Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-6: Decisions



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I

Ksenia looked at him. ‘Why did you come to tell me this, Hugh? To show me that? Whatever I tell you now, you’re going to doubt.’

The question would have meant far more had they not been lying in each other’s arms, heads on fluffy pillows.

‘Unless I’m not too sane myself, of course, in which case I’d have a fair idea what was the truth and what was not. Speak to me.’

She had to think where to start. ‘There are truths and untruths all tied in together. Yes, there’s a file on me, a long one. And yes, that’s how I do it, but only on legitimate targets - I'd never let one of them get as far as you did, as feelings start to come into it. I work for my country, I’ve never been freelance and I never would. Plus, executions have never been my thing.

'Why did your own feelings come into it?'

'Because you put them there.  You're a puzzle, a real mix of confidence and self-doubt. One day, I might solve that puzzle for myself and I wonder if I’ll still care after that.'

He didn’t respond, so she added, ‘I think perhaps I will.’

II

Marc Lacour had to attend to business most of the day and part of that business was to visit the Pedagogical University, where Geneviève’s Parisienne friend, Louise Bonnet, had been seconded to the French department for a month.

They met up and he took her for a drink to the Hotel Shadzhara, across Pushkina in the centre.

He realized two things with Louisa - she was a bit of a blabbermouth and it was common knowledge that she opened up more when bedded at the time. Therefore, men tended to get more secrets out of her than women.

The downside was that, though she was well dressed and not unpersonable to look at from a certain angle, her manner put the average male off, if not at first, then as time went on. She knew this and it made her try that much harder, which was precisely the wrong thing to do in her case.

So he had this before him now. She wasn’t working for any section he knew and yet the university back home was sending her over here, on a French salary, several times a year.

Now, her calibre was hardly world-shattering and there didn’t seem, to him, any necessity to send her on these regular trips.  He wanted to find out but didn't want to bed her.

III

Hugh went into Little Portland the next morning, booked for two, returned and packed his things at the B&B, said all the farewells, the car came round, they stopped and collected her in the Strand, and then it was off to Heathrow.

.o0o.

In the check-in queue, she bumped him again but this time he held onto his cabin bag. 

'You're learning,' she smiled.

.o0o.

In Moscow, after they’d been through the processing, certain watchers didn’t know what to make of it when he pushed her against a wall and moved in for a savage kiss she’d preplanned of course.

Instead of kneeing him, she suddenly reversed positions, shoved him into the wall and pinned him there with her lips.

They went out to the waiting car, introductions were effected and off they went to Domodyedova.

.o0o.

In the middle of the main concourse at Domodyedova, it was a different show, this time for different watchers.  But it wasn’t a show at all – the realization that they’d now be parting for who knew how long – that was hard to take.

There was no playacting whatsoever in that long last kiss.

Over to one side of the concourse, observing all this, were the unsmiling eyes of brother Zhenya.  How the fuck had all this happened?

.o0o.

At the other end of the flight Hugh took a taxi to his own flat and tried to call Anya from there, then called Liya and arranged to meet her the coming Thursday, 16:00, at Giuseppe.

IV

As they lay on the divan in the living room later, with MTV in the background, Marc told Dilyara about Louisa.

Dilyara had something to add. ‘I think she's the one usually hanging around Pushkina with that tall Frenchman.’

‘What tall Frenchman?’ Marc asked with a start.

‘I don’t know - tall, coiffed hair, good looking.’

A thought started to form in his head but it was so ludicrous, he put it to one side. ‘If you see those two again and you think there’s anything I … er … should know ... a better description would help for a start.’

‘I’ll do better than that – I’ll get a photo of the two of them - from a distance of course.’

‘You be careful.’

She grinned and flicked her dark hair back over her shoulder. ‘Are you planning to take me back to Paris or do you see me as your lover whenever you visit here?’

He caught his breath. ‘Didn’t we discuss that? What do you want?’

