not so many years away and as age encroached, her usefulness as an operative steadily diminished. She knew that full well.

She bit her lip and thought of the useless affairs that one job after another had turned into - the snappily dressed Shaidullin had been the last of them in Nizhny and he’d tricked her - anyway, he was married to a lovely woman who seemed to have no idea whatsoever.

Zhenya and his maverick attitude were more of a problem. She could always disown her brother but better he was technically ‘in’ where she could exert at least some influence. Valerievna had more power over him but in the end, no one did. There really was a screw loose with Zhenya, personable though he was.

She’d shut out her childhood memories well enough but some of it kept coming back at times and it was better nobody got close enough to uncover her past, her weakness. Looking down at her light blue jeans and the white and pink trainers; she thought she looked clean and good.

V

Back in Shadzhara, they found the cassette in the pack, sat down on the sofa and listened. It was basically just songs about Tibetan dames, except at the end where someone had recited random numbers. He shrugged and asked for an envelope.

‘First we write it, just in case,’ said Anya.

‘Write it?’

‘Make another cassette.’

‘Ah.’

.o0o.

They posted the packet and it was Anya who mentioned it first. ‘How did she know my grandfather’s mobile?’

He’d like to have known that himself. ‘No idea, seriously. She couldn’t have got it from me.’

‘I don’t think I like that.’

It was too stifling in the flat, so they went for a walk. At the back of the housing block was a brook with a log across it and beyond that, a field where people took their dogs, plus some half finished, elongated, concrete structure to one side. Not a bad place for a stroll.

The air was decidedly better here and they spoke of this and that, sitting on the grass; she plucked some camomile flowers, wrapping then round and round with three long lengths of grass and placed one behind his ear.

.o0o.

They got back about midday, the sky already darkening, a storm was on the way and when it finally hit, the air instantly filled with torrential rain of such intensity that nothing could be seen further than five metres.

‘Come, come,’ she urged, stepping onto the glassed-in balcony, staring down through the opened panel. The paved roads below could be seen now in the first abatement of the rain, they were full to the top of the kerbs with swirling water, people were protecting themselves as best they could, either leaning into the gale or else turning their backs to it and crouching down.

Lightning flashed and now a second wave came, this time with hailstones. Hail - in the middle of summer, in the middle of the day!

By now, they were leaning out through one double window together, her hair whipped across his face and when he moved it back over her shoulders, she seemed to misinterpret it, turned to him and it was line ball who kissed whom first.

VI

September, 1996

By the 29th, Anya’s birthday, Hugh was settled in at the new flat, the possibilities of the area had been explored and he’d started the new job.

Today they were visiting Pizzeria Giuseppe, formerly Hotel France, high up on Shadzhara’s most stately tree lined promenade, from the white rendered Spassky Tower and Kremlin to the north, the street then running south along the ridge to the heritage listed National Library, University and gymnasium, about half a kilometre away in the other direction.

Giuseppe’s was regarded by most as a place you went for special occasions. Divided into two main rooms, the smaller closer to the door and the larger inner room where orders were placed, the white cement-rendered walls, hung with Italian prints, the white café furniture and the window ‘boxes’ running the entire length with plants and foliage, looking out over Kryemlyovskaya - these created an ambience unusual outside Moscow cafes.

A bevy of girls dressed in dark green frocks trimmed with dark maroon set off the scene. It was a case of going up to the counter, ordering and paying, then waiting for the food to arrive. Sometimes they’d bring it to the table, sometimes you’d have to go up to the counter, especially during busy periods. Anya quite enjoyed the mind-boggling varieties of ice-cream and the champagne; he liked the pizza at this place, especially pizza s’myasom [bolognaise].

They ordered and took a table near the window, just inside the main room, noting all the comings and goings, which was the main purpose of the exercise, truth be told. Anya mentioned a birthday call from Dilyara.

‘Any news?’

‘She has a new boyfriend; you know him, she says - Marc Lacour.’

Hugh grinned. ‘Ah, so she activated the visitni.’

‘Pardon?’

