Viktor placed a large envelope on the coffee table. Hugh took out the contents – photos, black and whites, and here was the surprise – one was of him going into the building where he’d worked until recently. No big deal.
The next one floored him. It was Ksusha. And what was she doing? Also going into the building where he’d worked.
The next was of a woman he vaguely remembered seeing once at school.
‘Look more closely at the one of Ksenia.’
‘What am I meant to be looking for?’
‘Look at the doorway she’s walking through.’
‘Well, I’ll be –’ It was Side-of-Beef. It was Georges. He explained Georges. ‘I don’t understand any of this.’
‘Nor do I.’
‘And how did you come by these?’
‘Sent to me.’
‘Might be better if you and Ksusha left town for a little while.’
‘Again? Is this ever going to end, Viktor? I joined your security so this sort of thing would stop.’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘And it hasn’t stopped.’
‘No. Go home, speak to Ksenia tonight, get her to arrange transport, get her to explain Georges. Can you still phone that girl at Telekompaniya Efir? Having a van and a journalist at the hotel would certainly help. From my end, certain people will place phone calls to all the usual suspects like Deputatov, to the effect that a very public event is going down at Klyenovaya Gora. This won’t necessarily keep you alive but it will make the culprit very, very visible.’
As it turned out, there was a hell of a lot to discuss, he asked Ksusha to go first.
‘There’s not a lot happening right now at work,’ she said, once they were settled in for the night, ‘but there are field projects coming up – two you need to know about. One is to meet a current but intermittent lover in Moscow who moves me enough to make the time a pleasure but not enough to try to capture for life. The other involves a man in Nizhny Novgorod who was a lover, is now married but there’s still something there.’
‘Will you do it with them?’
She pondered. ‘I’d say no but it depends. It is my first test since we … became one.’ His silence was eloquent, so she asked him to tell her what he had to say.
‘We need to leave town again.’
‘Oh no. Go on.’
I went to Viktor’s and he’d been sent some photos.’
‘Oh?’ She was uneasy.
‘There were three large photos, blown up but quite detailed. One was of me going into my former workplace – you know I was at that place.’
‘Yes, and that something happened, you were shocked, you’d not been meant to go there, we’ve never discussed it.’
‘There were dead bodies in there, I didn’t see them – lights had been put out – but I smelt them, a group of men knew my name and told me to go home, I went to Viktor’s, Zhenya was there.’
‘Hugh, I can’t discuss that but yes, I do know about it. The other two photos? Let’s get this over and done with.’
‘The third was of a lady I thought I recognized from school.’ He described her and Ksenia smiled. ‘Think I can tell you,’ she said, ‘that that’s my esteemed leader in the section. All right, the second?’
‘Of you going into that building yourself.’
‘Go on.’ She’d gone quiet.
‘Let’s come back to when I approached Frederika with a knife – we didn’t discuss the events leading up to this in detail last time. Not the names. There was a Malik, a girl I’ve forgotten but Frederika had someone with her and I found out his name – Georges. He was the one just behind you when you went in that building.’
She was stunned but said, ‘Go on.’
‘I call him Side of Beef. He then sat over the other side of the boat, I got her to call him on her phone but then I took the phone and spoke to him -’
‘Yes, in Russian.’
‘Yes, I told him that if he did not get off at the next stop, I would phone Mikhail Safin and tell him about what he was up to.’
She was speechless. ‘What do you know about Mikhail Safin?’
‘Head of a company, there’s also a man called the Beast, there’s Sergei Safin and of course side of Beef himself. There’s also a woman involved in this, her familiar is Safina.’
She did not react to the last part. ‘How can you know this?’
‘In those five months away from me, one of my students at university made herself known to me – her name is Alina.’
She was gobsmacked. ‘You knew all this and never said a word? We have to get out of town -’
‘Which is what Viktor said to me and he’s arranging half of it, we must arrange the rest.’
‘Someone sent those to Viktor, Georges is part of this company, I was escorting him into that building for operational reasons – you saw the date on the photo I suppose -’
‘I saw no date.’
