The day of Hugh’s flight came and it was a day neither seemed inclined to see come around. They went to the airport together and she stood with him at the barrier for some considerable time, hand in hand.
The last kiss was sad and then he was gone. She stayed staring after him for some time and many thoughts passed through her mind.
In Moscow, he took the train from Shadzharniy Vaksal and then, the following morning, Shadzhara came into view yet again.
No one came for him, he returned to his flat, sat down on the end of his bed and called her. It rang for a long time and then auto-ended the call.
He tried again.
The fourth time he rang, after a minute it was answered, he was about to speak when it clicked off again. He pulled down the quilt, climbed onto the underlay, pulled the quilt back over him and went to sleep.
In the morning he saw the note – it had been slipped under the door and when he’d come in, it had blown into a corner. It was from Alyona Andreeva, chief accountant at his bank, she’d saved his money for him but the problem was – it was in roubles. Would he come for it?
Saved? Money? What was going on?
Events had moved rapidly in Russia. There’d always been a financial problem but this one seemed to be the mother of all crises. Apparently panic reigned, long queues extended from locked bank doors, the exchanges had run out of dollars and it looked dire.
‘You might seriously consider leaving the country while you still can,’ Viktor advised him.
Alexeiva had told him to use the main entrance and call for her. When he arrived, he was met with submachine guns and a series of checkpoints to get inside. She took him upstairs and there were two thick, black plastic bin liners filled with roubles, bundled into thousands.
His thanks were profuse and he offered to take her for a meal but she was busy. Not only that but she’d possibly exceeded her brief in doing this.
It was unreal making his way home with two full plastic bags, so he hailed a driver to stop and offered him well over the odds to get him to his flat.
The driver needed no encouragement and perhaps it was so outrageous that anyone would walk about the city streets with bags of money that it never occurred to the man what he had on board.
Everyone was ducking for cover in the crisis.
The good thing was that the Russian penchant for the dollar meant that most had shoe boxes of dollars stashed in the top compartments of their cupboards and it became a standing joke in Russia that no one had the imagination to find other hiding places – a thieves’ paradise.
Prices of food began to increase daily and there was considerable talk of getting out of the country fast.
Geneviève called Marc in for a chat and got straight down to business.
‘I’m planning the next half year and would like to know if you see yourself as part of the team, Marc. I’ll send you on as many assignments as possible over there but I can’t do it indefinitely if we simply have no business there.’
‘You do have business in the short term, at least. Our mutual friend, the route of the money, the people at our end who receive it.’
‘That’s the thing, Marc – it’s at our end now, not your speciality. That’s for us to come up with. Marc, you’ll have to make up your mind in a reasonable time. There or here.’
‘No work for me at this end.’
‘You know you’re not the only obstinate one in this, she’s not bending either. Surely we could all work out a compromise so that you’re here at critical times and you can do your IT over there at the other times.’
‘There is a way – Prague.’
‘What’s the objection to Prague but not to Shadzhara?’
‘Let me think on it.’
End of September, 1998
It was at the start of the new academic year that the crisis really hit home and though he’d been willing not to pester Ksusha for the last month, now he was worried awfully about her and having Zhenya’s number, called him.
‘Took you long enough.’
‘You can’t pressure Ksusha,’ he said, ‘you should know that of all people – she has to want to come to you. I did call her, Zhenya, I called when I returned and she hung up. I just want to know how she is and ask you to tell her I love only her. Your decision if you do that or not.’
There was only the static of the line from the other end. Then he spoke abruptly. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ The line went dead.
The crisis had spread far and wide but in France, it might be true to say it had not had as marked an effect as elsewhere.
Except in Section 37, which was dependent on the Russian conduit for its funds and as these had now dried up, as no one had been paid, things became extremely difficult. They’d had crisis meetings, many had gone back to family homes, some had banded together in one flat and were living on savings, all were in trouble.
Their work had dried up and for the first time, it struck Geneviève how irrelevant they really were, in terms of the effect their absence had. Essentially, people just carried on as if they weren’t there. A new strategy was required and the big three – Geneviève, Nicolette and Emma – came up with revised targets. They were going to extend their range beyond party officials.
