Hugh stumbled down the icy steps after her, trying to stay on his feet, trying to read her all the while.
Possibly late twenties, three quarter length navy coat, coordinated beret, dark hose, maybe 70 den, ankle length boots – she was probably about 163/4 cm in her stockinged feet, athletic.
Underground, there were only the flower, magazine and cassette vendors with their rickety tables on the damp stone, mosaic concourse floor amid lots of look-alike girls of her type, and that’s where he lost her.
He skipped back up the icy steps, down again then gave it up as a lost cause and decided to head home, pausing only to slip a few roubles to one of the old ladies slumped on the steps.
It was going to be a bitter winter for her this year.
When he mentioned it that evening, Anya didn’t immediately pooh-pooh the incident.
‘Anything unusual about her?’
He shook his head and she moved on to her news. She’d been to the doctor that day and she needed spectacles. She’’d always needed them but now she really needed them, a prospect to shrink from with dread it seemed. Useless to speak of cosmetically enhancing contact lenses, of how the most beautiful women on the planet wore glasses, useless to assure her that men adored women with glasses because it actually softened their features.
‘I don’t want to be soft, I want to be perfect.’
He gazed at her. ‘Why do you think softness can’t be perfect? I mean, what would you say a man wants from a woman – softness or fierceness?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know that newsreader from Channel 1, the one with the Angelina Jolie jaw, the dark hair pulled back severely and tied up in a bun behind – do you think she’s beautiful?’
‘She’s very elegant.’
‘I don’t think she’s beautiful at all. She never smiles, she looks at you as if she’s going to execute you and what’s she trying to prove anyway? I mean, who advises her to do that?’
She shrugged. ‘So what do you call beautiful?’
‘You and every part of you that you don’t like. You want to be tall and gangly, you think your breasts are too small and that you’re not as classically beautiful as the models in Vogue. I think you’re better than them, you’re certainly far better than the ones in Elle and what’s more – you’re real. With you, it’s the harmony of the whole package, that’s the key that drives a man crazy, that and your curves, your ultra-femininity. I could go on forever.’
‘Don’t let me stop you.’
‘More in the next episode.’
Philippe took Geneviève to the 19ème arrondissement for a seafood supper.
She loved seafood, he was the perfect host, which she also loved, they went to see an old Truffaut film afterwards, which he knew she loved and he paid assiduous attention to her throughout the remainder of the night, which she also loved.
As a rule.
What she did not love was that he felt the need to do this, at this time and in this way, knowing as she did that the tickets they’d used this evening were light blue in colour but the tickets slightly protruding from one corner of the little plastic window in his wallet, behind the driver’s licence, were maroon, which meant a matinee – either one he’d already attended or one which was coming up.
The worst of it was that she could discuss it with nobody – not Nicolette, not Louisa – no one. She felt entirely alone.
Plus Marc was a worry – he never complained but everyone knew his heart had gone out to the Russian girl. The girl had been checked out and nothing had come up on the sheet so it must have been just a love at first sight thing. Well, better to get her to Paris and take a good look at her, Nikki could arrange the details as a surprise for Marc’s birthday.
She turned to the suave, debonair Philippe. The central and overwhelming issue for her was that she was being treated as a wife and told lies by omission, whereas, at this stage of the relationship, he should have been pressuring her to comply with his own demand for marriage.
She hated that she couldn’t break free.
Riccardo came home for December, the main work on the treaty completed, the phone was switched off, the doors locked and the lights doused for a night and a day.
On the third evening Lisa took him to Charing Cross and they walked along the Embankment, catching the little tearoom just as it was closing. She looked across at him – the curly hair of the Italian and the not particularly dark or swarthy face – his family were northern, from Vicenze, notables in the local community and he was the favoured son.
When Lisa had been invited over to meet the family, the impression had been good both ways.
