Chapter 3 here ... Chapter 5 here
Twelve hours after kissing Anya goodbye at the station, following a frosty morning interspersed with tears where he'd repeatedly tried to reassure her, Shadzharsky Vaksal, Moscow came into view, the train ground to a halt and he was deposited on the platform, fending off taxi drivers and working out the best way to take the Metro and bus to the airport.
As he made it by tram to the bus station a short distance from Rechnoi Vaksal, he simply couldn't see any other way out. - he'd just have to pick up whatever pieces were left when he returned. He'd phone her at her grandmother's, he'd speak for however long it took.
It was unsatisfactory.
First stop was London and almost immediately, the flight to Australia, via Abu Dhabi, a journey requiring patience and J.J. Cale’s soothing musical vignettes. The wait at Abu Dhabi would be near interminable but at least there was a nice lady beside him to talk to.
It didn’t take long to swap stories and find she was divorced, in her late thirties, with one university age daughter; she’d married young by western standards, was deputy-manager of a north-western travel agency and was flying to Adelaide to discuss partnerships in that fair city. Seemed strange, he thought but then again, who was he to say?
By Abu Dhabi, they were really well into conversation and he realized she was a lovely person, which tended to bring out all his gallant qualities - getting her more wine, taking her meal tray so she could fold her seat table and so on.
Christina, that was her name ... mature and languid and dare he say it … English. They walked around the transit lounge at Abu Dhabi and now came the best news of all – they had the same seats to Bangkok and might be able to organize the seats to Melbourne, where they’d then need to part. As for her, she hadn’t seen this level of gallantry for some time and was in no way averse to it continuing.
In one of those moments which occur, they were physically pressed onto one another by the moving crowd near the food concession and in a passing split second, their heads came close and he touched her lips with his, then the moment passed.
She laughed unselfconsciously and said, ‘Let’s enjoy the moment for what it was.’
He smiled, offered his arm and she almost freaked. No one did that any more on first meeting. ‘Do women do that in Russia?’
‘Yep. Roads are rough over there - it makes sense. I was forgetting myself. Sorry.’
She looked at him and suggested they needed to get back to the plane. On the way, her hand took his and their fingers intertwined, her concession to outmoded behaviour.
Back on the plane, once again in the air and after the meal, they both decided to forego the movie, he gathered some cushions from empty seats, stacked some on the centre seat, with one on his lap, giving her others to put behind her head and back, then invited her to put her feet up over his legs.
She did that for some time, chuckled and arranged things differently, asking him to come to the centre seat, placing a cushion against his chest and resting her head there, which necessitated his arm going around her.
‘Would you like a wine?’ he suddenly asked.
She looked up at him and nodded, he buzzed the stewardess and soon they had two red wines and peanuts, another thing he liked about her – a woman who drank red. They toasted friendship and he told her that, in Russian, they called it druzhba.
Both decided to wait for Bangkok to tell the other about their partners.
The cups now gone, she snuggled into a comfortable position and drifted off, another thing he appreciated – that he had on his hands a woman who actually tired. That set in motion a train of thinking.
They didn’t get the seats in Bangkok but managed to negotiate with the man beside him on the Melbourne leg who saw he was getting a female fellow passenger anyway into the bargain over there and so there they were together one last time.
They confessed an hour before landing when he showed her a picture of Anya; Christina marvelled; she didn’t have one of Martin but described him.
‘Do you love him?’ asked Hugh.
She sighed again. ‘That’s what we’re going to discover, I hope.’
They exchanged contact details, quite detailed in fact, landed and reluctantly, parted. He watched her slip out of his life.
Next, he couldn’t find the pick up point for the shuttle bus taking him to the Travelodge. At five minutes past midnight, he found the pickup area, the shuttle appeared and a restful night at the airport motel was only punctuated by the strenuous groans of the porn stars next door. He wondered why he couldn’t hear the frenzied guitar music.