‘To go with you, wherever you are, to be within ten kilometres of you, knowing I could be there when you wanted me.’

‘You’re pretty independent, Dilya. Do you really want that?’

‘As far as I can see, for now - yes.’

V

A few minutes before midnight the Wednesday after they'd returned, Ksenia called him.  'I'd - like to see you.'

He knew that had cost her to say - he'd be there in thirty minutes. 

'No,' she said. 'I'll come to you.'

.o0o.

Thirty minutes later, she was with him, sipping on a coffee. ‘So, Mr. Jensen, Anya made no contact of course?’

‘Incommunicado, I haven’t seen her and that’s that. I tried calling her, contacting her mum who went vague on me. I think she must know I’m here.’

‘Of course she knows. No girl would simply not keep tabs on where her man was. Ex or not, she’d know. She’d be phoning, keeping an eye on you from a distance. Are you strong enough to walk away if you have to?’

‘Not sure.  I had no idea you’d make contact though I should have thought it a chance.  Before you phoned, I made contact with a best friend of hers and I’m meeting her at Giuseppe tomorrow, obviously to ask about Anya and remove all doubt I’m home.  Then I was going to take your advice and keep to myself after that.  I planned to keep seeing Liya because she and I get on anyway, she likes pizza, so do I – it would have kept me sane.  Plus her boyfriend is away for a few weeks.’

‘And?’

‘I was thinking of giving her a time limit but that wouldn’t work.  I also thought I can’t really chase you if I still have thoughts for her.’

‘Took the words out of my mouth.  You’re a serial monogamist but not a player.’

‘This is also one case where I think the two of us would both want it to go slowly.  There are reasons in the dossier why you might not like something intense and I need time to clear my mind of the past.’

‘Thank you. When?’

‘When what?’

‘When do you see Liya?’

‘16:00 tomorrow.’

‘I’ll be there with my own coffee and ice cream, main room, yes? I’ll finish my ice cream, come up to your table and sit there, you’ll introduce me, I’ll finish my coffee and leave.’

‘Why?’

‘To hurry things along a bit.  I’d like to know myself how long Anya stays away.  I want to form an opinion about this Liya too. And another thing – I have a feeling you might have trouble again soon.’

He smiled. ‘Aha, Ksenia - the stormy petrel - I might have known. You ‘have a feeling’, yes?’

‘Didn’t put that very well, did I? Not from Zhenya, nor from me.’

‘I’m all ears. Tell the tale.’

‘I don’t know all the details but you’ve offended a large Moscow businessman who deals with foreign companies setting up over here. I really don’t know what you’re supposed to have done but he might be planning something nasty.  You’ll need me but I didn’t want you to.  I wanted you to be free to come to me if you wanted.’

V

Marc flew back to Paris with Dilyara.

At the airport, Nicolette had a car and so the Section knew all about it within the hour.

Claudette had been the one who’d come to the party. With her agreement to put Dilyara up for a nominal rent for six months, with Louisa’s connections at the university, with Dilyara’s academic pedigree, including in Britain, it was not going to be an impossibility.

That would give the two of them plenty of time to see if it could be made to work. It was all Genevieve could do for Marc by way of appreciation.

There was one other matter and it was the photograph Dilyara had promised. She’d taken it from a shop door and had duly passed it on to Marc who’d done a double take.

That evening the Section threw a welcoming dinner for Dilyara, the photo was passed to Genevieve who viewed it, placed it inside her copy of Troilus and Cressida in the bookshelf and didn’t refer to it again.

VI

Liya and Hugh had a good relationship in their own right, both comfortable with the other, both happy to use the other to achieve their own ends, with the other’s consent so to speak.

It never went anywhere - just a pleasant interlude with a fair amount of laughter. Hugh was at his most outrageous with her and she liked it.  He wandered into the main room, saw Ksenia over to one side with her coffee and ice-cream and there by the window was Liya the Petite.  She stood, beaming, he smiled and they embraced.  Then he kissed her and as always, she never flinched, never pulled away.