Like many a Brit before her, she’d taken to the Italian language with gusto, with a grounding in art and architecture to set it against. Nights with Riccardo were usually set to the Italian language but coffee table conversation was in English. While it concerned art or travel, he was voluble but the moment it came round to the EEC, sorry, the EU, he went into his shell. She dwelt on this a few moments and tried it again. ‘You’ve already talked about the Treaty of Amsterdam, so why the cloak and dagger?’
‘What do you understand about Amsterdam, Lisa?’
‘It replaces … no, redefines Maastricht, the citizen’s place in the union, more power for the parliament -’
‘As you wish. And I think you were working on the peacekeeping proposals -’
‘What do you know of those?’
‘Is this the Inquisition? I don’t know – you were setting up some peacekeeping force to go to Africa or wherever.’
‘Good, Lisa, that’s correct, that’s all it is – a humanitarian force.’
She gave him a quizzical look.
On the 29th, Anya and he went to the centre by tram and just before it crossed the main bridge, they both looked at each other and jumped off, slipping and sliding out onto the frozen river, past fishermen fishing through holes in the ice, until they found a raised ice knoll.
The rims of their hoods forming a near hermetic seal for five minutes, they then walked along the frozen river round to the Lenin Memorial, where half the population would later be celebrating the lead in to the New Year.
Around the large, orange bricked building were a dozen or so giant, translucent ice sculptures, a large hot air balloon, various beer marquees, a giant lit up tree and a festive spirit, people were starting to arrive.
Usually the families got there about seven, little boys and girls in coats and hoods, sweet faces of wonder taking in everything, parents also touched. All good stuff.
But first the ballet was on, up the road from the Memorial and across Freedom Square. They crossed the flagstoned state square towards the opera house, hand in hand, snowflakes as large as coins falling silently and softly on their hoods and jackets – they made postcards from such things.
Inside, the presidential box hung half-over the orchestra pit and the opera house still sported the USSR hammer and sickle above the heavy main curtain.
Later, at home, she sat him down in the living room and brought tea and torte, which worried him, she wanted to talk.
‘Do you think I’m mercantilnaya?’
‘Meaning do you think I’m marrying you just for your money?’
‘That’s what people are saying though. Not to your face, no one would do that but they’re saying it behind your back.’
‘This is what I was trying to talk to about the other evening but I couldn’t find a way.’
‘I was wondering for five minutes.’
‘Hugh, we have to get out of this city.’
‘Hmmmm. How about going with me for a trip to Cyprus? We could check the place out.’
Her face answered that. ‘I’ll arrange the booking,’ she said quietly. ‘We can’t do it through the airline but a firm I know can book a hotel in Larnaka – when do we want it for?’
‘End of next week if you can get time off.’
‘I’ll get time off.’
Dilyara arrived in Paris.
The usual sights were shown her – they lunched at the first stage Eiffel cafe/restaurant, went to the Louvre, took a trip out to Versailles and he, in turn, asked about Peterhof which she’d never seen, having not been to St Petersburg before.
Late afternoon saw them in the Champs-Élysées, later munching supper at a second floor cafe nearer la Place de la Concorde, before being taken back to the 12ème arrondissement and through the door of a cream brick building, where the first thing which struck her was that Marc was the only man in a room full of women.
A pretty, fair-haired girl with her hair up came forward, introduced herself as Nicolette and then introduced her to what seemed the rest of the staff. Eventually, she was led through to a back room, larger than the others and here, clearly, was the boss.
‘Enchanté,’ said the lady.
Another man now came through from the outer office and was introduced as Jean-Paul Martin, stocky man. As there didn’t seem much point hanging about too much longer, Marc asked a girl called Claudette to take Dilyara back to her apartment to prepare for the evening. Marc himself had to stay on a few minutes longer.
The moment she was out of the door, Geneviève turned to him and gave her verdict. ‘Nice enough girl, of course, certainly not planted, not married, pretty and seductive, doesn’t seem to have had too much trauma in her life, had a good upbringing but not a lot of prospects. What are your plans, Marc?’