‘I bet you didn’t – that was months before you and I became a couple. There’s nothing whatever in him being at your workplace, that’s not the issue. The issue is him being with Djamato – that is more than relevant and you’ve just achieved something you couldn’t possibly know, so well done. But Viktor is absolutely right, we do have to get out – what did he say?’
He told her. ‘Yes,’ she mused, ‘that sounds good, especially the Efir crew. I’ll arrange the transport, don’t worry about that but Hugh, Bebe, I’m so unhappy inside – I now know who the trouble is. I can’t even go home so I’m going to raid your wardrobe and get some things I can wear.’
‘I actually … er … got some things for you, just in case you spent a long time here at some point.’
She was gobsmacked again. ‘You remember those times you and I bought clothes for you – you had no spares? Well I bought a second lot, just in case.’
She squeezed him half to death and smothered him in kisses. ‘About those two ‘missions’ coming up – forget them, I was making you sweat because of Frederika. You’re mine and that’s that. Now, show me these clothes.’
He’d bought a sportsbag as well and now she packed it. ‘You’ve been a busy boy, do you sniff them at night?’
‘I did sniff your knickers.’
‘You’re hopeless. I suppose you’re packed?’
‘Not completely but I always have a bag half ready.’
‘You have walking shoes for me too. In my size too. Oh, I think I like this.’
Here was Klenovaya Gora again, they went in the morning, set up in their room, then went for a walk.
On the way past the raised observation platform by the lake, he saw a figure he recognized from the photos. ‘Ksusha, look over there, across the lake.’
‘Who do you mean? Vitali or Ludmilla Vladimerievna?’
‘So that’s her after all, is it? Yes, I mean her, yes I know her by sight. Ksusha, are you all right?’
She clearly wasn’t but recovered and turned to him. ‘I just saw someone else who shouldn’t be here either. I was certain who our problem was – now this confirms it. Leave this one to me, I need to call Zhenya.’
She took out her mobile and made the call. ‘Where are you? Sorry – I didn’t quite catch it. There’s interference. I’ll call you back.’
She indicated for them to climb the hill and took to the slope like a mountain goat, with him struggling to keep up. At the top, she tried again but there were still fade outs interfering with the reception. She then got through. ‘I’m in the country, with Hugh.’
‘Listen to this,’ she murmured to Hugh and put the mobile to his ear. The static was awful but it wasn’t only the static – there was a strange sort of whooshing noise in the background.
‘Sorry, Brat,’ she said, ‘line is bad. Where are you?’
‘Shadzhara? Uh huh. Hold on, the line is bad.’
She turned the mobile so it wouldn’t receive, then back again, apologized into it, clicked off, they came down off the hill and made their way back to the hotel, her face a study, in deep thought.
This raises more questions than it answers,’ she muttered over tea and sweets. ‘I’m sure we’re safe while we’re here, as long as we don’t go for walks. Let’s just enjoy today and tomorrow.’
‘I’m a bit confused by all this.’
‘There’s trouble,’ she stroked his cheek, ‘but not for us now, not here, only back in town. We can enjoy today and tomorrow, truly. My boss is out there taking care of things and we’ll be looked after. She’s granting us this time – granting me this time before the storm.’
Viktor had Olga over for the evening but the complication was that his fourteen year old daughter by his first wife was also over, brushing up for her physics exam scheduled for the first week back in September.
He couldn’t exactly get rid of his daughter and Anastasia was savvy enough to know what was going down so it was Olga who solved the problem by asking Viktor to take care of the coffee while she helped Nastya.
It worked and also reassured Viktor in the process. From something in Olga’s manner, Nastya got the idea that they weren’t yet an item and so when her mother called and asked why she hadn’t come back yet, she then felt free to take the taxi Viktor ordered.
There is a device in the Russian language where you use the diminutive, say ‘Olya’ but also retain the more formal ‘vi’, the respectful ‘you’ and it solves most of the problems of interaction. Viktor had taught it to Hugh and it was certainly effective, even right up to lovemaking, it assured the woman that it was all being done with great respect and yet affection.