Zhenya dropped by one evening with a suggestion: ‘Join us.’
‘It’s not good to be alone in Russia.’
‘It’s not good to be alone,’ says the Book of Genesis, to which Barrymore adds, ‘but oh, my God, what a relief.’
Zhenya countered, ‘He who is unable to live in society or who has no need because he is sufficient unto himself, must be either a beast or a god – Aristotle.’
Hugh counter-countered with, ‘To fly from, need not be to hate mankind – Byron.’
‘We could go on for hours like this but the simple fact is that you can’t remain without protection in our society. Protection comes in various forms.’
‘Join us. Better inside than outside.’
‘There’s that, I suppose. Would it protect me from Frederika?’ he tried.
‘Dangerous girl for a lover, Hugh, but no friend of mine. She’s a hard girl, not a great deal of compunction. That’s why she’s expensive.’
‘She botched the job on me.’
‘Correction – she didn’t botch it. She decided against it, that’s all. But it certainly dented her reputation and she may still have to atone for it. Don’t assume she’s your friend, Hugh, even if she was once your lover.’
‘As I said, you’re safer inside than outside.’
‘Where do I sign?’
He smiled. ‘If you’re serious, we can sign you up tomorrow evening. You understand, don’t you, that it’s only working for a government department – highly boring proof reading – that sort of thing – and the pay is unpredictable.’
‘No cloak and dagger?’
‘Not for you. Quite the opposite, in fact.’
‘Only with your own country.’
‘I’ll do my homework on it –’
‘I’ll do my homework on it and we’ll meet tomorrow evening.’
The following afternoon, Viktor Igorovich was in, he was serving coffee, he was not astonished and commended the idea to Hugh, it could be in Hugh’s favour and there’d be other possible spin-offs as well.
The down side was undoubtedly the loyalty question. How did Hugh feel about his homeland? Naturally, the section would never directly place him in a position where his loyalties would be compromised – they weren’t fools.
That evening they came, they filled in blank forms, Zhenya translated, Hugh signed and that was that, except for the tea and torte.
Next day there was a bit of time to kill, so Hugh wandered down to the Kremlin, through Spassky gate, along the tree lined lane, towards Suyembika Tower, the one where the queen allegedly threw herself out of the top tier, rather than marry Ivan Grozny, although she would have had to be in her 60s at the time.
Dilyara had recovered, she’d been invited to Paris and her family was not happy, even if it was to thrash out something about Prague. On the other hand, the crisis had helped tip the balance.
She went, as everyone knew she must. As a rule, the Section never convened in public but there was a café bar in the 12ème arrondissement which was secure enough they thought, the proprietor an old friend and the cuisine superb.
Present were the four interested parties at the table and another four at strategic points inside and outside the premises.
Geneviève had left it to Jules Colbert to serve up three courses and supply them with a couple of bottles of a medium quality red, she now spoke. ‘Dilyara, Marc is essential for the security of our section but we also see the issue. To keep him, he must be able to marry the one he loves.
If we organize it that he can work here at the critical times, particularly around budget time, he can spend roughly a third of the year over in Prague, not all at once but some time here, some time there. Will you accept that for now?’
All eyes were on Dilyara. She thought for one moment and then replied. ‘That’s generous of you. I understand your situation too. Marc and I have talked and we think we’ll marry in the spring, we can live in both places too, I can spend some time in Paris.’
‘I’ll need to go home on special occasions, they can visit in Prague too, maybe even here.
Geneviève looked at both of them and then proposed a toast.
The cold December blast of air swept down Amirhana and found every crevice and opening in Hugh’s jacket. He clutched his collar and pressed on. The endless panorama of people passed grimly by, all struggling against the icy foe.
He made himself a coffee once he finally got in and was about to turn in for the night when the doorbell almost stopped his heart with three sharp rings and one slow, that was their code.
He went to the door and looked through the keyhole, opened the chains and other bits and pieces, stood back and allowed her in. She put an overnight bag on the floor, slipped off her shoes, found the tapechki she liked and said, ‘Hello Hugh.’