The call to Anya, before falling asleep, was OK and of course it was early evening there but she suggested they make phone contact only every few days, not everyday.
On a whim, he phoned Christina when he was sure she’d landed and would be waiting to collect her luggage.
Marc went to Prague - coordinating and arranging protection for Nicolette and Francine - who in turn had been briefed on keeping an eye on Marc himself.
Actually, his main purpose was to trace the way the money began in Nizhny Novgorod, went to Shazhara, returned to Nizhny and then Mademoiselle Geneviève, having collected, came back then often went away for a few days, a couple of weeks after the transfer.
The money was always activated in Nizhny following an EU meeting somewhere to discuss the Helsinki Headline Goal, the EU Petersberg tasks incorporating Genevieve’s section. That’s where her primary funding came from.
The thing was, after Mademoiselle had returned from her trip away, the section always took a hit of some kind and she seemed incapable of dealing with it. Nicolette usually took the reins and brought some sort of order back.
To say Marc was puzzled was putting it mildly.
Hugh’s mother and stepfather, Jack, were shifting house at long last, possibly for the last time, and the clearing out was going to be a major job.
At this stage in their lives, the stately green two-storey with the sweeping, circular driveway and weeping willows had to be relinquished in favour of a compact villa unit but after seeing the new unit, he had to concede that it made sense.
Here was the City of Melbourne again, set at the head of a large, almost land locked bay, dotted with water traffic in the summer, a picture of golden beaches and from Canadian Bay Boat Club, thirty kilometres south of Melbourne, along the curving coastline, if the sun was in exactly the right place in the late afternoon, the skyscrapers of the distant city acted as giant lighthouses, flooding the water with golden light.
Their house was just up from the beach.
They dropped into a routine and once all the niceties had been attended to and the photos viewed, the guests politely received and his chef role assumed, it became glaringly obvious that though this was family, his own family, they had remarkably little to say to each other from the point of view of shared experiences.
This was because they were here and he was there and neither could be expected to be interested in the minutiae of day to day occurrences in a different country and a different generation. Hugh did his best to keep the jaunty flow going and to be sure, they appreciated his presence and he theirs.
Yet he felt like an interloper.
There was another aspect too. His mother was ever so slightly slipping into repetitive behaviours, which smacked of age catching up and these were ... well, they were a little wearing on Jack and the situation was only going to get worse, not better, over the next few years. This was in addition to illness. He knew his place was here now, nearby, not gallivanting around Russia.
There were ample opportunities to observe it each day, as he took her for drives down the peninsula, to the top of the hilltop Arthur’s Seat, with afternoon tea at the restaurant commanding a view of the purple green shoreline of the Bay far below, stretching all the way round to Melbourne.
He might need to come out to live here and bring Anya with him, if she’d come. Possibly she’d need to bring her own mother.
The other thing he did in this time in Melbourne was make exorbitant phone calls to a less than patient Anya back in Shadzhara and visit a few old chums, including two of the female species.
The closest thing to a best friend Anya had, Liya, was in crisis. She’d been taken on as sports reporter for the main republic gazette and of course had got herself into the hockey team milieu, assuming there were rich pickings to be had in that pool of manhood.
Anya came straight to the point, ‘Li, your chances are zero. The man’s into kalichestvo, not kachestvo. Body count's more important than quality.’
‘We have an - understanding.’
‘He told you he had to go away but he’d be thinking of you, yes?’
‘Liya, you’re so blind.’
The phone rang, the black phone on the wall and Liya sprang for it. After a highly embarrassing call, Anya's groaned, ‘You’re crazy, you know. Where did he phone from?’
‘From the football supper - Cafe Sport.’
‘There is no football supper - they shifted it to Safar for Friday next.’
Liya went white, then rallied. ‘Well clearly there’s some mix up – I’ll ask when I see him.’
‘Tomorrow - he promised to phone.’