It treated the relationship a bit like Queen and courtier and most women appreciated the device, allowing her the final say as to when the two of them might eventually drop into ‘ti’.
So it was here and the rest followed like the steps of a dance.
Hugh waited and waited for the inevitable Zhenya, having been primed by Ksusha to expect him. He expected Zhenya would know his home times.
Two days later Zhenya visited, in the evening. ‘Come in Zhenya, come in … tea?’
‘Thanks, no, not this time.’
‘Please.’ Hugh indicated a seat. Zhenya sat down on the divan by the window.
‘Ksusha said you need to talk.’
‘Yes, there are some puzzling things I really have to ask you, do you mind? I think only you can solve them. She’ll be here later if we all need to discuss them.’
‘Fire away,’ he urged, in the perfect vernacular. Hugh decided to risk all.
‘After Ksusha phoned you at Klyenovaya Gora, where we were, she phoned Yulia on the way back to the hotel and the signal was good but with you, it was – as you remember.’
‘Well, there was this whooshing sound in the background we couldn’t identify but now Ksusha thinks she has it.’
‘Well,’ continued Hugh, matter-of-factly, looking straight into Zhenya’s eyes, ‘what if you hadn’t been in Shadzhara at all, as you said you had but were actually at Klyenovaya Gora all along and the whooshing sound in the background was the sound of the klooch – ’
He got no further. Zhenya had already swung down, whipping a syringe from a holder above his left ankle. He took two strides, there was a cracking of glass, he stopped short, mouth at a stupid angle and something oozed red from his forehead, dripped to his nose and from there onto his clothes.
He collapsed to the floor like a sack of spuds.
There were no further words, there was no emotion, Hugh just stared and all he could think of was that that was yet another rug he’d ruined.
Four minutes later, the ring on the doorbell came, he went to open it, Ksenia walked through to the living room and asked him to leave her for some time.
He closed the connecting door and went to the kitchen. As he sat on a stool, he could hear her weeping in the next room for about twenty minutes. Then she stopped and came out, apologized for taking one of his handkerchiefs and they both sat on the stools, not saying a word.
Finally she spoke. ‘It was lethal, that stuff he used.’
‘You knew of it?’
‘I knew of it.’
She made the calls.
Three men came, one came back into the kitchen and asked if they could use the Stinol refrigerator packing case folded on the balcony, Hugh wandered back into the living room after they’d huffed and puffed out of the front door and into the lift; the rug – the stains and Zhenya, all were now gone.
They went to Yaz Bar, ordered beers and she just stared straight ahead.
‘Why so final?’ he asked. ‘Why not a tranquilizer?’
‘Zhenya was always nervni but he could control it with great effort. When he couldn’t, he took Mergalon and never told anyone but there was one thing which drove him apoplectic and that was if anyone came near me. He was fiercely protective. That’s why I kept my lovers secret from him – waiting till he was away and then putting in a phone call. There are those who’d accept those terms.
With you though – it was completely open and he had great trouble handling it. He called me a whore and you a male whore and other things worse than that. But in his eyes I couldn’t have been a whore, you see, in his eyes I’d had no lovers, so how could I be a whore when I went with my first real lover to the north of England?
The answer was that he’d always known, on the law of averages, that it could not have been as I’d presented it to him but to accept as a fact that I’d had lovers would cause a psychological jolt he couldn’t face and so he lived in this half-worshipping state, elevating me far above what any girl in my situation could possibly have been.
At Domodyedova, when we did that lovemaking, he had to confront it and he determined we were to be punished. You know of honour killings?’
‘Eastern, yes, but you’re Russian.’
‘In his case, it was all the same. He couldn’t do this overtly because we live in a society where women do have lovers and men too – if he did anything, it would be the end for him. So it grew inside him – I know he felt mad love for me but also no respect. He wanted me for himself, but as sobaka na senye – the dog sitting on top of the haystack and not letting anyone else near it.’