He went to pieces, dropped to his knees, most unmanfully and sobbed – he couldn’t stop.
After a minute, she relented and dropped to her knees too, reaching for his hand. ‘I couldn’t stand not seeing you either, I really couldn’t,’ her own voice cracked.
‘Why so long, Ksusha, why? I know you had to punish me – I thought one, two, maybe even three months but getting on for five months? That’s a death sentence to me. Why?
‘I could ask you the same. One phone call -’
‘Where you hung up on me.’
‘Yes and one message through Zhenya. That doesn’t look like wanting me.’
‘But I’d betrayed you, you were punishing me, it wasn’t lack of interest but you gave me the impression you’d brought the curtain down on us. I told Zhenya you can’t be pushed, that when you want, you’ll come.’
‘You thought that? For these five months, while I’ve been waiting and waiting, you were thinking that? You are so stupid at times. Can you not see what being together means? All that wasted time. Wasted.’
‘Zhenya said you were fucking her all week.’
‘Did he now? Had a camera in the room did he? Well that’s rubbish. Yes we did on the first night and that was that. She said I wasn’t good at just sex, that I wanted more than she could give.’ She couldn’t help a slight smile. ‘We went places the rest of the week, stayed in our rooms at night. Call Susan, you have the number, satisfy yourself that it was so.’
‘I’m worried about her. Not one word, not even a phone call.’
‘I can allay your fears – she’s still there out of town, her family think she’s better out there for now. I called, Lisa gave me the number.’
‘Frederika talked a lot about you and Zhenya. Do you want to know exactly what?’
‘What do you think. But do it in bed. No eating – bed.’
He told her all of it, including about being honest but the bit which interested her more was how Frederika saw her, how she’d operated and then there was ultimatum to make love.
‘What were you thinking even going near her with that knife?’
‘I don’t know – it was stupid.’
‘Yes it was but – and I hate to say this – that first night did save you and maybe Zhenya. But Hugh – if you sleep with another woman again, I’m leaving. I can’t take it psychologically, sorry. There it is.
‘I know. These five months were hell enough.’
In the plush director’s office at the new mega-complex on Bolshaya Krasnaya, Ronald Seymour’s secretary brought coffee for four.
Seated around the low table were Ludmilla Valerievna Petrova, a veritable pile of dossiers in front of her, Sergei Safin, projecting bored nonchalance but inwardly more than a little concerned, Viktor Igorovich, translator, and Seymour himself.
The secretary departed and Petrova began. ‘Certain people in my department are in your employ.’
‘No, no, not at all. A few odd jobs, that’s all.’
‘Frederika Djamato is hardly an odd job.’
‘Lady, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.’
For answer, she opened one of the dossiers, took out a paper and handed it across to him, via Safin. Seymour caught his breath but only said, ‘She’s not one of ours, lady. She’s a contractor.’
Ludmilla continued: ‘Your tax affairs appear to be in order.’
‘You’ll find no rats down that hole.’
‘There is, however,’ she continued, opening a second file, ‘a certain question which has arisen regarding the lease of the land your mega-store is now occupying.’
His ears picked up and his nostrils flared. ‘Go on.’
‘It appears that a technicality has arisen. No problem with the planning and survey departments, I assure you. No problem with the Trade Ministry either. Everything is in order and above board.’
‘Thank Heavens for that,’ he relaxed once again.
‘However, Mr. Seymour, I’m sure you’re aware that there are two authorities with jurisdiction in matters such as this – the Republic of Shadzharstan, of course but there’s also the Russian Federation to take into consideration. My immediate authority is derived from the latter.’
‘It appears that there is a complication with this property – the land was earmarked for the Immigration Ministry and as far as we can see,’ she now laid the translated copy in front of him, ‘they still have legitimate claim.’
‘That’s impossible,’ he seethed, ‘our lawyers took care of all that and no one raised objections at the time of planning.’
‘Well, of course that is so, as this technicality had not come to light at that point. But as you see from the document –’
‘Well, well, no matter. It can be adjusted. We’re all reasonable people, I’m sure. Er, how much would it come to?’
‘How much would it come to? How much do you people need?’