They sat down – she’d already bought the pizza and his coffee was in front of him.

‘Does Anya know you’re with me?’ was his first question, after the first slice of pizza had gone down the hatch.  He knew everything would get back.

‘I don’t know. I didn’t call her.’

‘Not good enough, Liya. You introduced the two of them.’

She was shocked he knew this much. Anya never could keep her trap shut but when had she had the chance to tell him?  ‘Look, Marat fell head over heels for her, just as you did. That’s all. She’s flattered by it all. It was only ever you two for so long and you never even had time for me,’ she cried mock tears. ‘Tell me about London.’

‘In a minute, Liya – promise. I have to get this issue finished first.'  Good, he had the guy's name.  'This Marat works at Dvoretz Sporta, doesn't he?’

‘How on earth do you know that?’

He didn’t but it stood to reason in the context of what both had said so far. ‘How do you read the danger level … for me?’

Liya paused and chose her words carefully. ‘In the hockey season, she wants to attend matches.’

‘I see.’

‘I think you might have a problem on your hands, at least for now.  She still talks about you the whole time though - so you’ve not lost her altogether.  Maybe she needs both of you.’

‘Over my dead body.’

‘Tell me about London.’

He did, including the part about the north, which had her open-mouthed.  He knew that would be passed on. ‘Liya,’ he concluded, ‘I know you have to get back.  I’ll drive you but I need to ask, ‘Do you know why she and I are like this?  It wasn’t just that I left her here.’

‘I know.  There was this Miss Heathrow.’

‘I went north from London with her for some days.’

‘Why?’

‘To protect her but it turned out she and I just wanted.’

‘What about Anya?  Don’t answer that, I know, I know.  I don’t think it will last all that long … and then?’

He sighed. ‘Who knows, Liya.  Miss Heathrow and I like each other too and I’d have to decide.  So would Anya.’

‘What’s she like, Miss Heathrow?’

‘Decide for yourself.  She’s in this room.’  Knowing Liya’s love of intrigue, he added, ‘Which one is she?’

Liya looked around and spotted her instantly. ‘So obvious, Hugh, so obvious.’  Ksenia had already finished her ice-cream, she stood, picked up her bag and came over, sitting down as she said she would.

‘Zdrast, I’m Ksenia.’

‘Ochyen priyatna.’

‘You’re Liya.  Hugh said you were beautiful.’  Liya blushed. ‘Have to go.’  Ksenya drained her coffee, stood, Hugh stood and went to the door, taking both her hands but she planted a kiss on his lips instead.  ‘Your lucky day, isn’t it?  I’ll see myself out.’

He came back and sat down.  Liya just stared at him. ‘Where do you find them?’

‘She found me.  A bit too devastating for me, not sure if I could keep her happy.  Then again, doesn’t look like I could keep Anya happy either.’

‘Hugh,’ she rested a hand on his. ‘I wouldn’t actually be worried too much about that.  Your issue is what you want to do.  Once you know that, then go and get what you want.’

‘I want you.’

‘And Pasha?’ she grinned.

He sighed, they gathered their things and went out.

VII

The first week had rushed by in Paris and Dilyara had found some haunts she liked, in particular Café Toulouse on rue du Jardin, in the 11ème arrondissement.

She’d done the mainstream shopping on Haussmann and the Champs-Élysées and was starting to radiate outwards from there. Paris didn’t faze her in the least, there was always a gallant who’d accompany her, her looks exotic, even for the French - it wasn’t half bad.

Marc was round often enough, Claudette was busy but popped in to see that all was well, there was the television when she was tired; it was fine. She had some nice things now to wear and her three hours at the university were a doddle.

And yet she wasn’t happy.

There it was. She’d known the lie of the land before she’d even arrived, it was no more nor less than she’d been briefed on and yet she was already restless.