‘Plans,’ Geneviève smiled. ‘Will you just keep her on as your lover and fly to Shadzhara each time you want to make love?’ There was a confused silence and then Geneviève added, to Nicolette’s amusement, ‘Before you tell us it’s none of our business, you know the score on anyone brought into or near the Section – it needs vetting.’
As the silence continued, Geneviève took a kindlier tone. ‘Well, no need to decide that now, your lady awaits you back at Claudette’s apartment and there’s the evening ahead of you.’
Hugh had forgotten Russia’s infinite capacity to surprise, dismay and entangle in red tape.
A few days before departure, he was sitting in Giuseppe, late afternoon, dreaming up possible obstacles to the trip and then one suddenly struck him.
He’d need an Exit Visa to leave the country and he’d forgotten all about it – Anya couldn’t be expected to know about that, it usually took ten days processing but on the other hand, if he was prepared to pay -?
He went straight to the visa place by car and paid.
Curiously, the travel agency had also failed to reserve their selected hotel, with the result that they’d lost the reservation and had ended up booked for Limassol instead.
They took one of the non-Shadzharan trains late morning and due to the non-coordination of Russian transport, it involved staying the following night at Izmayalovski 4 hotel complex on the outskirts of Moscow.
Rollicking along towards the capital, they occupied the whole of the four berth cabin but she seemed out of sorts on the top bunk.
‘Are you comfortable?’ he asked.
‘No, this is not a calm train. It goes up and down.’
Next morning saw them disembark and find a taxi, a Volkswagen Passat the man was clearly proud of, dropping them at Izmayalovski without too much drama and one of the most boring afternoons they’d had now unfolded. They walked in the park, they walked through another park.
They went back through the parks and caught the Metro to Red Square, looked around, went into GUM, caught the train back, the frustration was building.
The night at Izmayalovski 4 passed, the bulk of it in each other’s arms but the trouble came at breakfast next morning.
As they entered the dining room, the waiter/offitsant came up to Hugh, beaming, then uttered a few curt words in Russian to Anya, who went through to gather breakfast at the other end of the long rectangular room. He invited Hugh to take a glass of the special hand squeezed orange juice but when Hugh went to take another for her, the offitsant regretted that it was one per customer.
At the table, he handed her his juice and she pushed it back vehemently.
‘But I brought it for you.’ Then he saw the tears in her eyes.
‘Go on, tell me the worst.’
‘That juice is only for foreigners, Russian girls aren’t allowed, plus he called me ‘ti’.’
‘Did he now?’
He stood, took the juice back and handed the man the glass. In Russian, he added, ‘You had no right to call my fiancee ‘ti’ without asking.’
The officiant began a mongrel apology but a slight smile was playing at the corner of the lips.
Anya had been watching it all, honour had been satisfied but Hugh wasn’t ad he went back to the table. ‘Are you finished, darling?’ he asked. She looked at him. ‘We’ll eat at the airport.’
Viktor Igorovich had had a visit from an old colleague, a former security colonel, as beefy and fit as himself.
It was to talk over old times and nothing more, nevertheless the conversation moved onto an incident in the south of the country, near the Chechen border, about a convoy of refrigeration transports they’d flagged down – the owner of the frozen food business finally nailed over non-payment of taxes.
They’d made the driver at the head of the convoy contact his boss in Shadzhara. Yes, yes, the boss would pay the back taxes within the month, no problems.
‘No,’ the tax police had retorted, ‘he’ll pay half today or we switch off the refrigeration.’
They’d interviewed the owner himself and he’d begged them to give him just a few more days to clear the backlog. There was money coming in, don’t worry.
From Britain. And how was the money to come in? They’d got it out of him eventually – there was an Englishman living in Shadzhara who’d bring it in.
‘Living in Shadzhara or visiting Shadzhara?’ Viktor now asked his friend.
Viktor knew of only two ‘Englishmen’ who ‘lived’ in the city at that time and Hugh was one of them. He said nothing but reflected.
Also, Viktor had another matter very much on his mind, having fallen, some months back, for a Shadzhara girl working as a finance manager at a local bank. Twenty nine years of age, Roxana was tall, with short, dark hair and an adventurous character which stood out a mile.