‘Ah, we have ‘dog in a manger.’ ’
‘So I had to force the issue. I was the one who had material sent to your Viktor, which was always going to get back to Zhenya, he phoned me and I suggested you and I were going to Klyenovaya Gora, to escape danger. Do you know why it had to be us at the resort?’
‘I’ve a fair idea – to send him over the edge.’
‘’Zhenya now had a double betrayal from you – you’d fucked his sister and that’s what he was most concerned with, not with the caring and love – and you’d also done dirt on me by fucking Frederika. The payment by the firms he works for cancelled each other out. One firm wanted this, one wanted that, and that also sent him crazy. My father went that way and I recognized the signs in him too.’
‘’You killed him too?’
‘Be careful suggesting something like that to me. Not in that way, no, I didn’t, but it messed my mind all the same. Zhenya was beyond reason and he’d gone into that dangerous mode of our father. He knew there was not long to go, in his head he knew it, I think he knew it would be me who ended it, I once suggested it might and he was thoughtful about that at the time.’
‘Did he want you as a lover?’
‘Yes. And that made it worse because, despite everything else, we were brought up traditionally in many ways. He knew he couldn’t even think of such a thing but I knew he wanted me and even as a girl, I never let him see me naked and maybe that also caused the problem. It built up.’
‘The things we do in our lives.’
‘Yes.’ She added, ‘I’ll be fine, Hugh, there’s no more to this, I’m not a suicide waiting to happen, I’ll do this my way, I’ll come back to you, but not for some days. I need time to myself.’
‘Your state of mind?’
‘What do you expect?’ she snapped, then apologized and laid a hand on his forearm. ‘Can you stand me touching you?’
‘Let’s get this clear – you’ve just saved my life. I know you had to do it, I think all three of us knew that, it will take time, Ksusha – I’m here now or when you’re ready, you know this.’
‘I do. I have to do family things now, I have to do them alone.’
He went to the balcony and watched her walk away until she was obscured by the corner of a housing block.
In Nizhny Novgorod, Valentina Alexandrova put Pavel and Ksenia to bed, tidied up and did some ironing. Viktor Bukovsky, her deputy, was coming over to drop off the Shaidullin report and she was awaiting the phone call right now.
It was tough without Pavel Snr. around. They’d tried to patch it up some years back and little Ksenia was meant to be the means of making things right.
Valentina did not absolve herself of blame – she’d given as good as she’d got, at least until he’d gone back to the bottle and that was the signal to get out of the flat for good, with her child and baby. She couldn’t be doing with that sort of thing in her position but when he’d been hit by the tram, she’d gone to pieces.
Now she had her two children as a reminder of the good times with him and Viktor Bukovsky about to come round with his report.
On Hugh’s internet one evening, the mail ticker showed, ‘Contact Olyesa, she’ll wait at Chai till 16:00.’ Just that. He knew that name, at least he knew of someone that name, not quite the same thing. Of course he’d go. Ksenia was on one of her jaunts, due back tomorrow – it would be interesting to have a surprise to drop on her.
Just inside the entrance of Cafe Chai, at 16:00 next day, he simply called out, ‘Olyesa?’ A dozen faces looked up at him but only one came up.
‘Olyesa?’ he asked again more quietly.
He forgot himself and said in English, ‘Did you leave a message for me?’
She replied in English. ‘Yes.’
She was medium height and build, maybe 23 years old, well endowed, with golden hair, an ornate black frock, stiletto shoes, a ‘without complexes’ look to her face and not much else.
‘What do you want?’
‘To talk, but it’s too crowded here today. Do you know a pizza place on Pionerskaya, near the market?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’
‘Can you be there at 11:00 tomorrow morning?’
‘But I have to … all right … I can make it.’
On the way back, all the electricity in the city went off. Interesting, that – just shut down. Shops, offices, post offices, traffic lights, quite apocalyptic really. Everywhere, vendors blocked their doorways and sat smoking on stools, arguing with bunches of customers still trying to go in to browse around, the general noise level of car horns measurably increased, the fabric was momentarily rent.