They both sat in silence for some time.
Eventually, Liya asked, ‘So what’s it about?’
‘Pavel. He’s getting a bit close and I’m not sure I want to resist.’
‘Er … Anya? Hello. What about Hugh, your fiancé or so I thought?’
‘Hugh went away after I warned him of the danger -’
‘I don’t think you explained it well enough, you didn’t spell it out. Most women would just wait for their guy – is this to punish him?’
‘Not at all. I am waiting, aren’t I but that doesn’t mean I can’t go out. Why must I be a hermit crab, just because my man’s gone away?’
‘Pavel only wants one thing.’
‘Come back to the sports palace with me now. There’s someone I want you to meet.’
Departure day swiftly arrived in Melbourne, farewells were completed, it was now back on board Gulf Air, back through Abu Dhabi, back through the wasteland of strange nights and days merging together, back to the rude awakening of London again.
It all seemed to happen that quickly.
Big Ben, the Thames and all the familiar spots passed by, en route for a little known gem of a B&B at 51 Lee Terrace, Blackheath.
Lisa had put him onto it, the people living three doors from her old family home. The moment he got in and deposited his things, he was on the phone to Lisa herself - would she like to go out to the Travellers Arms for a meal?
Again, it all happened with great rapidity.
Two hours later, they were seated in an alcove, over a drink. He asked about her art course, about whether Riccardo was going to make an honest woman of her and received a playful slap across the cheek for that, how her new little putt-putt was running – she’d sold it – and how her parents were.
He asked about Blair’s landslide and she seemed to like the new PM. It was time to order.
Red headed Lisa’s Biafran figure made her taste for salads a bit difficult to fathom but, as long as Hugh had known her, she’d invariably ordered some variant of salad. She ordered true to form again and he sidled up to the bar. The barmaid wrote down ‘chicken’ instead of ‘steak’ for him but as he’d changed his mind anyway, it was no matter and he paid up.
‘But you asked for steak,’ admonished a female to his left, with the slightest of Russian accents. Hugh swung round and lost the power of speech.
‘Preev’yet,’ grinned Miss Heathrow, looking into his eyes, her own peering from under masses of golden hair.
He slowly released his breath and the barmaid looked on, bemused. ‘Priv’yet, kak pozhivai’tye?’ was all he could think to ask.
‘Normal’na, Can we find somewhere else to talk?’
‘I’m with a friend -’
‘So I see. All right. Let’s meet tomorrow.’
‘We need to speak, Hugh.’
‘You know my name?’
‘I know much about you. Trust me on this. You know Charing Cross BR station? Good, then I’ll see you in the Burger King on the main concourse, at 10:00, OK?’
‘OK?’ she repeated.
‘OK,’ he agreed and she was gone.
He went back to Lisa who’d been observing with more than passing interest and told her all, including the intended meeting at Charing Cross on the morrow.
‘Stop and listen one moment, Romeo. Strange women from Russia whom you’ve met once or twice before do not, repeat not, accidentally turn up at out of the way pubs. Did you give her any indication you were coming here?’
‘None at all.’
‘Don’t go, I don’t like the sound of it. I know it’s your own business but ...’
He pondered, sipping his drink. They ate and then returned to the topic. ‘I have to go, Lisa, for exactly that reason. I have to know how she knew.’
Viktor phoned Anya about 15:30 and he got straight down to business. ‘I had a call from London last evening – from Hugh - and he asked if I had anything on Miss Heathrow, as he calls her –’
‘He was with his friend Lisa for a meal ...’
‘I’m not worried about Lisa. I'm worried about the other one though. Do you think she’s with him?’
‘How can I know? Perhaps. I made enquiries and some interesting things came out. She has a brother - balnoi, a known nutter - plus their section head has a daughter at Hugh's school.’
‘Wow indeed. I tried to get a file on Miss Heathrow, I can usually get these but not this time. Hers is classified.’