‘Need, Mr. Seymour? We don’t need anything. We’re a branch of state security, that’s all. It’s just that the Immigration Ministry, two years ago, signed over part rights to state security,’ she handed across the relevant document, translated, ‘and that’s the capacity in which I’m speaking with you now.’
‘OK, give me the bottom line. You want us to suspend operations until the matter’s sorted, is that it?’
‘No, Mr. Seymour, the land must be vacated by March next year.’
‘What!’ he expostulated. ‘You can’t do that – the Trade Ministry won’t stand for it – they were the ones who coaxed us here in the first place. One moment.’
He pushed the intercom and told Asya to get the Trade Ministry. There was silence in the room, Seymour drumming his fingers on the glass table top.
There was a buzz. ‘Minister for you, Mr. Seymour.’
A conversation ensued in English, which Viktor Igorovich, but no one else, followed. Eventually the phone was put down and an ashen faced CEO turned to Ludmilla Petrova. ‘What is it you want?’
‘I’ve already stated that. The land must be vacated by March next year. The FSB needs the property.’
‘But surely you could find another property nearby. We can help. We can secure you a nice spot overlooking the river just across from here – I know it’s up for grabs. Damn it, woman,’ he dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief, ‘let’s come to an arrangement on this. There’s infrastructure here and stock has already been ordered.’
‘Oh yes, the road transports from Moscow. They’re currently held up just outside Nizhny Novgorod – some technicality over paperwork, I believe.’
The man went silent. She continued.
‘There’s one other little matter, Mr. Seymour. It seems that in your own country, you’ve also been having a spot of bother,’ she passed the relevant document to Safin, who laid it in front of him, ‘and the bona fides of any foreigner allowed to trade within the borders of our Federation must necessarily be established beyond doubt.’
Seymour sat, ashen faced, dwarfed by the sumptuous armchair. ‘That was never proven,’ he muttered quietly.
Petrova continued. ‘However, you’ve made a more than generous offer to assist us in finding another property for our department,’ he suddenly sensed the bottom line, sat up straight and she went on, ‘but it would require great co-operation from both parties.’
For reply, she opened another dossier, passed it to Safin and he passed it across. Seymour picked up the summary sheet and nodded. ‘There’s quite a smorgasbord of requests here, Ludmilla Valerievna. Some of them are big asks, some of them surprise me – they’re small stuff.’
‘It would smooth the waters somewhat if you could desist from the culling of our population and restrict yourself to the good work of setting up this joint venture which will bring untold prosperity to your company and to our city and state. Could you perhaps pass that along to your Moscow partner?’
Seymour grunted his acquiescence.
Puddle time had started, the long thaw. Too cold to remove the jacket but too warm to keep it on. Gradually the days got warmer. People began to lighten up, the mood perceptibly changed.
The May Day holiday weekend appeared before they knew it.
Families, dogs, cats, picks, shovels, baskets, bags, all crowded into overflowing Ladas and Volgas, heading for dachas, to open up for the new season, to plant, sweep, cook and so on.
Hammers banged, people could be seen leaning on shovels, rugs were beaten, dust flew everywhere. Sometimes it seems more sensible in Russia to measure the year from May 1st and to see it as a cycle, with New Year stuck half way along.
On the following Monday morning, at school, halfway through Lesson 5, a little girl came to the classroom and called Hugh downstairs to the office. There was a phone call. Muttering under his breath, he went down and took the proffered receiver.
‘Hello?’ It was his step brother, from Melbourne. Hugh tensed up, half suspecting his mum was seriously ill and he’d have to go out there pretty quickly. His step-brother came straight to the point.
‘I have to tell you that your mother passed away this morning.’
The world ceased turning.
Documents at UVIR, the trip to London, the Singapore Airlines flight to Melbourne, the anguish, the things which had to be taken care of, the return – the pain simply shut out any memory of this time.
His mind went completely blank.
He’d not talk about it, not refer to it again, neither forgive himself nor chastise himself, he prayed constantly, perspectives all changed, views of women changed.
He blocked the whole thing out.
Ronald Seymour was in Moscow, discussing plans for the new megastore in the light of the ongoing crisis.