It was also Shadzharaya Yarmarka day, or giant sale. A woman decided, on the strength of the power cut, that this was the cue to go on to the street to sell little plastic forks to passing neighbours.
There was a wedding also. Goodness, the Russians love noise. Once the convoy passed through the archway into the dvor, all hell broke loose with car horns.
He got back to the flat, the electricity had now come back on, he switched on the computer and checked the messages with more than a trace of interest. Now there was one from Alina – couldn’t be sure it was the one he taught but still.
‘Don’t see Olyesa tomorrow.’
That was it. Sigh – of course he was going to see Olyesa. He checked the answer machine – Ksusha would be there by 19:00, she was back and would sort things out. She phoned and wanted him there [if he could come of course].
‘You first, Ksushinka – all your news … and you know the type I need to know about.’
‘Nothing to report this time but the Nizhny one is coming up, I promised you, I keep my promises.’
He switched on the computer, waited till it booted, opened the two messages and she was goggle-eyed. ‘Well of all the … you do know who they are, don’t you?’
‘I’m assuming Alina’s the one I taught, related to you, I also assume this Olesya is part of the family – I met her today.’
‘Did you now? Describe her.’ He did and she confirmed it. ‘So, on the strength of a ticker on your screen, you went and met a strange girl. Hmmmm, I’m going to have to think about you. I suppose you’ll go tomorrow.’
‘Unless you tell me not to.’
‘No, I’m intrigued – she just assumed you’d be free.’
‘That’s not difficult – any of them can walk into the uni, see my timetable and work it out from that.’
‘Report back on it later, then I’m going to decide what to do with my sisters.’
‘In the loose way Russians refer to them. Cousins. They’d be horrified if they thought you were reporting this to me.’ She allowed herself a grin.
He went the next day – after all, what could possibly happen in broad daylight, in one of the most populous streets in the city, across the road from a market?
The answer is that you could end up with a knife in your shoulder, followed by a visit to a hospital and a week’s convalescence scheduled at home.
Ksenia got there late afternoon, having got his call earlier. ‘Any more messages?’
‘Stop! Hold it, Ksush, it might be better they don’t know you know yet. Let this thing play out and see what it’s about -’
‘It’s about killing you.’
‘Yes but I’m forewarned now. Is someone getting them to do this or is it just them? Is there anything you can think of, anything you can tell me?’
‘There are strains between Sergei and those two, it’s connected with the Beast. Mikhail knows nothing of course. I need to know one thing and you’ve been honest so far – did you have sex with either of them?’
‘No, nothing, no kissing, nothing. However, there are two other things I need to tell you – I want you to know both of them so you get no surprises. I got a message one evening at about 23:00 from a girl and I suspect I know which one. She was drunk and wanted me to come round and make love to her. The message is still on the machine so you can hear it. It was so obviously a scam that I didn’t respond.’
‘And the other?’
‘A girl again.’ She sighed, he continued. ‘Her name’s Alisa, she’s a senior student and I can’t remember how it started. I swear that’s so – I can’t remember the exact details. I think she waited downstairs to ask me a question and we went over to Raki.’
‘Raki! The most public place in the entire city – you might as well have broadcast it across the land. Why?’
‘I thought it best to keep it public. It was late – 19:00 – not wise to stay in the university building with a single girl, I think that’s why I suggested it.’
‘And she went willingly and you went too and you bought her a drink.’
‘She did have an issue about a major project and we do this rukavoditel thing -’
‘But it was now 20:00 and she was already out late.’
‘Tell me you didn’t take her home.’
‘She lives in Devyatimicrorayon -’
‘Not far from my place. Go on.’
‘My thought was to get a car, take her back close to her place and drop her, then see if there was any life at your place because we were in those five months and I’d heard nothing. Now you want the truth, so I’m telling it. There was just something that would ease my mind, I thought, if I could just see your place, see your window. You know you can’t see anything from the road but even if there’d been a light, it would have been nice.’
She sighed again and said, ‘I’ve done the same. Stupidity. Go on.’
‘The problem was what went on in the back of the car.’