‘He was on the train with me when I first arrived, he gave me his card and I gave it to her at the camp the day before you arrived.’

‘You directed her to another man?’ She could scarcely contain her smile. ‘Oh, Dilya would really like that ... not.’

‘Well, it seems to have worked out all right.’

She glanced across at a neighbouring table and he followed the glance, his eyes resting on an auburn haired siren, maybe twenty seven, long hair held in place in a bun by a wooden clip in the shape of two hearts, completed by hooped golden earrings and black leather, stilettoed shoes.

‘So?’ asked Anya, ‘Whose is she?’

‘Who cares?’

‘Keep watching.’

The snazzily dressed boyfriend, about forty, came back with the pizzas and wine and they were clearly in that terminal state of two people with countless unresolved petty grievances, adjacent to each other, not saying a word.

‘The Odd Couple,’ she laughed, a trifle too loudly.

‘Shhh!’

And yet there was something easy in that relationship, a sort of rapport born of long proximity.

.o0o.

They went for a wander through the whitewalled Kremlin as far as the tower, leaning like Pisa, in seven tiers of brown brick. The legend was that the last Mongol princess, seeing the approach of Ivan Grozny [the Terrible] and knowing he wanted to marry her, had thrown herself off the uppermost tier of the tower, rather than suffer such humiliation.

Like most legends, there were anachronisms and contradictions but who cared? It was a smashing tale.

VII

October, 1996

Russian dinner table conversation now was largely about Operation Desert Strike in Iraq and Lukanov’s assassination in Bulgaria. Clinton was also making big noises in America and here, in Shadzhara, it was the first holiday of the academic year - ‘Dyen Uchitilya’, or ‘Teachers’ Day’, when the staff usually packed into a bus and made the 100km trek for a resort in the Republic of Mariel and so the Friday afternoon found Hugh on their bus for Klyenovaya Gora, Maple Leaf Mountain.

She went with him to the school to see him off and cast a critical eye over the assembled staff for any potential problems.

There was one possibility in his eyes and coincidentally, the thought had drifted across her mind that this one might be out to make a play, so she’d best keep the ring concealed.  Meanwhile, the women had just launched into lusty song.

Everyone but Hugh knew this was once of the few chances in the year for the married women to let their hair down and not to have to cook and clean; things were bound to get quite festive.

The ex-Soviet bus rollicked away from the school and she went home to prepare herself for Dasha’s child’s first birthday; she was scheduled to be collected at 19:00.

.o0o.

The usual suspects were at the party, those who always cracked jokes did crack jokes, those who always made loud noises and shrieked did make loud noises and by the middle of the evening, she could feel a headache coming on.

It was a relief to be able to go to the kitchen and help out with the preparations, resisting all calls to come back to the main room and get drunk. So what if they thought her high nosed – it helped her through this party. She replayed her last words in her head: ‘helped get her through this party’.

Goodness.

About 23:00, Grisha and three henchmen crashed the dinner and turned it upside down; spying her in the kitchen, minus her minder; his bile rose, he swaggered in and delivered a few choice words, she promptly put the apron away, ordered a taxi, excused herself to her hostess and went home.

She and Hugh were going to tie the knot and to hell with them all. Or not. She was terrified. Well, they were going to talk it over anyway, once he returned.

VIII

Klyenovaya Gora, set at the foot of a mountain forest of densely packed maple trees, was famous for the spring water, which could only be accessed by stepping down from a high, narrow wooden bridge, crossing a gulch connecting the lakes.

The party arrived in the early evening, dusk having already fallen, they settled in then went down for the supper and dancing. The younger set were more into dipping in the lake at midnight and Hugh made a mental note not to join them.

The tables had been formed into a large U in the dining area on the first floor, conducive to socializing and that’s where eyes met again with the raven haired one opposite. The company was building up to the raucous stage and he was caught in endless conversations with women trying out their English on him.

In the end, he got away, nodding for her to do so too, quickly collecting coats, hoods and gloves and heading for the outer door before they’d be missed, neither realizing they’d already been missed and were the butt of jokes already.