Due to exchange rate adjustments, the question was not the affordability of the project – it was now infinitely more affordable in pound terms – but the security of the venture. The meeting with Ludmilla Petrova had shaken his confidence in Russian promises to honour agreements. Capital had flown from Russia and he was one of the few westerners left standing.
Naturally it was not just his Russian partner who was anxious that things be smoothed over – the Trade Ministry also had an opinion on the matter. Obstacles to the megastore were not going to be tolerated.
‘Have you ever been through anything like this crisis before, Ronald? I don’t expect it’s like this in the west.’
Seymour smiled and recounted his experience on the dole a decade ago, which had been the catalyst to begin his own business. ‘For me personally, going for the first time onto the dole wasn’t particularly great but it was far worse for others. There were often weeks when the money simply ran out. I never got to the dogfood and rice stage but it was pretty severe, the belt tightening and so on and I’d eat one meal a day, with half a loaf of bread for the rest of the day. It was survivable.’
‘Why do you assume that things can’t be bad in Britain? Have you never heard of rationing? The poor are everywhere but it’s just that no one looks at them. As I say, for me it wasn’t so great but for some it must have been like hell. Especially for anyone who’d fallen from a great height.’
‘Standing in the dole queue one day, along with all the West Indians, the unemployable and the others, waiting for the Gyro cheque, I glanced over at another queue and there was a man, taller than the rest, hair carefully groomed and immaculately dressed – a former businessman in my book. What must have been going through his mind? What a fall! Fifty years old if he was a day.’
‘What did you do to pass the time?’
‘Visit friends, always after meal times, so as not to be thought of as freeloading, but early enough to be offered remnants of pies, cakes etc. They understood and never spoke of it. I kept one tiny room, one small sink, one cupboard, one bed, one wooden chair, with a communal bathroom upstairs, phone upstairs too, which only accepted the old ten Ps.
I kept the room spotless.
I went down the street each morning, past my beautiful, largely unused Morgan, past the garden centre, past the cricket ground. If it was Friday, I’d continue on to Marks and Sparks’ food store, where I’d lash out on ready to heat meals – meat pies, vegetable dishes, bread and butter puddings and then I’d also buy fresh fruit, only the best quality.
It was always the last of my money but it felt great being at the checkout counter, rubbing shoulders with the blue rinse set. I was never in rags, always dressed.’
‘Were you trying for jobs?’
‘Was I trying for jobs?’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Of course. I had no washing facilities, yet one had to be freshly laundered, with pressed jacket and trousers for any interview. Job hunting necessitated phoning and the phone only accepted the old 10ps, as the landlord was too mean to put in a new phone.
I’d buy old 10ps off the landlord, when he came round without fail on rent day. He’d unlock the phone tray, take out the worthless ten P tokens and give me some in exchange for real money. With the eight I had, I’d phone a firm and ask to speak to HR.
‘Please hold the line, I’ll see if he’s in, Mr. Seymour,’ and she’d be gone, replaced by piped muzak. 10p gone, 20p, 30p, I knew I couldn’t phone again until next Friday. Great fear, as I could hear the coins methodically and inexorably clank into the empty tray. 60p gone and the woman came back to the phone.
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Seymour but they’re all in a meeting just now. Could you call back?’ Perfectly reasonable request from an employed person on her employer’s phone but I just wanted to scream, ‘No I bloody well can’t! You’ve just taken my last 80 pence and I’m now stuffed until next week.’
But how could I ever hope to communicate something like that to somebody like that? She’d never, never be able to understand, until one day she, herself, fell on hard times, Heaven forbid. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
The golden rule, of course, was that they’re not going to employ an unemployed person. Hard luck stories never wash. They want an energetic but calm, respectably dressed and well groomed young guy with confidence and credentials. Tell me how you can be any of those things on the dole? It’s the Catch 22 of the employment business.’
‘But you got a job in the end.’
‘In the end, it came. I was in the north of London and they were in Luton. Every morning, I’d get up at five thirty and I’ll always remember that wet, black railway station.’
The Russian replied, ‘I’m not making light of that in any way but can you imagine some of the privations people have had to put up with over here?’