‘You’ll have to make a judgment about me, about whether I am someone who does such things or whether, as I am claiming, I was ambushed. Ksusha, she suddenly climbed onto me, like facing the back window I mean and started kissing me – it was not pleasant because it was so aggressive and she smoked. It was like kissing an ashtray and I had to pull out. I couldn’t breathe. She started talking about me meeting her parents. I dropped her off and waved.’
‘She phoned and phoned and phoned, leaving messages. By now, I admit I saw my position and it could look like I’d done all that -’
‘I think Raki might save me because it’s so public.’
‘You’re truly insane, you know nothing of girls, do you?’ She sighed again. ‘You have to extract yourself -’
‘I have. I saw her days later and said I was with a lady and was not expecting it to suddenly get like that with her. I said it just couldn’t be in our positions.’
‘Was she ever in your flat, were you ever in hers, was she ever alone with you in the university building? Did you ever kiss her after that?’
‘No to all those. I wouldn’t have anyway because of the smoking.’
She let her breath out slowly. ‘Hugh, you’re an utter fool and you must not ever do anything even slightly like that. No more Alina, no more Olesya, no more any of them. Surely you know that by now with all the girls you teach.’
‘I do. I’ve told you both of them. I always leave the door open, I never stay back with any of them alone, there are no private meetings. When I do any tutoring, I go to a public place. That was why Raki.’
‘Keep doing the public places if you have to have a student to tutor but not that obvious. Something still public but more out of the way. They’re the dangers in your job and I have the dangers in mine, you know that. This is another good thing with us, as long as we’re still honest – they can’t tear us apart and we can stop any of these things if we can say we’ve told our partner.’
‘Not unlike a ‘krisha’, protection.’
‘Ah, you know about that.’ She thought for a moment. ‘It’s time I have a word to my sisters, sorry Hugh but you’re not up with all the family details and I am. I’ll do that tomorrow. Any more business?’
‘Then I’ll let you get some rest.’
He was due home the next day.
Life had become bizarre. The Second Chechen War had begun in earnest and the British government, as distinct from the British people, had as usual backed the wrong side, backed a bunch of drug-running warlords – this dominated the news.
Hugh had a new flat. Ksenia had obviously had a word with Ludmilla who had friends in the real estate line, who knew of a family with a daughter Hugh taught and she spoke highly of him, the flat was in the same area, the same block, was surplus to requirements and might as well have had a nominal rental coming in, the girl was hovering between a high and second grade in her diploma and some tutoring, gratis, was suggested by Ludmilla, a good arrangement all round and so here he was, almost seamlessly.
Frankly, the old flat was not secure since the break-in.
He’d retired from school teaching itself and was both at the university and doing his state work, pretty well worn out.
Yeltsin had stepped down on New Year’s Eve and Vladimir Putin was the new President.
Ex KGB, it at least looked a reasonably positive move at this early stage and there was, generally speaking, cautious acceptance of the transition of power, thankfully bloodless and so the first test of the new democracy had been passed.
Ksenia had something to speak of. ‘I need to tell you something. In this country, a member of security shouldn’t have anything to do with a foreign national – at a minimum, you should consider taking Russian citizenship, marrying me or both – that would ease the pressure on me.
While I’m doing field work, it doesn’t much matter but the service is bureaucratic and LudValerievna has told me that various doors have closed to my career path. I don’t care about a career path as I enjoy what I do but she cares about it and is on at me about you.
She hasn’t asked me to drop you but she says I have to take measures and I’ve told you those. What is not good is that there were enemies I already had but because of my results, they couldn’t do much to me. Now, with you, they have the ammunition they need and they’re doing everything to hurt me – Georges and Sergei are part of that, plus the Beast and this one in Moscow.
We’re building quite a large folio of enemies, Bebe and they’re pooling their resources. From the moment I dragged you into this, I’ve been trying to get you out of it but it just keeps getting more and more complicated, like quicksand. My brother was never part of them – he just went rogue.