VIII

Hugh had agreed to drop Liya at her place on Ibragimova but now she changed her mind and wanted to go back to Dvoretz Sporta, they hailed a car and went down Chernoshyevskovo.

On the corner of Profsoyuznaya, in broad daylight, there were his Anya and some man who seemed very much to fit the description of this Marat, both hitching a lift.

Liya told the driver to drive on but he told the man to stop and as he offered more roubles on top, that's what now happened. She put out a restraining hand but he said, 'Don't worry.'

He walked quickly up Chernoshyevskovo. Anya saw him first, said something to the man and came towards him, desperate to avoid a scene.

‘Hugh.’

‘Is that him?’   She didn’t answer.  He persisted.  ‘And you’re at work today, my love?’

‘I am working – I always come into town on a Thursday and he agreed to have lunch – that’s all.’

‘Come with me now, Anya.’

‘I can’t. That would be rude.’

He turned and stumbled back down to the car. Inside, he said to Liya, ‘He’s nothing special.’

She didn’t comment and tried to suppress a smile.  They drove down to the sports palace, he went round, opened the door and she got out. ‘Will you see me tomorrow?’ he asked.

‘After this?’

‘Especially after this.’

‘Hugh I’m not going to be your spy and I can’t take the place of Anya.’

‘I know that, Liya.  Your guy is away, you have some time, I really need you to talk to, to talk things through, to laugh a bit.  Please, Liya.’

Again she was shocked he knew this much but she was flattered by his manner.  ‘I'm free at 16:00. Can you be?’

‘Giuseppe again?’

‘I like pizza.’

‘All right, 16:00 tomorrow. I’ll bring a car here.’

‘I’ll come out to you.’

He was using Liya but he liked her a hell of a lot too. The thing with Anya was nauseating but first he had some questions to ask himself.  He knew Liya wanted to talk things out too, she always did and she hadn’t had a chance today.

IX

September, 1997

The inevitable first of September came around, and the major news was Diana’s Paris crash a few days back. All sorts of theories swirled round staffrooms, cafes and on Russian TV. It was the occult, she'd been the moon goddess, it was Charles who'd ordered it, it was Phillip, there were so many anomalies, there was deep shock.

It's fair to say it cast a pall over the opening of the new academic year.

.o0o.

On September 14th, Hugh was due to begin at the Pedagogical University – speaking practice was his brief, just a few pairs a week, 80 minutes each. The groups were numbered roughly according to ability, 401 generally regarded as the best and 406 the least able to converse in English.

By the 15th, he’d already learnt not to arrive during a break because there’d be up to 700 girls and about 15 boys coming down the stairs while he was trying to swim upwards. So he arrived near the end of the last ‘pair’ and waited in the main foyer on the fourth floor. He had 402 today.

A girl came up and introduced herself as Alina, said he was teaching her the next pair and asked him about Britain and sundry things. He took her in – tall, dark, pretty, lovely voice.

X

Dilyara knew what the problem was – this was Marc’s métier here in Paris and hers was back there. This was her main chance but she couldn’t, she couldn’t.

As she exited C&A on boulevard Haussmann, she was thinking if only she could get him back there and be surrounded by everything and everyone she loved.

She sighed, determined to speak with him that evening but already knew the response. It just wasn’t satisfactory to be his ‘girl in Shadzhara’ whenever he decided to visit and this thing she was doing now was too temporary, too touristy for words. There was no infrastructure.

A dark navy Peugeot 406 swung round from rue Charras and instead of slowing for the zebra crossing with her on it, actually sped up, hit her before she had the slightest chance to even register surprise and sped off down Haussmann.

XI

Another heated three way conference at the kitchen table in Zyelornilyes was in full fury - Safin had changed his stance on his younger sister. What an amazing stroke of luck that Alina was in one of the Englishman’s groups.

Olyesa was having none of it. ‘O chom bazar - what the hell are you talking about! Blin!’