‘I see. We need to at least warn him.’
‘Can you contact him? The number he was on was a payphone.’
‘I’ll have to go to his flat to get Lisa’s number. I didn't bring it with me.’
18:25 saw her in Hugh’s living room, wondering where to start.
She saw the address book almost immediately and it was full of names – British Embassy, Americana Vacations, DHL – ah, here we go – girls’ names and numbers. Interestingly, some written in by girls themselves. Quite a few Russian names amongst them. She saw the names of two of her own friends - was there no end to girls’ treachery?
Then she found the one she needed. Scribbling it down, she checked the bench before leaving, saw some tins of salmon-stuffed olives and a note, ‘Help yourself, my darling.’
Scooping the tins into her holdall, she made her way home, went through the rigamarole of calling Lisa and finally got through.
Lisa listened and then said, ‘Yes, I saw her at a distance. She wants to meet him tomorrow. I've been trying to contact him myself but his B&B hasn't seen him today. I’ll keep trying.’
They talked about this and that for a bit and then Lisa asked, ‘Do you know anything about this woman?’
‘Yes, she’s dangerous.’
Ten o’clock duly came around next day; Hugh was seated in the Burger King, toying with his Whopper, facing the door from his side of the restaurant.
Many people were coming and going but not her. The echoing station announcements, the crescendo of passengers gathering to read the big board from time to time, the constant traffic through the door of the Burger King - they all passed, but not her.
He bought more fries.
At 10:30, he bought another cola.
A youngish man opposite finished his Flamer and got up, dropping his napkin on Hugh’s table as he passed. Hugh glanced at the scribble on it. ‘If you want to see her, be at Rock Circus at midday.’
Just that, when he looked up, the man was gone.
Hugh gathered his things, went outside to the pay phones and called Lisa. Yes, yes, she’d wait until 15:00 for his call but no later, all right?
By midday he was at the Rock Circus, Piccadilly, at the entrance way where they give you the headphones. No Russian girl in sight and he was peeved. OK, he’d give her another thirty minutes, then that would be that.
About 12:30, he bought a ticket, took the headphones and went in himself, past Elvis, Freddy Mercury and the other artists in wax, past the macabre, ephemeral, impermanent world of rock, past the hideously expensive café and into the sound show auditorium.
During a lull in the music, in the darkness, to his left, a voice casually asked, ‘What kept you?’
Hugh didn’t even look; he waited for the show to end and for the inevitable decanting of the audience. She stood close and he felt begrudgingly disturbed by her presence. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Ksenia but close people call me Ksusha.’
‘Davaitye, Ksenia, paidyomtye k McDonald’s v Leicester Square.'
They got there twenty five minutes later, ordered, paid, collected, found a table by the window and the woman began her explanation. ‘I live in Shadzhara and that’s why you saw me there.’
‘Why did you run away?’
‘It was less complicated.’
‘Zhenya, my brother, the one you saw in Burger King, he works for security, as I do, but he also works on the side for a foreign company –’
‘I don’t buy that you can work ‘on the side’, as you put it. Surely it’s clearly stipulated that you can’t and you’d be dismissed for any breach.’
She sighed and settled down to explain, his eyes rivetted on her bow lips. ‘In Soviet times, there was enough money, because the state provided all the other services, including housing and health, and so you only needed to cover food and other personal items for yourself.
The only way to put food on the table now is to give excellent service, to be completely loyal to your superiors and then that little bit of extra cash which makes ends meet – well – it’s just understood. As long as you’re not greedy.’
‘But that’s corruption.’
‘There speaks the westerner. Look, if you pay a person fifty dollars a month, when his living costs are eighty dollars a month, then I don’t call that corruption.
That’s why we do a little work for companies. They’re aggressive against one another, fighting for a place in the market, and they don’t hold back. That’s why my action in helping you didn’t help you. It only brought you to their attention.’
