Nicolette was reflecting. ‘Sophie might still come out as another personality.’
‘She might but perhaps she’s strong enough to fight it in her own mind now.’
Sophie was at the door. ‘You knew I was here.’
‘Come in. Let’s drink coffee. I need to get the taste of those two out of my mouth.’
‘Do you think it was Adam and Mandy?’ Nikki asked Sophie.
‘The short answer is yes. At the end, definitely, plus Ray – we saw that at the pods, didn’t we? I must admit – I didn’t think along those lines at the start. I knew Mandy never seemed right – too watchful, too righteous, too unnatural – her manner in other things was never religious, never for good.
Adam was often with her – I saw them in strange places – walking around the huts when they thought we were at the Pool or over at the cliff or in Moran’s when no one else was. Moran’s was Mandy’s job but why was Adam in there too with her, alone? So often I mean?
You knew I went about the island and sometimes I’d go close to Moran’s and there were sounds coming out of there. Later, Adam would come out or she would.’
‘Do you think Miri knew who the microfiche was for?’
‘I was sure in my mind that she wasn’t sure who it was for. She did think that it might have been me. I think she left it somewhere it could be found, she went back later and it had gone, she had done her job. Also, Hugh, I saw you watching Adam and Mandy twice, because I was watching you. It made me think and that’s why I listened at Moran’s sometimes.’
‘All that going on around me,’ sighed Nikki.
‘You had enough personal issues,’ said Sophie, ‘and that’s where your eyes were. What convinced me finally was when I was with Miri on top of the Grotto and they came into it – Adam and Mandy – and their language was totally different, it was street language and they were mocking Hugh and Nikki’s prayers in the Chapel.
I saw them go down to the pods and I followed, they went down to your bower and though I didn’t go around the rock, I could hear them. Not sure if you want to know this but one thing Mandy said was, ‘Let’s piss on their bed.’ And I think they did.’
‘That’s just … disgusting.’ Nikki was appalled. ‘To hate someone so much.’
‘I don’t think it was hating you or me or anyone else, except maybe when we improved, when we tried to be good.’
‘I’m still not happy that I was left out.’
‘Nikki,’ sighed Hugh, ‘you never were any good at lying and that’s one of your key assets. You’re good at strategy, you love wiles and all those little tricks but straight out lying – no.
We were looking at the safety of the island, we were looking at lives, and geographically our hut was too centrally located and you had the women in there all the time. I was hardly there but you often were and we needed that walkway suspicion free so that they felt they could just go back and forth. I’m really sorry but it was too great a risk.’
‘My suspicions were independent of Hugh’s,’ said Sophie, ‘we never discussed it.’
‘Still. Well, all right.’
‘Nikki,’ asked Sophie, ‘would you have shot Mandy at the pods? What was that all about?’
‘Hugh knows about Prague. He can tell you.’
‘Haven’t you worked it out yet,’ he grinned, ‘I go for softly spoken, loving but very dangerous women.’
‘Yes. Yes, I see.’
One day, all days being much like any other day, Nikki wanted to speak of the baby. They’d referred to the baby every day in some form or other but now she wanted to look at the whole question.
‘Until now you’ve been my whole life.’
‘Oh no. And now, as a mother, you cannot devote the time to me that you once used to.’
‘It’s not that I don’t wish to but we both have things to do, I’ll be very tired and I’ll need a lot of support from you. It might even be some years before I can get back to the carefree time where we could make love in a field when we liked and go for walks when we liked.’
‘You think I’m not aware?’
‘To you it might seem it’s only our child who matters to me but that won’t be so. Will you be jealous?’
‘Of my own child? Not if you don’t forget about me and the very reason we came together.’
‘I’d hardly do that. Tell me you understand this, Hugh.’
‘I understand. You tell me if you understand what I said too.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘How does it feel to have a person inside you?’
‘Different. With care, it will go smoothly.’
This was Sophie’s announcement and Sam sprang into action, the Druze women were summoned, all was in place.
Everyone was now on board, Hugh stood beside her and held her hand, Nikki was propped in a chair in the corner to watch and encourage, Sara had been living there the past few days and now Gabriella appeared, causing no surprises whatsoever.
With Sophie such an able-bodied girl and with her preparation, they weren’t expecting complications but stranger things had happened before. She was comfortable enough in the birthing chair and so it began.