‘I think Alina should see a bit of him. Perfect.’

‘Look, you fool - you don’t know when to stop. You don’t know when not to use people, that they might resent it. You’re completely amoral - you use anyone for your own ends, Sirozh.’

He looked to the sky and made circular movements with his hand which caused the blood to rush to her brain. ‘You do this, Sirozh and I’ll tell Papa the lot - the photos, Oleg, the lot. You’ll have to take me out to stop me. I believe you’d do it too if your masters told you to.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he muttered, got up and left.

Alina gazed on, thoughtfully.

XII

In the early evening, seated at the low table in the middle of his living room, Viktor was on edge. He set down his coffee cup, sat slightly forward on the chair, hands clasped between his knees but couldn’t begin.

‘Tell me,’ Hugh invited.

‘It’s Roxana. We’ve split.’

‘Oh man, so sorry. Seems to be the season for it. Tell me what you can.’

Roxana’s prospects at the bank improved; I suppose she was increasingly called to Moscow, then when she’d come back, she'd have to host dinners and meetings almost constantly. I was proud of her, you know that but there are limits - surely you'd agree with that, Man - and then something happened which brought back all the old suspicions - a defensive answer to an innocent question, I swear, which she interpreted as a probing question.

Whenever she had a meeting in Ulitsa Shadzhara, it seemed to happen. So I broke my rule and went there. To that restaurant. There was no meeting. We had it out on the phone and I didn’t play it cool. I asked her straight out why she’d lied.’

‘Yes.’

‘She blustered and tried to turn it on me that I was so suspicious. I know I was and she had reasons to leave me over that alone. She decided to tough it out - seemed to want it to continue but for what?’

‘I have to say, the thought had crossed my mind. I’m sorry. I had a talk with her one day.’

‘Oh?’

‘There you go, you see. I don’t mind but you have to see she’s got you on edge and has had for some time. It hasn’t been right since that first time you went to the restaurant.’

‘It wasn’t the first time.’

‘Whatever. The thing is, I’ve been in this position too. The suspicion starts in and if you don’t clear the air completely with her at the time, you have to pack it in there and then.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Nor can I as a rule. By the way, are you willing to risk letting me make the coffee?’

He smiled a weak smile. ‘Let’s find out.’

Hugh got up, paused and said, ‘Just sit there a few moments and then I'll poison you.’

When he brought back the coffee, Viktor wanted to change topics.

‘I’ve been making a few inquiries but only one of the replies matters. There’s a conflict between two foreign firms - Zhenya Sharov is aligned with one of the companies and his sister appears to be too. On the other hand, there's word that he has moved to a rival firm, so automatically, that aligns you with her, the other side has you on the general list for elimination.’

‘Your suggestion?’

‘Vary your routines for some time, come home at different times. I can’t give you any better advice just now but I’ll keep enquiring and I’ll tell you if I come up with anything more.'

.o0o.

He went through to the padyezd, pushed the button and heard the whoosh of the lift. It clanked open and he was on the way up. The lift stopped at his floor with that echoing clash of steel, the double doors opened and there was Anya in front of him.

‘You have a key – why didn’t you go in?’ he asked.

‘I wasn’t sure,’ she dropped her head.

‘Come in.’

She went through and noticed her own tapechki on the floor with the others. ‘Are these slippers for when I returned?’

‘Need you ask?'

‘Let’s get the tea together quickly,’ she said, ‘because I need to tell you something.’

She busied herself, made it all more quickly than he could have and they went through to the living room. She looked at him and he disliked himself for simply taking her into his arms.

She must have known, hoped he would do it.

When they came out of it, she said, ‘I wasn't sure you’d ever do that again. Listen, anything about you and me needs to be put on hold. Dilyara was hit by a car in Paris.’

‘Marc never called me.’

‘I can’t blame him. I’m devastated too. Her mother called me. She’s not dead but she’s a mess. And Hugh, the police are saying it was no accident.’