‘Whoa. What actions in helping me? Why should I need help? How do I come into this?’
‘I dropped that Linda cassette into your bag on the concourse floor. Now I’m sorry I did it. It had details which compromise the head of the rival company to the one Zhenya works for. If you’d been searched, it would have just been a foreigner’s music cassette – no drugs or money or anything like that.’
‘But that doesn’t explain why I need help.’
‘Well, I also did something else. I arranged, through my section chief, for your passage through customs to be eased and it went on record in Moscow. Those loyal to the rival company picked up on it and that’s why you have a few problems now.’
‘Again I don’t buy it. Even aggressive businessmen are sensitive to nuances and though I’m not important, I do have a certain profile in the city - I’m known. If something happened to me and if it was investigated - it might happen to be brought home to you.’
Hugh studied her melancholy eyes which made you feel you were the only one in the world and her world-weary demeanour excited pity. She sensed her charm was doing its job, didn’t press the matter but asked, ‘Will you see me tomorrow?’
‘I’d like to.’
‘You know your power, lady, don’t you? This time, be at a place called the Village Deli in Blackheath – you come up the walkway from the platform, turn left and it’s there on the corner, large glass window, white surrounds, 14:00 for coffee. Tell Sandra – she owns the place – that you’re waiting for me, and this time, make sure you’re there on time. Also, if you’re early, I can recommend the turkey sandwiches.’
Lisa had had a call from Riccardo - he wasn’t going to be over for some weeks.
She sat down heavily on her fluffy bed with the light blue floral duvet and looked around the room. It had been done up, she’d cleaned the place and made it more cheerful. All to no avail.
‘I suppose I’ll have to go over there again,’ she muttered.
‘I need to go to Prague,’ he confessed.
‘I told you this sort of thing was going to happen, Lisa. Of course I want to see you but I’m tied up in this project and we have to see it through.’
‘It’s to be signed in October but there are some problems.’
‘But the Czech Republic is not in the EU.’
‘It’s part of the Visegrád Triangle and it’s important.’
‘When may I come over there?’
‘Can you come next Thursday?’
‘I suppose so.’
On a whim, Hugh phoned Marc, re-established the connection and asked if Geneviève's section had anything on a Ksenia Sharova. Marc was more than surprised by the request but promised to go through his secure channels.
Now Hugh had a little surprise for Ksenia - Lisa had jumped at the chance to actually meet the famous Mata Hari face to face and the result was Sandra’s Deli at 13:30, turkey sandwiches and the inevitable salad.
About 14:15, Lisa asked, ‘So where is she?’
He glanced at the door and wondered too. The feeling was starting to come over him that he’d been stood up again, that both of them had been stood up. Quiet anger smouldered beneath the surface.
The doorway darkened and through came Mr. Burger King.
‘Ksusha not here yet?’ he asked. Hugh wondered how he could possibly be Ksenia’s brother. Then again, the term ‘brother’ had a looser definition in Russia.
The young man saw that ‘Ksusha’ was indeed ‘not here’, bit his lip and made a few calls on his mobile; long legs straddled the white-painted wrought iron chair, he became progressively more agitated, announced, ‘I think they got her,’ jumped up and strode out in three steps.
The other two looked at each other, shrugged, paid up and prepared to go. Just then, Ksenia walked through the door and as Hugh began a cutting remark, he checked himself. The woman was definitely on edge and anything but the confident operator of yesterday. ‘I’m sorry, Hugh, really I am. I really was genuinely delayed.’
Lisa and he looked at each other again, sat down and after the introductions, ordered three Smoothie fruit cocktails. Ksenia was strangely quiet as they sipped and then seemed to come to a decision. ‘Can we go somewhere out of London for a few days - somewhere to hide for a little while, before returning to Russia?’
‘Hide – in Britain? Ksenia, this is an island – there’s nowhere to run. If someone’s after you, they’ll find you.’