Hugh had considered it wise at the time not to voice his concerns about her and hoped they’d ultimately prove unfounded. Last summer, for example, she’d broken her collar bone in a stunt she’d pulled – jumping off the roof off a cruise boat into the river, only to strike her shoulder on the railing before bouncing off into the water – that had almost killed her. He knew a wild one when he saw one but Viktor loved her to distraction – why was it always that way?
The two of them had joined Anya and Hugh at a bar in Freedom Square to drink and natter one evening and later they’d all gone on to the Flamingo Club.
Dance is a good indicator of character. Anya would be forever devising clever little dance moves to the faster numbers but would leave the close-in, slow dance moves to him. For his part, he preferred just the close dances – to stand a metre and a half from a woman and gyrate the hips was not only unmanly as far as he could see – it was also a waste of bloody time, excuse his French.
Viktor and Roxana, solid people physically, were also of the tactile school and cut a swathe on the small dance floor with their strange, idiosyncratic form of classic-foxtrot hardstep.
Anya and Hugh reached Sheremetyevo and the last stage of check in before boarding.
‘Away at last,’ he muttered to her.
Immigration at Sheremetyevo simply said no, just a minor technicality the travel agent had overlooked, so no flight for Anya. Of course, smiled the official, Hugh could go if he wished.
Was the man a fool? As Hugh’s shoulders sagged, the man was puzzled that the foreigner did not start getting heavy – they usually did. He lifted the receiver and said a few words.
A short prayer later, the tour operator materialized from nowhere, whisked Anya away in a flurry of activity – on site lawyer, documents, lots of cash paid over, smiling officials and so on to the final barrier and through.
The stewardess, in a pleasant voice, asked Anya to give up the hard won exit seats for the next five hours and forty five minutes to a couple holding three pet poodles, some rows back.
‘No,’ said a grumpy Jensen.
They settled into their room, he checked out the literature and went out for a walk.
She took off her sandals and waded in the shallows, he took off the boat shoes and did the same. He told her about the scene in Naked Gun when the odd couple fell in love and ran along the beach arm in arm, only to catch a couple running the other way by the neck, the second couple ending up flat on their backs in the water.
She didn’t see anything funny at all in that but as he was suppressing laughter, she began to laugh along and he half looked for a couple running the other way.
They crossed the road to have a pizza.
The white Landrover collected them next morning and took them to some of the most picturesque spots on the island – lovely place, Cyprus.
On the way down the mountain from the statue of Makarios, they stopped off at a hillside café; she went for a wander.
The driver had introduced himself as Konstantine, doubling as property owner and general man about town and he’d taken a shine to Hugh. While Anya went for a wander through the store, the two men went into the main bar section of the complex and two ouzos were produced by an old lady.
‘How long you have your girlfriend?’ the Greek asked, toasting Hugh’s health.
‘Well, over a year, actually.’
‘I have Russian girl too.’
‘Really? For long?’
‘Three weeks. Why you keep yours? I know she is pretty but –’
‘We’re going to marry.’
‘Marry!’ The man was genuinely shocked. ‘I meet them at nightclub, they come home, they want me to arrange visa, I leave them at nightclub and go to other part of island. Weeks later I go back to nightclub and get new one.’
Hugh was nauseated. When he eventually found her deep in shopping mode, she smelt his breath and disapproved.
He weighed up whether to tell her or not that evening.
He did tell her as they lay on their backs and strangely, she was neither surprised nor shocked, just a little saddened. ‘Babe, you’re so naive. Don’t you understand what some Russian girls are doing? Some of them are so low – they’re low to start with back home – and they give us all a bad name. What do you think happened in Izmayalovski? This man’s just the same, I’m glad you didn’t tell me that on the mountain.’
‘Oh well, can we put that out of mind now?’
She smiled and it was a becoming smile of come hither.
The director of Hugh’s school about that time had called a crisis meeting over the growing balance of payments crisis, it had not been deemed necessary for him to attend and perhaps it was better he didn’t.