Now the contractions became faster, every seven minutes, Sam checked readings on her body and talked to her the whole time. She knew what to tell him from rehearsal as well.
There appeared to be no obstruction, the waters broke, the rest became intense but not difficult, Gabriella touched her lower abdomen, the midwife was ready, the head appeared and it had required no medical assistance to this point.
With Sophie shouting, out she came, little Nikki, as they’d already decided to call her and the afterbirth followed.
Sophie smiled when Sam gave the thumbs up, everyone relaxed and applauded. Sam and the midwives remained, Nikki was wheeled out and the others as well.
It was next morning that Hugh and Nikki came in to see her propped up in bed, baby Nikki at Sophie’s breast, an awkward, reddish but most precious child.
Hugh ventured a finger to touch the leg and then stood back and admired. He kissed Sophie.
‘So,’ he said, ‘one down …’
It was easier to wheel Nikki these days so Hugh got her, took her over to the bed and left the two women to talk.
He found Sam.
‘Sophie’s happy,’ said Sam and there was not much else to say on that matter. He now got onto the topic of Nikki.
‘We’re going to need all hands on deck, Hugh, and the apparatus ready. The Druze know the score. I’ll need you in there scrubbed up and I don’t like it one little bit having to flee straight afterwards. I know it’s an airlift but it’s no good at all for either baby or mother.
You’re going to have to do a power of praying and Sophie will too. She’s got a bit religious of late, has young Sophe. We may have to do a Caesarian and you’ll need to come to terms with that now, in these last days. She may not need it, maybe only some injections and a snip or two. You’ll stay with her night and day now, won’t you?’
‘The slightest sign, the slightest …’
‘Yes. We’re ready. Everything’s done. It’s not as if we’ve had no time this side of the birth.’
Nikki was propped up in her bed and Hugh was reading her a story from one of the baby books they were taking with them. He stopped reading and she asked, ‘Are you frightened?’
He said, ‘I’m nervous.’
‘I don’t need that. I understand it but I need you to do as we planned. I know you will anyway, that’s just my nervousness talking now.’
He held her hand. ‘We’ll take care of the pain and you take care of the shoving, love. Are you comfortable with everyone being in the room?’
‘I want them there. I want them to see Jean-Baptiste emerge. I want Sophie there and Gabriella’s hand on my body. Please tell her not to wait till the end but to keep her hand there. Sophie said she never felt a thing except for the relaxation inside. I want that.’
‘What do you want me to do? Hold your hand? Kiss your cheek? Wipe your brow?’
‘Just be right there and take my hand when I make this gesture.’ She showed him. ‘Sophie will take my other hand.’
‘We have to flee within two hours because we’re up against one who will know, from his loss of power, the moment it happens. His emissaries will be swift, the uqqal defences will only slow the assault.’
‘Our transport’s ready?’
‘The Oracle says so. The Shaykh will be here, of course.’
‘And Sara and Fawzi?’
‘All of them. I go over and over the plan every half day, checking, trying to foresee something we missed before. Sam helps.’
‘Then I’m happy.’
‘We need to pray too. Every half day and every hour when it gets close. The Druze are doing the same. So is Sophie.’
‘She’s been a surprise that way, hasn’t she?’
‘You’d expect me to say it but I think she’s wise.’
‘See if the baby’s all right.’ He was aware that her euphemism meant to kiss her abdomen and to take her upper half in his arms. She seemed to believe that that would help.
‘Doing fine,’ he reported two minutes later. She drowsed off while he lay on the bed and read the Cat in the Hat. It was all they’d been able to get in English.
July, 2012, eight days after Sophie
‘They’ve started. I’m scared.’
He checked the watch and wrote it down. 22:47. ‘Everyone’s in place, every change of plan prepared for. You concentrate on getting him through the passage and there are more than enough qualified people here to do the rest.’
She smiled and gripped his hand. He indicated with a nod to the girl who now appeared, as she did, every ten minutes on her shift and soon there was the sound of people coming.
They wheeled her into the prepared room and got her set up in the chair. She wanted it to be the same chair as Sophie’s for good luck. Sophie herself now appeared and let a midwife take Little Nikki. Big Nikki had made Sophie tell her for hours about every little move, every little nuance and pain of her own birth and now Sophie talked her through it, constantly, clasping her hand while Sam worked on the other side.