The approach road to the hotel was lined either side with floodlights, but beyond that was forest. Side by side, they strolled down the path towards the main road, talking about this and that, reaching the end disappointingly quickly, at which point he turned to look at her, her face framed by the furry hood, not unlike something out of Dr. Zhivago, only here and now, in the middle of Russia, not half a metre from him, awaiting his next move.

An exceptionally beautiful face it was too and the turned-up nose was entrancing.  Fantasies could be realized after all.

Taller than Anya, her dark hair he knew to be waist-length, plaited behind into a single ponytail; she was slender to a fault, almost bony, her eyes complemented her hair, an altogether different article to his love. Calmer and more deliberate, the voice was light and her accent seductive.

Yet there was something curiously vulnerable about Alla – vulnerable but wilful.  He was excited and she was flattered but his excitement had as much to do with what she was - a local in every way.  Sure she'd learnt English but she'd never been out of Russia, unlike Anya, she was a Russian type unfamiliar to him, a type he had no right to expect to now be face to face with on the edge of a Russian forest on a late autumn evening.

He took her gloved hands and felt her long fingers grasp his. She was responding to his moves, for some crazy reason he leaned forward and kissed her upper lip, then asked if she wanted to go into the forest itself. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that she might not.

She shook her head. ‘I’m frightened of the forest.’

‘You – frightened? But you’re Russian!’

‘Why can’t Russians be frightened?’

‘Because they - well, they can’t. At least, I didn’t think so.’

‘There are wolves in that forest, Hugh.’

‘Really? I thought they’d killed them all or driven them away or something.’

She shook her head. ‘My grandmother told me about them.’

He looked at her sharply. This was a woman in her late twenties or early thirties, surely with some experience of life and here she was speaking of grandmothers and wolves.

‘Don’t worry, Alla, I can’t see them being near a populated hotel.’

What the hell was he saying, telling a Russian about her own backyard? He awaited the rebuff but she dropped her eyes instead, chuckling but still holding on to his hands. ‘Do you think we should walk back?’ she suggested, ‘The others might be waiting for us.’

‘Are you bored?’

‘I’m cold.’ Another surprise.

‘How can you be cold? You’re Russian.’

‘I’m human. You have some strange ideas about us.’

‘I’m learning, Alla, I’m learning. All right, let’s walk back.’

She snaked her arm through his, her long, thin, gloved fingers clutching his upper arm but then stopped short. ‘Hugh!’ she gripped his arm more tightly.

‘What?’

‘Over there, in the trees. Do you think -?’

‘Stay here. I’ll find out,’ he ordered.

He plunged into the forest, rambled about for a while, then came back. ‘Nope, no wolves whatsoever.’

She visibly relaxed and as they walked back, she asked in turn what things frightened him.

‘Seriously?’

‘Da.’

‘Occult things, the enemy.’

Back at the hotel, three of the women caught sight of them and ribbed them mercilessly, which confused Alla and she hurried up to her room, Hugh following on some time later but not to his room.

Instead, he took a chair in the rectangular bay on their floor, this bay wedged between two rooms; some of the younger ones now came up with a cassette player and music, keeping the volume reasonably low but urging Hugh to get up and dance, which he was loathe to do but in the end he got up, made desultory moves and then Alla appeared from her room.

The slower numbers began and as the young people drifted away, she came into his arms and swayed to the rhythm, he adjusted to her rhythm but then realized she wanted him to lead. Their lips inevitably met, by now they were alone, the last people having drifted away, the cassette had finished and the unstated question arose.

There were two rooms to choose from, weren’t there?

She used his moment of indecision to excuse herself and slipped into her own room, turning at the door to smile and say good night.

Standing in the middle of the carpet, he wasn’t sure what had just happened, he shrugged and went off to bed, wondering whether there really were wolves in that forest.

IX

In Nizhny Novgorod, Valentina Alexandrova was scrutinizing the top document in the file that Viktor Bukovsky, her Senior-Sergeant, had brought her. She stepped across to the light and put on her reading glasses, which Viktor considered made her even more attractive.