‘I’ve seen documentaries about the food queues.’
‘That’s not a problem today. The problem today is that there are just no support systems. Someone gets sick and if he doesn’t have an extended family, he dies. There’s no system to catch him. None. I love my country but there are aspects which are impossible, that just don’t add up. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why no one is going to stand in the way of that.’
‘Point taken. For most in Britain, it’s not life or death and it’s just little nuisances which get in the way.’
‘Have I told you about ‘The Wrong Kind of Snow’?
‘I’m listening. Top up your glass – one moment. Right – all ears.’
‘Terry Worrall – that was his name. The railways had just spent enormous sums buying, bringing in and paying experts to set up snow clearing equipment from Denmark. If the Danes could do it, so could we.’
Seymour paused to sip the coffee and made appreciative noises.
‘So, the snow came – it bucketed down and the land was smothered. Out came the equipment to clear the lines, so the commuter trains could get people to work, but horror of horrors – it didn’t work. There was total mayhem on the trains, on the roads, everywhere – good old British mayhem.
That evening, the talk shows and current affairs programmes were inundated with angry people. Terry Worrall, the British Rail spokesman, was dragged into the studio. ‘You’ve just bought hideously expensive snow clearing equipment, you assured us it would work – and so on. What on earth is the matter with you people?’
‘It was the wrong kind of snow,’ was his defence. Seymour’s face was creased with a smile and it was not a pretty sight.
‘That line’s now gone down in British folklore. Every person over 15 could quote you that line and the poor man became the laughing stock of the country overnight. Another time the trains stopped and you know what explanation they gave? Leaves on the line!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Leaves – from trees – there were leaves on the railway line so the trains didn’t work.’
The Russian felt he could understand life in Britain.
Hugh got back to Russia and split his time between his main work in town and the little village where his ‘state work’ was done. A bus also brought him home. It didn’t leave much time for socializing and maybe it was time to start thinking about buying a car.
He was racked with guilt over his mother, for abandoning her like this.
When Ksenia came back from her field trip, she spent much time in the unaccustomed role of offering personal support but as she’d been one of the sources of angst in the first place in her own eyes, it was tricky. The pastoral wasn’t Ksenia’s forte and she was unsure how to act.
‘I’d like to have met her.’
‘Her philosophy was that what happens happens, as long as you were trying to improve your situation. I think we’re doing that.’
‘Yes. Yes we are.’
His state work was done in an old building but the cream-coloured stone façade belied the building’s age.
There was one entrance to the right and then a corridor immediately ran to the left; at the end was a security door and inside, the rooms ran back in the direction of the entrance. Katya, the secretary, was at the first desk, then there were two other desks along the long wall to her left [the visitor’s right]. The far one was his.
Beyond these desks was a door, by all appearances leading to a janitor’s room but Hugh had never seen behind it. At the end of the office, in the middle of the short wall, was ‘the Door’, the one leading through to the Big Brass. Hugh had also never been in there.
He would sit at his desk, chatting to Katya whenever he could, did his nominal three hours, qualified for his government pay which he hadn’t as yet received for two months and this was how summer came on.
Summer did come on, the academic year closed out and precluded nights in the city in either flat, so the alternative was either for them to stay at a camp or else go abroad.
He’d also bought a maroon coloured Lada 10 and decked it out with two spoilers, side panels, alloy wheels, wide tyres, stabilizer bar, Monroe shockers, a fat leather steering wheel and a leather gear knob. Everything to enhance that car was bought and the whole thing still only cost 150,000 new roubles – about $4500.
Secondly, he took a little ‘domik’ or hut at Zyelyoni Bor – an ex-Soviet summer leisure camp not all that far by car from his work. The plan was for Ksenia to come down for the swimming in the evening, stay overnight and go back next morning. He’d have all the food in situ, apart from what she brought fresh from town.
The administrator, a well-fed woman named Zoya, beamed as she saw that the westerner had found it all to his liking. He beamed too because it was all going to cost the ludicrously small sum of 90 roubles a night, as against 540 roubles at Camp Kama.