A profoundly unsatisfactory situation, which had simply not occurred in Soviet days, Svetlana Anufreeva was moved to throw up her hands and cry, ‘Da, so here is this democracy we all wanted. Now what shall we do with it?’
Milya Aleeva was in tears and most of the women were close to it. Payment in the New Year of the wage arrears, all three months of them, had not occurred across the nation or at least the word was that the money had arrived but someone was holding it back for ‘administrative reasons’, the mood was ugly and Russia had slipped into the payment trap.
Businessman A did a job for B but B couldn’t pay him because C hadn’t paid him because D hadn’t paid him. Everyone was looking after Number One and the result was dysfunction.
The standard Russian reaction to any crisis was that all would meet, decide who was to blame and then decide what to do about him [or her], without actually solving the problem itself.
Inevitably it resulted in written resolutions served on authorities who made placatory noises and then ignored the matter.
Thus it was today, heads nodded defiantly, much tea was consumed and then they all went home and tried to make ends meet on their last remaining roubles or dollars if they’d had the sense to stash some of these away.
They had to make a decision between The Holy Land and The Pyramids.
The overnight boat to Egypt, the Louisa, deposited them in Sinai, where they boarded the bus for Giza, following a route parallel to but not visible from the canal.
They crossed the Nile and the bullrushes were very Moses indeed he couldn’t help but think, the outskirts of Cairo were appalling, either derelict or part of some new housing project, all in the same mud brick and he could scarcely imagine a worse way to live.
True, much of Russia was dire but at least there were new building projects underway there to clear the slums and put in new multi-storey housing. Here, there were slums upon slums, abandoned housing projects on the outskirts and a small canal with a boat being rowed along it for light relief.
At Giza, the beaming tour woman warned him, ‘Don’t go on camel. They say it free but it not, it end up cost you much money, even for photograph.’
She now took him aside and whispered conspiratorially, ‘Your lady, she very beautiful, be very careful, they take her away, you never see again.’
He glanced around and half the bus had its eyes on her – it was always the way and some were now looking at him, trying to fathom out what these two were about.
They wandered over towards the Great Pyramid and took each other’s photos, then she saw the camels. She desperately wanted a photograph on a camel and as they sauntered across there, as if on cue, the dark camel rider, white teeth gleaming, cantered up.
‘Two Egyptian or two Cyprus pounds?’
The man didn’t seem to understand the question, so Hugh gave him two Cyprus pounds and stood astride the exit path, took her photo then when the rider showed signs of not budging, demanded Anya be allowed down.
‘Meester, a little ride, yes?’ ingratiated the Egyptian.
‘No no, down, down!’
The rider pushed on the camel which now knelt down and let her slip off.
With her feet once more on solid earth, she wanted to take her own photo of him on the camel and now he made the fundamental error – he climbed up.
The instant he was in place, the rider suddenly whipped the camel into action, clomping awkwardly but swiftly along the sand beside the bitumen road parallel to the pyramid.
‘Just a ride, meester.’
‘No, turn around now.’
Some police driving nearby saw was happening and began calling to the rider through a megaphone but then the full horror of the situation struck him. The police were on the road, yes, but the camel was on the sand and out there was the Sahara.
He began to slip off the camel as it clomped along but the rider’s ‘brother’ was suddenly alongside, the two of them pinning him between them, the police addressing them the whole time through the loud hailer.
The riders immediately introduced the topic of money. First, a moderate amount, then more and more. They knew he had his wallet and that there might be cards in there and yet they didn’t seem interested – they just wanted the cash. They even knew he hadn’t given them more than a portion of it and didn’t seem to want the rest.
They started trotting back, the police car keeping pace all the way.
‘Why did you go so far? she was furious, when he finally climbed down.
‘Sorry, my love, I just got carried away.’
He made a mental note not to tell anyone about that bit of stupidity, ever and by the time they’d reached the papyrus place in the city, she’d largely forgotten about the episode – at least she didn’’t refer to it. He was very quiet the rest of the day.