‘What do we have on this Deputatov?’ she asked, turning round to face Bukovsky. ‘Why would he be of any concern to us?’

‘He’s connected with a Ronald Seymour - dried goods fame - shady character in Velikobritannia.’

‘Why would he be of any concern to us though?’ she repeated.

‘They’re setting up in Nizhny.’

‘I see.’

‘And some members of the security services are being seconded to ease the way through the regulations.’

‘Surely that’s a matter for the tax police, not security.’

‘Da but the FSB are also useful for their intimidation value.’

‘Why are we involved? We’re only Militsia.’

‘If we get involved, no one’s toes get stepped on between sections –’

‘In other words, we get to be the patsies.’

‘That’s not the construction they’d put on it, Valentina Vitalyevna.’

‘No doubt, Viktor, no doubt.’

X

Next morning was idyllic at Klyenovaya Gora; there’d been light rain and the fallen autumn leaves glistened on the paths as the whole gang went for a hike towards the lake and then further on to see the wooden plaque to Pugachev who’d come this way some time in history.

It was de rigeur to attend and thus the Head of English, Tanya, found herself beside Hugh at one point.

‘Alla’s married, Hugh.’

That was that - Klyenovaya Gora had ended for him.

The remainder of the stay, he was a gentleman to her, even assiduous to her needs but she knew by his excessive chivalry that they’d done for her. It was something a little more practical she’d had in mind anyway, nice though the chivalry was.

Never mind, time might alter things back in Shadzhara.

.o0o.

Late on the Sunday, they took the bus back and he was dropped at the top of Chuikova, a short walk from Anya’s flat.

She undid all the locks, opened each of the doors, the padded wooden inner door and the metal outer, Hugh stepped through and went to embrace her but she pulled away. Instead she asked about the trip.

‘Amazing place. Very beautiful.’

‘Just like Alla, da?’

He glanced at her. ‘Alla?’

‘Hugh, you’re hopeless. This is a village – everyone knows everyone. They told me how you went into your shell after you’d heard she was married. Wasn’t very flattering for Alla though.’

She indicated one of the armchairs for him to sit in and headed for the kitchen. He followed her to help but a restraining hand on his arm prevented his egress and she gave him the remote control to the TV instead.

Not being a TV person, he sat on the divan, at a loose end, heard the kettle boil and her steps returning. He watched her ritualistically setting out the salads, then she sat near him. ‘Tea’s still too hot. Listen, Hugh, we have to decide a few things.’

‘Da.’

‘Everyone thinks we’re making love. You know – the whole thing. What do you tell other people?’

‘That it’s our business.’

‘Whether we do make love or we don’t, they still think we do.’

‘So?’

‘I’m the indecisive one. I give you no chance at all, sitting right back in the armchair, then I give you every chance, then I snatch it away and you’re accepting all that! I need a push - you have to make a bold move.’

'I'm shy.'

'You!'

'I am, you know. I'm not shy right up to and during the kiss, I'm just shy making that next ... well ... reaching out. Once we're there, then it’s full steam again.'

'But why?  The kiss means you're there.'

'I don't know, seriously.  Maybe it's the fear you'll be disappointed.'

'Were the other women disappointed?'

‘They didn’t say so.’

XI

Viktor Igorovich, lecturer at Shadzhara State University and teacher of Business English, was always going to run into Hugh Jensen. They were introduced in Hugh’s school staffroom, fell to talking and while Viktor went off to speak to the Director, Hugh asked his Head of English about the man.

‘Military background, spent some years with the tax police; completed a degree in business, taught himself English – you be the judge of how good it is.’

When Viktor returned, he invited Hugh back for lunch at his place, on the strength of their discussion about the Russian art of making real Bloody Mary.

Well why not?

.o0o.

Lessons over, they took two trams back to his apartment near the old airport and Hugh had a chance to observe the Russian on the other side of the aisle. Physically hard but vulnerable in manner and yet with calm self-assurance, most certainly in charge of his own life, this one.