‘Please.’ She was earnest and Lisa shrugged again. ‘There’s trouble for all of us now. I’m really very sorry.’
He stroked his chin. ‘All right, let’s go for a trip north.’
Lisa stared at him, flabbergasted. ‘Does that include me?’
‘Of course, can you pack in a few hours?’
‘You know I have to go to my mum’s place. I don’t believe this is happening.’
He turned to Ksenia and asked if she’d give Lisa and him a minute alone. She got up and stood by the door, watching the passing traffic and keeping an ear peeled to the conversation at the table.
‘Are you crazy? Remember Anya? Remember the phone call from Russia?’
‘Yes I do. Look at it this way, Lisa. This woman lives in our town and is in security - she has the power to destroy my position there and maybe hurt Anya. If I go along with her game, it might reveal a few things.’
‘Oh, I’ve no doubt of that.’
‘You know what I mean. I’ve already made a call about this woman and I have to phone the guy back later for details.’
‘Are you going to tell Anya what you’re doing and with whom? And can you convince your own girl of your motives because you haven’t been able to with me.’
‘That’s your cynicism, Lisa. I’ll call her from the north, from the hotel. If she calls you first, please tell her to expect a call tomorrow morning, about 09:00 her time.’
He gave her a kiss on the cheek, thanked her, paid up, asked Ksenia if she was ready and they were gone.
Marc was in touch with Geneviève by secure line.
The gist was that this Hugh Jensen lived in Shadzhara with a girlfriend who was friends with his Dilyara [ex-Dilyara] whom this Jensen had given his, Marc’s, card to and that had started the affair. Now M. Jensen was asking Marc about a Russian security matter.
‘How did he know you were in security?’
‘Dilya’s trip to Paris made that obvious. What should I do?’
‘We’ll give him some of what he asks but openly. We have Michel over there now and he can keep an eye on this M. Jensen. Keep on friendly terms, Marc, at least until we know more. All right?’
Anya opened the door once the man had announced himself.
Quite sheepishly, he came through, took off his shoes and was shown into the kitchen, where he sat on the semi-circular bench against the wall, while she got the tea and makings.
‘I … er … have that report I need translated. Liya said you could help.’
With everything now on the table in front of them, she sat down herself about a metre away and asked, ‘Tell me about yourself. I’ve seen you in the press office a few times.’
By 17:15, he and the Russian woman were on their way to Kings Cross, soon to board the Inter-City, heading for York.
She was clearly agitated and though the perma-smile remained on the lips, the eyes were shifty and to his questions, she was often distracted. She seemed to be scanning the station from where she stood and even asked him to stand at a distance, to keep an eye on the roof above and for things coming from behind the wall she was backed against.
When the train was ready and they’d boarded, she still didn’t relax – not until she’d paced through three cabins and their interconnecting walkways - only then did she finally settle into her seat, allowing him the quickest of smiles.
He returned the smile.
The ordinariness of the journey north, the plain uncomplicated rollicking, the buffet trolleys with their chicken tikka sandwiches, all of it was surreal and the girl opposite now gradually calmed, in proportion to the miles out from London but it wasn’t reassuring, it was possibly more worrying than her earlier nervousness.
Plus - they hadn’t booked any accommodation.
He’d planned to take the Sprinter from York to Scarborough but then remembered Robin Hood’s Bay and the Victoria, overlooking the North Sea. If he went further north, past Ugglebarnby, then he was getting into home territory and he didn’t particularly wish to meet anyone he knew, even with someone like Ksenia.
Especially with someone like her. No, Bay would do fine.
They finally made it to the Victoria about eight and the first shock was that there were no single rooms available – just one state room, with fabulous views over the North Sea. He had to make an instant decision and she watched with great interest; he looked across at her, turned to the man and said, ‘We’ll take it.’
They could change hotels next morning and he would keep his distance for one night.