These ones though want to place a girl they have in mind as a key agent, with a view to her taking over once Ludvalerievna retires, which is not so long from now. If I’m appointed to this position, then it puts both you and me in great danger. Things never stand still, I want you to know that if I ever have to choose between you and my future, I’ll choose you, because you’re my future.
‘You disarm me every single time.’
Vladimir Putin was asserting his authority and the power of the oligarch was being broken, Berezovsky was in hiding overseas, the eastern problem had reared its head again and it was all a bit much for most people to fathom.
Shadzhara had started to build.
Chistopolskaya had become like a narrow super-highway, the pontoon bridge whipped people into town in less than twelve minutes on a good day and the building was leaping ahead in what had been former swamps.
The underground was under construction, boutiques were springing up all over the place and prices were rising. Petrol had shot up to eight roubles a litre! Hard to credit what had gone wrong.
The street bazaars had been swept away and people now had to go to the central markets.
Hugh had left it very late to renew his passport and he had to go to Moscow. He deposited the documents, was told to come back later and went for a wander.
Down by the riverbank, there was a little walkway past some older but still fairly swish balconied apartments and there were some green benches near that walkway. He flopped down on one of them, not a soul about and looked through his notes.
Sometime later, a girl placed her bottom on the other end of the bench. She also seemed to have some business at the consulate. The jaw and cheek bones said she was Russian but the sneakers and jeans said American. He glanced sideways – she had to be Russian, she was also small and that was dangerous.
Dasha, she was called, from Krasnoyarsk, a real Siberian … but with Ukrainian blood. Really? She was here to collect her visa and was flying tomorrow to Paris. Cutting it a bit fine, didn’t she think?
‘I have to go back to the consulate in four hours,’ she commented.
‘Really? So do I. Why don’t we go together? We could go for a walk now, I’ll buy you a coffee and then we’ll get back well within time.’
She looked at him. ‘OK.’
Four hours later, having been right along the embankment and into various alleyways with shops, they were back and she stepped up to the counter, so politely. But her visa wasn’t ready.
He collected his passport and then she stepped up again.
No, it still wasn’t ready. More waiting but he would have waited hours for her.
The consular official raised one eyebrow.
Dasha was surprised too. She asked if he wasn’t too busy. No, his train didn’t leave until 19:28.
He ventured, ‘If you’re too busy –’
No, she wasn’t too busy, she had things to do later but they could wait a little. Her feet were stepping up and down impatiently. ‘I’m not very patient. I don’t like to wait.’
‘I can see that, I don’t like to wait either.’
Finally her visa came and when her eyes met his expectantly, waiting for the next move, a thrill ran right through him.
He took her to Okhotny Ryad complex and the joke was that he was showing a native Russian the sights of her own capital. She walked very close, light on her feet but she kept up.
No, she wasn’t into food. Why? Her figure. Oh yes? She was so svelte, she could had eaten five cream cakes and not put on an ounce.
She liked looking at the classier shops but wanted to buy little gifts to take to her family. Great, here was a vehicle at last. They explored Okhotny Ryad and drew a blank so he took her to GUM, with its rude, know-nothing-about-anything-except-my-own-stall vendors. She found what she wanted and was happy, her lips broadening into a massive smile.
They went back to Alexandrovsky Sad, drinking coffee and juice, watching the multi-jetted, arcing fountain from the carved stone horses. Maybe she could stay with him until five, she decided. Then it was time to go their separate ways, on separate Metro lines but each with the other’s details on slips of paper.
At the entrance way to Biblioteka imena Lenina, he finally took her hand, as small and light as it was, gently shook it, then raised it and kissed it. Through the turnstile she went, turning and pausing, with a wide mouthed smile, waving goodbye.
There’d been no ‘lux’ carriages this time so he’d had to settle for a couchette. At first there’d been a mother and son as his travelling companions. Then, in had come Joe Cool, in leather jacket and dark sunglasses but with an ordinary black vinyl travel bag like his own.
Joe slapped his bag on the opposite bunk, together with two bottles of beer and various other items. When the train pulled out, he began his spiel. Standing up, he shot Hugh a personal question then turned to the woman, who was clearly impressed, though non-committal.