So, there it was – the cool forest, a three roomed cabin within walking distance of the amenities and the river. The car would get him to work every morning after taking Ksenia to the direct bus stop to town. She was a lady who liked her comforts at home and Zyelyoni Bor was old Soviet and frankly, a bit run down but she wasn’t one to turn up her nose if something seemed a practical solution.
‘The part I like, Hugh, is the road from here past the airport. It’s that first part I like, it’s peaceful, I can sit alone and look at the forest, at the river. Don’t take this the wrong way but if you were driving me, you’d be running the risk of the GAI each way, you’d not be relaxed, you’d be wasting fuel and it would be an obligation for you. I wouldn’t be relaxed. The only place it would be nice to have you drive me is in town itself but there are others to do that up there. If this wasn’t a good solution, I wouldn’t accept it.’
They cleaned the place out and made it liveable, the spot on the river bend had swifter flowing water and was seemingly less polluted, there was a shop. He said they could go to Kama Camp if she wanted but she saw that as a waste of money on something only marginally more civilized and too packed with humanity for her liking.
Besides, this had more real forest – the domik was under the trees – and now he discovered just how attached to the forest she was. It hadn’t been the Kama she’d wanted – it was the forest. He’d pick her up at the bus stop and take her to the camp and all the stresses and strains would dissipate as they went up and down that undulating road, finally making it to the barrier and being allowed through.
She’d take her swim, then they’d take the hamper and go walking into the forest, finding nice places to sit and relax. Well … and make love too.
After he took her to the bus stop each morning, sitting with her until the bus came, windows wound down in that wonderful morning forest cool, with those smells, the forty minutes across country to work took in a general store where he’d buy breakfast, eat in the car and then arrive mid-morning.
One Thursday, he locked the car, slid his plastic ID in the slot of the device on the door, received the confirmation but nothing happened, no click as usual. He tried again. No result.
Maybe they’d changed the code or else the card had lost its magnetism. He tried one more time with no result and realized he’d have to wait till the first person arrived. On a whim, he pushed at the door and it swung open.
Strange again. This was meant to be a secure establishment.
The corridor was dark and the light bulb had obviously blown. Making his way down the corridor, he reached the office door and found it also open. Poking his head through, then pulling it out again, he looked back down the corridor and suddenly felt quite uneasy.
The light was the first consideration. Dammit, the switch didn’t work. Also, there was a musty smell from somewhere as well, a smell he couldn’t recall.
He knew Katya kept matches in the lower drawer and soon there was a light of sorts. The janitor’s door was slightly ajar so that was the first place to check and janitor’s room it was not, being quite large, carpeted in the middle, with no desks and there was an appalling stench he couldn’t pinpoint.
The match went out. At that moment, he could faintly make out a noise in the corridor and then someone came into the front office. The guy also clearly felt he wasn’t alone because he paused and Hugh could hear a safety catch being clicked back. He dared not breathe.
The door opened wide and Hugh saw him for an instant silhouetted in the doorway, and then he was inside the room, shining a torch in Hugh’s face. In accented English, he ordered, ‘Go home, my friend. There’s nothing for you here.’
Hugh fought paralysis. ‘But you’ll shoot me,’ was all he could say.
‘Go,’ the man grunted. Then he relented and added, ‘There’s nothing here for you, Mr. Jensen.’ Hugh’s heart missed a beat.
‘Why won’t you shoot me?’ insisted Hugh.
‘Mr. Jensen, please go – now!’
Hugh needed no further prompting. He turned and walked, waiting for the bullet, which didn’t come. The second man in the corridor didn’t shoot him either. The two guys changing the door also left him alive.
He simply walked out into the sunlight, went to his car and drove the 50 km to Giuseppe. Slumped in a chair, the girl brought the pizza but he couldn’t eat more than one slice so he asked her to put it in a plastic takeaway packet.
Time to visit Viktor Igorovich and it was more than fortunate he did, as Viktor had an interesting visitor, none other than Zhenya Sharov and the two men were in agreement over one thing – Hugh had to forget anything that had ever happened.
‘What are you talking about? I’ve just been to work –’
‘No you haven’t,’ put in Zhenya.