Once through the door of their room, Ksenia rushed over to the window and gazed down on the view below. She extended her arms and spun round like a ballerina, which she may well once have been – too intoxicating for words. ‘It’s so good, it’s so good,’ she squealed.
‘Ksenia – right from the start – I plan to marry Anya.’
‘All right, Hugh, no need to bring that into the conversation. Can’t we still enjoy the evening?’
‘Without a doubt.’
Marc was set to fly the next day to Shazhara. He phoned Dilyara on her mobile; she was shocked and thrilled, all in one - of course she’d see him at such short notice.
Bon, thought Marc and then in the next moment, wondered why he was re-opening an old wound. It was in the nature of the Section that operatives appeared for the night and sometimes departed in the middle of it. So it was no surprise when the phone rang while he was laying clothes in the pack and it was Nicolette, saying she’d been assigned to watch him that night.
Their security arrangements always had the operatives guarded before departure, he didn’t mind Nikki with her sparrow frame and frisky manner but he preferred his women with a bit more meat on them. Actually, he reflected, the Section was fairly lean itself that way; Mademoiselle must starve them before joining, herself the most normal looking of the lot.
Nicolette gave the signal on the doorbell; he put down his ham croissant and let her in. She’d always had trouble with the zips on things and this time it was her soft leather ginger handbag. She pulled at it, tugged at it, grimaced at it and then thrust it at him to do.
He didn’t do much better for some time but then managed to work the clip free of the material. A three pack of condoms fell onto the floor, plus her compact and he glanced at her. She blushed and was about to tell him not to get any ideas when she thought – why not play him along a bit.
In the skimpiest of navy short-hemmed dresses with white polka dots, the material clinging to her shape, she was like some delicate flower and the thought suddenly leapt into his mind and then out again. She picked up on every changed line in his face, every change in his deportment, the way he too quickly took up and polished off his croissant.
‘You want something to eat?’ he called over his shoulder, heading for the kitchen.
She didn’t but something was driving her on at this point and the kitchen was where she had to be. ‘Ah, oui, un café.’
She followed him in and when he spun round, coffee pot in hand, dropped her eyes in that devastating way which normally trapped the high and mighty into revealing too much about themselves.
He was more bemused. ‘What is it with you this evening?’
She deemed it time to move half a pace closer. ‘Hell, he thought,’ and her body was hard up against him now, the lips so, so soft and she was waiting.
‘Nikki, this is crazy. We don’t do this on duty, you know that.’ She was silent, he pressed his lips against hers and her hands went up to his shoulders, then he pulled away, breathing unevenly. ‘No, I can’t.’
She stepped back, still staring him in the eyes.
He poured her a coffee, which she accepted without comment, raising the cup and sipping on it, without shifting her gaze. Then she smiled as he sat on the other side of the round peninsula table and indicated her place.
She sat down where she’d been told to.
He added, ‘I don’t believe you’d have gone through with it.’ No answer, a record silence for Nikki. ‘Would you have?’
‘I don’t know, Marc. I was curious.’
‘But you don’t make love for curiosity’s sake.’ Nicolette raised her eyebrows at that and smiled that smile of hers. ‘Well, I don’t anyway,’ he said.
‘Then you’re a catch for some lucky girl, Marc.’
‘You’re not getting round me that way,’ he laughed. She let his misunderstanding of her remark pass and decided on poignant silence again.
He came out of it and realized, ‘Hey, you’re playing with me. You’re the coldest girl in the section. Miss Ice. In Barbizon -’
Dusk was a good two hours away, so Hugh suggested a short repast, then maybe a wander down into the old fishing village.
With her apprehensive yet excited about the one-in-four descent down the narrow, tortuous path to the village, they stopped at the first pub halfway, tucked into a little nook between the high walled buildings.
‘What’s here?’ she asked.
‘Some of the best real ale in England. I used to come down here quite often for quiz nights. You want to try the ale?’