Now came the trek back to the boat, the passport business again, the boarding ramp, a photographer wanted to take their photograph, Anya was impatient, they ordered dinner in the cabin with oodles of afters, she was grumpy.
‘Long trips,’ she caught his look. ‘I hate them.’
‘But you were so keen on the pyramids.’
‘I was but that doesn’t mean I have to like the trip.’
That awful time came round when everything thawed, the once beautifully white but now dirty brown snow disappeared and the simple business of walking doubled in time – it was difficult.
Trucks would fly past, shooting sheets of muddy water over trousers and the sun began to struggle out from behind the clouds. This was the time when last year’s rubbish, thrown into the lakes, floated to the surface and perfect girls in expensive ersatz-label outfits had them ruined by passing trams.
In Britain, Major had called a dissolution and it was possibly best to be out of there at this time. John Smith’s death had seemed a trifle too convenient but who was Hugh to comment anyway?
Apart from fairly vacuous conference speeches, Blair was a pretty face but it would have been good to find time to look into the man and that other one – what was his name? Brown? The pundits seemed to feel that Blair would cruise in but there was something just not right about him – Mr. Smarmy he seemed to Hugh, he wanted to get over and tell Britain, ‘It’s a trick, it’s a trick, it’s a cookbook.’
Summer was on the horizon, they hadn’t made a clear decision about their future and now Hugh made a major error. Thing was, he’d had the trip booked for months, she knew about that but things had not been at this critical point before. He reminded her his mother was not well, it was age-related, he hadn’t planned to stay in Russia more than a year when he’d left Britain and that this thing had already been paid for.
‘Koshmar [nightmare],’ she said. ‘I see how this came about, Hugh but I’m telling you straight – there are pressures from so many people -’
‘Yes. Most of it comes to nothing, but what am I going to do – sit in the dacha twiddling my thumbs? Everyone knows when a single girl is sitting there, unprotected, and in this town, you just don’t do that.’
‘Can you get time off, can you come with me?’
‘In summer? Working for an airline?’
He finally saw the situation. He truly was a bit naive in some ways, Hugh, though he didn’t give the initial appearance of being so. He’d gone out every year to his parents, it had never been a question in his single interludes and it had always been from London. Possibly he could have gone through Frankfurt now but he’d always gone through London.
Plus, he accepted there’d have to have been males on her horizon. There’d been that incident on the tram when some male had come up to her and had assumed his right to do the come on, what a nerve, she’d smiled and shooshed him away but it had been none too vehement. Truth was, it had simply not occurred to him that there might be anything.
Now it did. Just before he was departing.
It was a blur, that trip, the day had come – train trip, flight to London, flight out there, the interminable airports, his phone calls to her not happy affairs and she was more and more remote at the end of the phone.
His stepfather and mother were shifting house and the clearing out was to be a major job, another reason he had to go out there.
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 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 the 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.
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 one another 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. He felt an interloper in a way, plus their health was such now – he knew his place was here, not gallivanting around Russia, so the only choice was to bring Anya with him next time.
If there was a next time.
Before long, time was up, he promised it was only for some months, he’d be back. Not a great parting to be sure and he was determined to find a resolution.
Plus there’d been worrying things in his phone calls to Anya. Perhaps he was imagining things.
After the Gulf Air flight, back through Abu Dhabi, back through the wasteland of strange nights and days merging together, back to the rude awakening of London again, back to Big Ben, the Thames and all the familiar spots, he was en route for a little known gem of a B&B at 51 Lee Terrace, Blackheath.
He phoned Lisa and 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, he asked 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 he’d 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.
Hugh slowly released his breath and the barmaid looked on, bemused. ‘Priv’yet, kak pozhivai’tye?’
‘Normal’na, Can we find somewhere 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 Rock Circus? I’ll see you in there at midday, 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 Rock Circus.
‘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 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’ve got Lisa’s number, I’ll phone.’
By midday Hugh was at the Rock Circus, Piccadilly, at the entrance where they give you the headphones, no Russian girl in sight, he took the headphones and went in, 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?’