‘Ah,’ the penny dropped. After almost a minute looking from one to the other, he asked, ‘Zhenya – so am I – er – technically – employed any more?’
‘Of course you are. We’ve been trying to contact you today to tell you that your place of work has changed – but of course your ‘sortovi’ telephone was not on, was it and it was impossible to get to you in time.’
‘They tried to contact the administrator but she stayed up in the centre overnight and hadn’t returned by the time you’d left,’ explained Viktor.
To Hugh’s bewildered look, Zhenya added, ‘Just leave it, Hugh. All right?’
‘Let’s go to Giuseppe, Man. You coming, Zhenya?’
Afterwards, he dropped Viktor home, then looked in at his own flat to see if all was in order. Surprisingly, given what he’d come to expect, it was in order. There were quite a few messages on the answer machine so he vacuumed first, ran a cloth over the benches and bath, made a coffee and took out the biscuits, then settled down for the calls.
One intrigued him. It was from someone called Alisa and the voice was familiar.
He perched on the end of the divan, chin in hands and reflected on it, then got up to put the car away in the secure carpark down the road he’d paid a fortune for a place in.
When he got back, a new call had come through and it was from this Alisa. He called Ksenia and said he’d stay the night in town.
The reason Viktor worked through the summer was that his flat was in an old part of town virtually smothered by tall trees with extensive foliage which had had thirty years to grow to the height it had. His flat was at least 12 to 15 degrees cooler than the outside air and his little flow-through window system helped that along as well.
So business clients came to him fairly regularly and one who was of considerable interest was a girl called Olga. Twenty three, she already headed the city filial of DHL; she was also intelligent, tall, spoke good English and was a stunner, therefore fulfilling many of the criteria Roxanna had had, apart from her age.
‘Let me save you the trouble, Ksusha,’ he told the disembodied voice at the other end in their second call of the evening. ‘It was a girl called Alisa, worked with Anya as a partner to the airline. She left a message on the machine and phoned a couple of hours ago now.’
‘I can guess. And you’ve arranged to meet her. Where? Giuseppe?’
‘Raki. Tell me not to go.’
‘That’s entirely up to your conscience.’
‘Can you get here this evening?’
‘If you drive me to work tomorrow morning.’
‘It’s a deal.’
Ludmilla Valierevna Petrova woke up, looked across at her husband, threw back the puffy duvet cover with the muted blues and creams and stepped unsteadily onto the polished wood floor.
Drawing back the drapes and wheezing, she took a dose from her puffer and reflected on what her position had bought her.
She truly was in a golden cage.
Able to afford the best health care available in the world, nevertheless she could not budge outside Shadzhara, by virtue of her very position. And so she’d had to rely on trusted people bringing back the required medicines from their travels, which was not too difficult – her bronchitis had developed into asthma and out there in the west, that was now a controllable malady.
Also, as a confirmed homebody, the apartment was all anyone could ask for. Two adjacent flats with the walls knocked through at strategic points and reinforced archways installed, her ‘apartment’ had balconies on both sides which commanded views the length of the river on one side and of the Kremlin up on the hill, on the other.
The greatest cross to bear was for her daughter, now approaching university age and the restrictions on her were just too impossible. She couldn’t go out, she couldn’t freely socialize without her mother doing screenings of any potential suitors, she had minders following her wherever she went and this had led to a memorable showdown, once the daughter had become essentially ‘sentient’, i.e. once she’d grown up.
Vasselisa had kicked against the pricks and begun an affair with a fellow Class 10, her mother had spoken to the boy’s mother about contraception – that had been beyond the pale.
She’d thrown off the boy and had had two boys in the girls’ toilet one dance party evening.
There had been two teachers at that school the girl did implicitly trust, who had helped ameliorate her excesses and whom she could always drop in on, to chat – they were Tatyana Alexandrovna and the Englishman but that had been some years back when they’d taught her.
Now had come the question of university, it would take some negotiating, paying some favours back, usual thing. But now she was in, thank goodness.
The next major job was how to deal with Zhenya Sharov, now displaying unmistakable signs of going off the rails. She’d see Ksenia tomorrow.