‘You mean beer?’
‘Natural beer – the real thing.’
‘Not really, except for Old Peculier.’
‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying.’
‘Old Peculier - it's a strong, dark ale made locally, well almost locally, over at Masham. Three pints is more than enough for a regular drinker - it's 5.6 percent. The other beers vary from about 4.4 to 4.6 percent.’
‘That’s water,’ she scathingly replied.
‘In settings like this, we drink real ales for the flavour and for the ambience.’
He ordered a half of XB for her to sip on and she looked at it dubiously. ‘It’s foaming,’ she complained.
He laughed. ‘If the foam remains on the inside of the glass, then it’s been prepared properly and it’s ready and this one is ready and if you don’t try it soon, I’ll take it from you and drink it myself.’
She sipped cautiously and then a little more.
She liked it. She tried a little more.
The landlord called him over and had a quiet word. Hugh agreed, paid for two more beers and for something-extra as well and they went and perched on the primitive bench next to the rough-hewn wall – this was a historic pub. The landlord slipped out the back and returned with a soft, wrapped package.
Foam dripping from her pink lips down over her chin and with a smile turning up the corners of those lips, she asked, ‘What is it?’
‘My turn to be mysterious. I’ll tell you later.’
Her exotic appeal was attracting way too much attention from the locals, so he suggested, one half later, that they continue down to the stone apron by the water. Night had fallen as they picked their way down the path, Ksenia leaning heavily on his arm.
From the apron which lapped the North Sea, she took in all the tall, narrow, stone houses crowded either side and thought they were like giants gazing down on her.
He filled her in on the history. ‘These villages are the stuff of legend – look at those old coracles turned upside down over there - fishing nets shabbily draped across them at the end of the day. Admittedly, that's a bit Ye Olde for mine but you still get the idea of what it must have been like.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘In the old days – smuggling! That’s what they did here - it’s pure theatre.’
‘Do - do they do it today?’
‘I don’t know, doubt it but the joke might be on us and they might still do it. They used to launch boats from here, I think.’
'I've been here in a storm and wouldn't like to be standing where we are. By the way, see that little alley over there? There's one of the best little fish ’n chip shops in Britain over there, in my humble opinion.’
Her smile became broader. ‘Let’s walk over there now.’
‘It’s closed at this hour. If you want, we can come back down tomorrow.’
At the Victoria, her story was straightforward enough, he perched on the end of the bed, listening.
He went to get the package. ‘Here.’
‘What is it?’
‘Well, if you don’t open it, you’ll never know.’
She tore open the packet and it was an XB rugby shirt, in royal blue with gold and white trim, the XB motif woven into the left breast. She looked at it for a few moments, slipped it on, juggling the bedding all the while, then jumped onto the floor, shaking the hem down over her hips but it hadn’t covered anything for that half second and that glimpse was playing havoc with his mind - she was playing havoc with his mind and she knew every last nuance of it all.
She span round in front of the mirror, all innocently happy and the oversized shirt threw those thighs into mesmerizing relief. ‘How do I look?’
He was genuinely struggling to get the words out and all that was emitted was a strangled noise.
She slipped across, planted a kiss and he stuttered: ‘I w-was w-worried whether you’d like the colour.’
‘It’s perfect, Hugh. Thank you.’
He went over and switched the light off, undressed and went across to the chaisse-longue, which puzzled her mightily. Surely he’d at least try it on. ‘Ksusha?’ he called across from the window.
‘Have you ever slept in the same room as someone and not ... er ...’
She was highly amused. ‘In Russia? Is that your plan tonight?’ Then she asked, ‘Why did you take the double room?’
‘You were there – you know it was the last one available.’
‘Why did you take the double room?’
He never answered.
‘Good night, Hugh.’ She turned over and faced away from him, he lay on his back until he could hear the sound of her even breathing but couldn’t sleep and couldn’t stand her being over there.