XIII

Marc did call from Geneviève’s the following evening while Viktor was supping on Hugh’s soup concoction and pronouncing it exquisite.

Hugh listened for some time then responded, ‘Right, Marc, when do you fly in? Uh huh. Her parents will collect you, you say? Fine. Call me again when you get here.’

He turned to Viktor. ‘They’re coming back to Shadzhara.’

...

Marc put the receiver back and turned to Geneviève. ‘I keep asking the same thing. Why her?  Me - yes. You - yes. Why her?’

‘Hugh isn’t close enough and there was no suggestion there was anything going on there.’

‘It means we’re getting close. That photo, Mademoiselle, might be the key.  They know we know. ’ He looked at her, she went across to her window in her characteristic way and gazed down on the street below.

‘Oui, Marc. It could well be that. I think we shouldn’t confuse the Hugh business with Dilyara. They’re two different matters.’

He looked at her more closely. She was a classic beauty, Geneviève, quite Gallic in her face and manner and though fashion was not her second name as with, say, Francine, she knew how to appear simply elegant, the perfect head for such a Section, with the calm ruthlessness to go with it, plus a touch of vulnerability to round it off.

Even though she did not exude any particular menace, no one would wish to cross Geneviève, not even her backers.

XIV

Anya phoned mid-afternoon and he mentioned that Viktor was with him; he passed the phone across and Viktor spoke respectfully and politely, before handing back the receiver.

Viktor felt he had to be on his way and wasn't to be persuaded.

.o0o.

Twenty five minutes later, there was a knock on the door and in she walked, she kicked off her shoes, donned the tapechki and went through to the living room where he’d reset the place. He’d even gone downstairs with Viktor and picked up a couple of the salads he knew she liked, although obviously not from the shop she liked. 

‘Well, lubimaya maya,’ smiled Hugh, once they were settled down to converse, ‘tell me about him.’

‘You first.’

‘Ladies first.’

She sighed. ‘It couldn’t have worked - he was too submissive. You know me.’

‘How could you agree to sleep with someone else when we were fiancees?’

‘You can talk.  We kept postponing it and then when you just went to Australia, despite everything I’d said, I did invite him over. My head was in a spin, that was all. I didn’t think it through.’  She sighed again and asked him, ‘How far has it gone with you and her?  And yes, I got a description out of Liya.  Quite a siren so it seems.’

'It’s my good taste in women,’ he only half-joked.  ‘She's made it clear that it’s in my court.  It’s not though, not completely – it’s what you want, what she wants, what I want.’

'Let's talk at Giuseppe, over a pizza and champagne.'

‘You don’t mind being where I met Liya?’

.o0o.

The Unusual Couple were in there again but leaving this time. She had on a different outfit but the formula was the same - elegant boots, simple jumper, gold chain but the hair was shorter, done in a certain style and the earrings were long and straight.

Her face was a little more blemished and she showed signs of being careworn. Life was beginning to impinge on those two, that much was clear.

They talked it all through and had the champagne and ice-cream.

XV

Dilyara’s parents had eventually returned to the forest, the brother was off on one of his jaunts to another town with his young lady and finally Marc had some time alone with her.

‘I want to talk,’ she started and raised her hand. ‘No, don’t stop me and say it’s too early and so on. Let’s talk, Marc.’ He nodded. ‘I love you.’

He nodded again, then realized he was meant to respond. But did he love her? It took a full minute before he answered, ‘Moi aussi.  Je t’aime.’

There were tears in her eyes over that silent minute – he hadn’t done it well. She lay and he sat in silence for a while, made all the worse by the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. There seemed few words which hadn’t already passed between them.

She broke the silence. ‘You’ll fly back to Paris, won’t you?’

‘Oui.’

‘And marry some French girl.’

‘Non. Je t’aime.’

‘I make life hard for you, don’t I?’