At the apartment, Viktor had a matter on his own mind he wanted to broach and broach it he did.

‘As a westerner, Hugh, you come to Russia rich by our standards but if you remain, then your spending power’s going to decrease to the point where certain things are going to happen. One moment.’

He concentrated hard on holding the hunting knife at the right angle, tip just touching the inside of the glass above the meniscus of the tomato juice and letting the vodka slowly trickle down the blade, forming a one finger layer on top of the juice.

‘Vot! Krova’vaya Mary! Now you try it. Sorry, I was distracted – yes, things are going to happen. The first watershed is that you’ll find you can no longer return to the west. I don’t mean by law – I mean financially. No, no, more of an angle, not so fast with the vodka.’

‘So what are you saying?’

‘That’s enough vodka. Now, it’s got to be drunk quickly. First, the burn and immediately after it, the smoothness of the juice. To your health!’ They knocked back the Bloody Marys, barely hitting the sides on the way down.

‘I’m talking, my friend, about your Anya.’  Hugh nodded for him to continue.  ‘Well, she’s past the age where most girls marry in this town and the question naturally arises with you and her.’

‘I’m serious about her.’

‘Then do you plan to stay here or go back to the west?’

‘Ah, I see.’

‘And don’t forget that Shadzhara is a city full of eligible ladies – I could name three straight away who’ve already indicated they’d like to meet you.’

‘I get the picture.’

XII

Marc was back in Paris.

The mobile phone bill began to present some difficulties but Dilyara was preoccupying him more and more and the frustrating thing was the lack of opportunity to meet. He was constantly being sent to Germany, to Italy, to Britain but not to Russia - at least not for now.

She’d cry on the phone and he judged her not to have been the crying type. He promised he’d work out a way, either through business or else he’d take a break.

He’d speak with Geneviève, who actually knew the situation anyway. The Dion documents had to be dropped off at her apartment that evening and it was a good chance to have it out. Geneviève didn’t live any great distance from Marc but her street was nicer, next to a park, with trees dotted along the edge of that park, the apartment block contained only four flats and each was largish. Genevieve had done well from her work.

In her living room now, she handed him a cognac. ‘L’amour, Marc?’

‘Ne sais pas. Possibly. I can’t think straight.’

‘How much leave do you need?’

He shot a glance at her. ‘Give me a week, no longer and I’ll bring her here - there’s too much danger in Shadzhara. She has qualms about coming to a man’s place, parents, family you know, so I’ll need her to stay with one of the girls. Claudette?’

‘I’ll speak with her.’ She poured more coffee and then got down to business. ‘Renata.’

‘Oui?’

‘When did you last see her?’

‘Mademoiselle, you know what happened there; it simply wouldn’t have worked. Why are you bringing it up now anyway – it was long before Marie-Ange.’

‘When did you last see her?’

Marc’s annoyance showed. ‘Who knows? Five months ago.’

‘Not after that? Not yesterday, after you returned?’

‘Why this fixation with my ex-girlfriend?’

‘She was found dead yesterday in a warehouse off Rue de Bercy. She’d been shot in the back of the head. Bullet apparently is not one of ours. I’m sorry, I had to know.’

XIII

November, 1996

The first flurries of snow now came to this part of Russia but were then washed away. Half the time Hugh and Anya were at his flat and half at hers and they’d set up a fairly workable routine by this stage. On the world stage, Clinton had beaten Dole and on the local front, Yeltsin had had a major surgical operation.

There was no news on Dolly, the cloned sheep.

.o0o.

Somehow, December came around and when the first dump of snow was followed by another and another, it was clear that it was here to stay. The wind was also hard at work, causing large drifts and walling in doorways.

By the end of December, they were under a foot and a half of hard packed snow, with drifts here and there up to the waist. The temperature had dropped to an average minus 20 degrees but it was like a yoyo - one day minus 5, the next minus 35, everyone rapidly changing through a range of outer wear, each item costing about one year’s salary.

.o0o.