Lastly, finding a willing listener in the boy, he sat down and announced he was an airline pilot, stationed in Pakistan.
‘Tell me about it,’ asked the boy, in awe.
‘Well, Andrei, we airline pilots have to do some dangerous things you know, but it’s an exciting life.’
‘How low to the ground can you fly?’
‘If we have to, about nine metres.’
He was about thirty, with long, dark, curly locks and Hugh let him have the floor. On his own bunk, he opened up a little plastic salad container and was about to eat supper when the boy below tore himself away to tell him it was OK to come down and eat at the table, he’d make room. Nice kid but the invitation was politely declined.
He must have drifted off because the next thing he remembered was little Andrei tugging at his arm, saying, ‘Mr. Hugh, here’s station Vekovka, it’s very interesting. Maybe you want to buy something?’
Ksenia and Hugh had taken to visiting the forest, a motif with her and they went to a different part every time. Because of her work and his training, she couldn’t go every week but when she returned, she virtually flew home and off they’d go to buy the makings.
Today they’d got past the airport checkpoint, turned off to the right and slowly made their way along a bumpy track, only just drivable with its deep dips and ridges. Shifting between first and second gears, they found a place to park, just off the track under the trees.
They took the hamper and rugs from the boot and they made their way into the forest. The temperature was hovering around 25.
As soon as they appeared to be alone, no one able to see them, she laid a rug on the ground, he did the same beside it, she disrobed except for her trainers and he followed suit.
She liked the routine, she did not wish to vary it and he got the impression it was almost a ritualized thing. More than that, it mellowed her like no other setting, she purred like a kitten, all feelings intensified and he thought – why not?
There was almost something feral in this woman, he didn’t mind because it was her but it always remained in the back of his mind.
They also discussed taking a real trip outside the country. Instead of her flying off or him, they’d fly together and have a holiday. The forest would still wait for them.
They flew on the 23rd, booked into the Gran Tenerfe in the tourist area on the south east coast of Tenerife, their room opening onto the coastline, stretching into the distance towards the east.
He didn’t mention that he’d been there with Anya and she didn’t speak of her Moscow contact she’d flown here with.
The view from the narrow balcony was the best of both worlds – the extremely busy main drag and shopping precinct with all its cafes, restaurants and bright lights and a little to the right, the shoreline with the beach bars, occasional beach and the endless sweep of the navy sea.
The way they were located, it was clear they’d need to rent a car, a fact not lost on the car hire firm ensconced in the foyer of the hotel. In line with his usual craziness when hiring a car, he took a maroon Renault Megane Cabriolet, the pride of their fleet.
It was neat, that little machine, exceedingly sexy with its curves and bulges, instantly responsive and hot under the hood.
After one day, Ksenia’s feelings for the car soured when she realized that he’d fallen in love with it, given his penchant for disappearing every few hours with the words, ‘Just going downstairs’.
Initially she thought he was flirting with a chambermaid or whatever, then, on one of these disappearances, she followed him down and found him lovingly washing windows and playing with the soft top in the hotel car park.
‘You’re sick, you know that? No one washes cars on holiday, especially in a hotel carpark.’
When they went out exploring the open road late in the afternoon and he pulled over and let her take the wheel, that went some way to compensating. The note of the engine, the Gallic lightness of touch, the swift, silent gear change, the top down carefree laughter, the feeling of vacation – liberation.
Later, pulling into the hotel park again, sporty engine bubbling, the attendant dipping his hat as he lifted the barrier, the last throaty roar of the engine as they shut down, the putting up of the hood, clutching the day’s shopping – there’d been worse moments in life, she reflected.
Dinner was like being at a feeding trough in this hotel, one large dining area, with a lower, smorgasbord serving floor and steps up to the tables on a sort of surrounding balcony, overlooking everyone helping themselves down below. They never liked the arrangement but what could they do?
They bought a shiraz and took it back to their room on the fifth floor, then changed their minds and decided to go for a swim, still an hour before the pool closed for the evening.