‘My work is taking up all my time. It’s really difficult having a life. My heart - it's with you.’

‘I don’t want an on/off, occasional visit type of relationship.’

‘I also don’t.’

‘When will you fly back?’

‘In two days.’

XVI

November, 1997

The late autumn chill was upon the city but still no snow. It was bleak and dismal, with only bitter, grey, clear skies overhead and the trees just seemed to wither up and die. The October 27th stock crash seemed to be consuming the outside world but hadn’t fully impacted in Shadzhara.

Days later, the sky whitened, a good sign, a few flurries drifted down and became slush, the skies cleared again to a lifeless grey then, one morning, Shadzhara awoke to find white fluff on top of cars and on the grass, with just a few green patches here and there.

The next few days saw heavy, dumping drifts, the air was white, the birds became disoriented and hit glass window panes, everyone rugged up and winter was again upon Russia.

Ksenia was going off on a job overseas, she'd phoned out of the blue, he could only ask her to take care but she'd been hoping he'd invite her over.  She wasn't going to ask, especially not now. 

It killed him not to ask her to come over for that last night.

XVIII

December, 1997

There's an interesting phenomenon in that when you're not with someone, you tend not to meet the opposite sex.  Then, when you do become involved, others start to appear as if from nowhere.

There's also a theory that you only get to see a woman if she wishes you to and this one seemed to wish that now.

Her name was Aliya.

They met one evening in the foyer of Gostinit’sa Regi’na and she drank mineral water. More along the lines of Dilyara, she had this manner about her he adored and she certainly played up to it.

The obvious question was why she'd appeared and why he'd immediately suggested this meeting.  The venue was logical - the hotel was close to her house, which itself was a bit further on from Viktor’s.

The complication was that Viktor now saw them together near his house.

He’d been out shopping at the high-end store Bahatlye, where all the discerning went to buy salads and smoked salmon and saw her give Hugh a peck on the cheek, taking his forearms and looking into his eyes, before departing. Viktor counted to ten, then called out.

.o0o.

‘How old is she?’ was his first question over coffee.

‘23.’

‘So what are you doing with her?’

‘Company.’

‘What are your intentions?’

‘I don’t have any.’

‘Anya?  Ksenia?’

‘Dormant.’

‘This Aliya – what conversation would someone that age have to offer?’

‘Plenty. We get on very well.’

Viktor smiled. ‘Hope you know what you’re doing.’

‘I'd appreciate your take on Anya and Ksenia - that's the main issue.’

‘Well, I think you were a bit quick going north with Miss Heathrow when Anya was still technically your fiancee but it did seem to be on its last legs, from what I could observe.  It certainly needed a kick start.’

‘Aliya wants to go over some documents for America tomorrow … at my place.’

‘Be careful – there might well be people who’d like to use that against you.’

‘Should I cancel?’

‘Why?  It's just business ... isn't it?’

He thought about it.  ‘Yes, that's all it can be.  How are you holding up?’

‘There are good nights and bad nights.’

‘Come round for soup tomorrow.’

‘You know, I might just do that,’ he smiled. ‘When’s she coming?’

‘In the morning.  You come about 13:00 - can you make that?'

.o0o.

Back at his house, the slow lift door creaked open then, near his own door, in the darkness, the light bulb on his floor having been removed by someone who’d obviously needed it for his own flat, he became aware that something was amiss.

The situation had clearly moved on - the door stood at an angle, as a result of having been torn half off its hinges. Everything in the living room had been turned over.

All the technica was still there, surprisingly, but the documents were gone - very interesting but at the same time - sickening. He drove a four inch nail through the door to seal it for the night then crashed onto the divan.

XVII

Marc departed Shadzhara, promising profusely to at least come back in two months, in the New Year.

.o0o.