On the last Friday, in Baumana, watching his footing carefully, picking his way along the icy cobblestones, heading for the underpass and the Hotel Shadzhara on the other side where there was a sort of currency exchange, he saw her. Coming up the steps towards him was Miss Heathrow.

As simple as that.

For the most fleeting of moments, their eyes met, she turned on her stiletto heels and as fast as decorum and the necessity to be inconspicuous dictated, hurried away back down the underpass. He stumbled down the steps after her, trying to stay on his feet, trying to read her all the while.

Possibly late twenties, three quarter length navy coat, coordinated beret, dark hose, maybe 70 den, ankle length boots; she was probably about 164cm in her stockinged feet, athletic.

Underground, there were only the flower, magazine and cassette vendors with their rickety tables on the damp stone, mosaic concourse floor amid lots of look-alike girls of her type, and that’s where he lost her. He skipped back up the icy steps, down again then gave it up as a lost cause and decided to head home, pausing only to slip a couple of hundred roubles to one of the old ladies slumped on the steps.

It was going to be a bitter winter for her this year.

He stood, looking down Baumana and couldn’t get Miss Heathrow out of his head.  And yet he was unsure if he could have coped with her – he’d seen this hard-partying thing and it wasn’t him.  Interestingly, though he’d met Anya in London, his assumption about her gregariousness was largely unfounded, unlike Dilyara – now she really did have a large circle of friends.

Truth was – Anya didn’t.  Neither did he have any, in the sense of being part of a gang.  Both were homebodies who liked to travel, both were friendly but preferred company of one other.

.o0o.

When Hugh mentioned it that evening, Anya didn’t immediately pooh-pooh the incident. ‘Anything unusual about her?’

He shook his head and she moved on to her news. She’d been to the doctor that day and needed spectacles.  She'd always needed them but now she really needed them, a prospect to shrink from with dread, it seemed.   Useless to speak of cosmetically enhancing contact lenses, of how the most beautiful women on the planet wore glasses, useless to assure her that men adored women with glasses because it actually softened their features.

‘I don’t want to be soft, I want to be perfect.’

He gazed at her. ‘Why do you think softness can’t be perfect?   I mean, what would you say a man wants from a woman - softness or fierceness?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You know that newsreader from Channel 1, the one with the Angelina Jolie jaw, the dark hair pulled back severely and tied up in a bun behind, never smiles - do you think she’s beautiful?’

‘She’s very elegant.’

‘I don’t think she’s beautiful at all. She looks at you as if she’s going to execute you and what’s she trying to prove anyway? I mean, who advises her to do that?’

She shrugged. ‘So what do you call beautiful?’

‘You and every part of you that you don’t like. You want to be tall and gangly, you think your breasts are too small and that you’re not as classically beautiful as the models in Vogue. I think you’re better than them, you’re certainly far better than the ones in Elle and what's more - you're real, I can feel this beauty in my arms.  With you, it’s the harmony of the whole package, that’s the key that drives a man crazy, that and your curves, your ultra-femininity. I could go on forever.’

‘Don’t let me stop you.’

‘You’re effervescent and yet conservative, not letting me say or do low things; Viktor calls you my narcotic and you are; Shakespeare wrote a sonnet on this sort of thing,’ he chuckled. ‘Number CXLVII.’

‘Hugh?’

'Yes?'

'Tell me what's really wrong.'

He sighed. 'It sounds pretty pathetic, especially from a man but if I'm going to marry you, I have to actually ... er ... marry you. There's this religious thing about marrying first.'

'Why didn't you say so?  We could have set a date and I could have waited. What did you do with your other women?'

'It sounds stupid but when I wasn't so serious, I wasn't so pedantic. I look at you and want to do it correctly.'

She checked what she was about to blurt out and said instead, 'All right, Hugh.  If you're serious about me and you want this, why don't you ask?'

'Really?'

'You don't understand, do you? You have to ask first, then I have to spend a whole week thinking about it - without you.  Then I have to speak to everyone about my dilemma and burst into tears and think out all the possibilities and all the negatives, then I'll be ready.'


He asked.

Chapter 1 here ... Chapter 3 here
HOME