Chapter 1 here ... Chapter 3 here
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
‘Mr. Jensen?’ A female voice, Russian, somehow familiar, accented English.
‘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?’
‘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?’
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.
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.
‘Make another cassette.’
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.
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.
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.
‘She has a new boyfriend; you know him, she says - Marc Lacour.’
Hugh grinned. ‘Ah, so she activated the visitni.’
‘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?’
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.
And yet there was something easy in that relationship, a sort of rapport born of long proximity.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.’
‘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.’
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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘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 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.’
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?
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.’
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.’
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
'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?'
'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.'
Chapter 1 here ... Chapter 3 here