He 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 she began her explanation. ‘I live in Shadzhara and that’s why you saw me there.’
‘Why did you run away?’
‘It was … less complicated.’
‘You have various troubles coming -’
‘Don’t I know it.’
‘You might know some of your own but you don’t know these – some of them are my fault, I have to explain.’ She launched straight in and his eyes were rivetted on those lips, of which she was well aware. ‘Zhenya, my brother, 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.’
She sighed. ‘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, my action in helping you didn’t help you, it only brought you to their attention.’
‘Whoa. What actions in helping me? 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 our city – I’m known. If something happened to me and if it was investigated, it might happen to be brought home to you.’
‘Possibly so but it still won’t help you. But there are two other things I have to tell you. You would be aware you’re watched over there.’
‘I assumed so.’
‘That’s not the regular vetting, that was done long ago. We deal more in extant threats and you’re seen as one … because of me. So we’re actually protecting you at this time … I’m protecting you.’
‘No, from serious people who do not want anyone getting in their way. I don’t expect you to accept what I say. Call someone if you want.’
To her shock, he did, he phoned Marc, re-established the connection and asked if Geneviève’s section had anything on Ksenia Sharova. Marc was more than surprised by the request, which was nothing to the look Ksenia was giving him, Marc promised to go through his secure channels.
Now he phoned Lisa who told him what Anya had told her. ‘Stay away from her, Hugh.’ The call was on speaker – she just stared at him.
‘Your French friend will say the same,’ she explained. ‘I’m trouble, I’m dangerous, I’m in a dirty game. All that is true and I do target enemies of the state. But look at all my actions concerning you – they’ve all been to protect you, call it guilt, call it what you want. I’m in great danger myself here in London, not even from your security, it’s from elements of our own and unfortunately, your personal safety is now also mine. If it wasn’t before our meetings, it sure is now and we need to get out of here until your flight back. Do you know somewhere we could go for that time?’
He just gazed at her and it was true she was anxious and erratic. Even before she’d come out with all that, she’d been looking about, checking out corners, up stairs – he put it down to natural spookery but this did seem something more. Thing was, he did know of a place and if anything, it would draw any enemy onto unfamiliar ground. They needed to get out of this metro hothouse first.
Ten days they had.
‘Was that all you had to tell me, stormy petrel?’
‘No, there’s one more thing. I have to tell you about your girl. That’s going to take some time and I don’t expect you’ll believe a word of it. I’m going to tell you on the train and you’ll make up your mind if you accept it or not.’
‘I see.’ He made up his mind there and then – they’d go north. He put the idea and she put the plan. She’d already phoned her hotel for them to put her things in storage, she’d known she was going to put this idea to him, so the small bag she had with her had enough for two days.
‘Can you buy things – clothes, things I need – up there?’
‘Of course, only not at London prices if you were hoping to pay through the nose.’
‘I’ll explain later, I need to return to my B&B, collect some things, the rest she’ll store. Will you tell me the rest or shall I?
‘You,’ she smiled.
‘Go to St Pancras Station – can you disguise yourself at all? Your hair, face?’ She whipped out some sunglasses and put them on, he laughed. ‘Go over and book at King’s Cross, don’t phone, the 15:08 train ONLY for two [I’ll explain why that one later] – we’ll buy the ongoing once we’re there, you go back to St Pancras or anywhere around that area – you’ll see places to hide. I’ll meet you outside the -’
‘No, Hugh, we’re covering this journey so we go first class. I’ll meet you at the entrance to the first class lounge at King’s Cross, I see it on the map here -’
‘What m-? Ah, of course you hae one of those flip mobiles.’
‘I’ll see you from inside and come over. What time?’
‘14:50, we’ll have a drink on the train.’
The train was rollicking out of the built up area around 15: 15, he looked at her and she at him, he ordered a tipple for her and one for himself, plus some nibbles.
She was damned nervous but also delighted, he was delighted.
And she looked an absolute picture. He told her all about it.