Nicolette collected him from Orly, he threw his things in the back and reported to her along the way. Looking across and glad someone else was driving, he could take her in, the way she vehemently rubbed the window with her glove to clear the fog. Planes, he thought to himself, have this foreshortening effect in that you can be in a Russian milieu one moment and a few hours later, you’re with an entirely different ethnicity.

He smiled at Nikki.

‘Qu'est-ce que c'est?’ she smiled back, then looked at the road again, the smile still playing on her lips. Beautiful lips too, he thought to himself. This was the sort of woman he should have been involved with and yet he hadn’t done a lot with his own countrywomen – maybe it was the temperament.

He gazed through the side window at the boring grass verge flashing by and began to reflect that one land was much the same as another in some ways. Trees are trees, grass verges are grass verges and women are women. Then he realized all that was rubbish.

On an impulse, he reached for Nikki’s right hand, took the fingers to his lips and kissed the back of them, causing Nicolette to look across at him curiously.

He gave her back her hand and only spoke again once they’d reached rue de Rivoli, with its hundreds of bicycles in a row and wrought iron chain fences behind them, the tall buildings the other side of the cobblestoned path.

Nicolette swung the car into the carpark of one of their favourite watering holes, without even asking him and without him even querying it.

She skipped along in front of him but then waited for him to open the first door, the rituals now completed, finding themselves sitting at a low table, she asked him to tell her the whole story.

She wasn’t leaving this place until he did and already outside, dusk was falling.

XVIII

The next morning, about 10:35, there was a knock on Hugh’s brand, spanking new door he’d bought at 08:00 on the dot and had carried back home on his shoulder and if you’ve ever tried that, it’s not easy.

He checked out who it was through the spyhole - Aliya - and she had packets.§   She came through, put the packets down and took off her boots. ‘I’ve been talking with my grandmother. She was appalled at the things you said you didn’t have.’

Out came a green and white bed cover which she said her grandmother didn’t need any more.

‘I only said I was thinking of getting one,’ he protested.

‘Look at the end of your bed.’

It was clear, under the layers covered by the bedspread, that he had no underlay. ‘Right, let’s put it on. Now, you must decide. Predominantly green up or green down?’ He didn’t know what she was talking about. ‘You have to put the underlay down one way only – ever.’

‘Er- green up, white down.’

‘Good, now these.’ Out came a box and inside were two fine-edged bone coffee mugs.

‘You bought these?’

She ignored that and brought out little bits and pieces for his comfort while he just gazed at her, not knowing in the least how to respond. ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ he said quietly.

‘Right,’ she said, taking things to the kitchen, ‘I don’t have a lot of time now but I’m free at 16:30. Are you?’ She caught his hesitation and asked, ‘Did I say anything wrong?’

‘You didn’t but there are issues.  Do you want me to tell you?’

‘If there are issues, you very much need to tell me.’

‘This friendship with you is good because it doesn’t threaten you and it doesn’t threaten me. Am I right so far?’

‘Da.’

‘I haven’t tried to take it to the next step and neither have you. A lot of people won’t accept friendship between a man and a woman and I have to admit that I’m a cynic too.  My age and yours would cause comment, even just being seen together and I have to tell you that some people wonder why I'd want a friendship with you.’

She laughed, knowing the whole story before he'd even articulated it.  ‘Many people wonder, Mr. Jensen, if you’re not a middle-aged man trying to take me away from my young boyfriend.’

‘Boyfriend?’ he asked.

_______________________________

§  One of the joys for me, with this book, has been to take real people in the situations which actually occurred, using their real names and as far as I can remember, reporting the actual dialogue as it happened.  To see that preserved in multiple conversations throughout the book always causes a little chuckle.

For example, there really was an Aliya, she was that age, we did get close, she did come with all those things from home and the first part of that conversation did occur.


There's also been the taking of real situations and placing them in different contexts, sometimes with different characters speaking lines which genuinely had been spoken by someone else.  That was plot driven and not quite as amusing.


Chapter 5 here ... Chapter 7 here

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