The contractions became closer and Sophie nodded. Sam took readings, the midwife prepared a syringe. Nikki indicated pain and explained as exactly as she could. Sam nodded and knew she was in considerable pain, even agony. He gave her a shot but the dose had to be perfect so as not to reduce the contractions unduly.
Sophie continued to talk to her and she said she wanted Hugh. There was space on the other side for him and he quickly took her other hand, kissing her forehead.
‘I’m scared, Hugh.’
‘We’re here, we all are, we’ve rehearsed it, we know what to do. The pain is bad but it’s a known. Sophie had that pain recently and she’s right here, holding your other hand.’
She smiled but then suddenly took her hands back and gripped the side of the chair.
They gave her another shot and this reduced the contractions for now but didn’t solve the problem. The question arose of the Caesarian but Sam felt – not as yet. It might turn out all right.
Her own will for the baby and for life itself was scarcely enough as the agony continued. Hugh willed that some of that agony would pass to him but understood the obvious that the nature of birth does not allow the man to share the pain – it’s the lot of the woman.
Gabriella appeared and touched her abdomen and kept her hand there, whispering to Nikki in French – Nikki registered every word in her brain. The Oracle was there, Fawzi, Sara, the Shaykh, in the background. There was a low murmur of people speaking, maybe some form of litany.
The waters broke and in due course, the head appeared. Nikki was screaming now but all the same, in her head and heart she was sure it was going to be all right, just a little bit longer. Waves of comfort flowed from Gabriella.
She wildly sought Sophie’s and Hugh’s hands now, Sam was in place and the senior midwife began the gentle process, Nikki tried for all she was worth, her hands moist, squeezing Sophie’s and Hugh’s and the agony was near an end.
At 03:34, it was finally over, the baby boy was delivered. 3.07kg.
Once matters had been attended to, Jean-Baptiste was given to his mother to hold, something they’d both insisted on and there was a time period now of two hours for her to recover as best as she could, highly unsatisfactory but already the whole of the hill was under armed guard.
Hugh had everything ready to go, thanks and farewells had already been said, Nikki was weak but not too bad overall, no surgery had been required, she was conscious and aware that they’d all been there with her.
All had done homage to the baby, Hugh had said goodbye to the Druze and Sara had kissed his cheek, now they waited.
The two hours was up.
She wasn’t in a desperate condition by any means but it was still tricky, the Shaykh gave hurried orders, she was wheeled to an area they hadn’t seen before, an open tray lift now took them up to a floor and then, further along, another lift took them even higher.
Now they could sense that they were near the outside world. It was going to take timing.
The door opened, the Shaykh hurried them with a hand gesture and shook Hugh’s hand in passing, the bed was rolled to the entrance, a line was drawn in and attached to the supporting cables, mother and child swung out and the cable went up, a second cable with seat came down, Sophie ran out with little Nikki and she went up, Sam and Hugh both grabbed the third cable and wrapped it around themselves the way they’d rehearsed and up they went.
They saw the missile coming but it missed their cable, they were in the helicopter, which now dipped and went behind the hill as another missile slammed into it from the front.
Now planes appeared high in the sky – they could hear the drone even over the chopper noise, a stream of friendly missiles shot up into the sky, the copter hugged the land in the valley and headed out over the water, aeroplanes crashed, one missing the copter, which now swung savagely to the north and back over land.
They could feel every turn, every dip. Nikki was all right and all three were in attendance on her. She saw that and tried to ignore the noise outside which had now abated somewhat.
The helicopter now set down, Nikki was helped down by stretcher, everyone went as fast as possible to the next helicopter and it also hugged the contour of the land.
The night went on and they had to make three more changes. Sophie attended to both babies and Nikki got some sleep.
The helicopter headed out over the ocean.
Finally, over a fishing smack in the North Atlantic, the cables lowered the six of them and they were hurried below. The copter swung sharply and disappeared and the next stage had begun.
The sea was not particularly high but it was still the North Atlantic and a breeze was up, causing the boat to roll and heave more than was comfortable. The skipper assured them they’d be out of the worst soon.
They came into British waters and with that came danger. Also with it came tranquility as they were out of the big seas, they moved to another fishing spot, as they would have done ordinarily, another smack hailed them and they hooted back.
They spent two hours in this spot and then moved to another. The mate came down and told them they had to get Nikki into a safe place.
Trouble was, the only safe place was in with the catch, an insufferable stench which would take some washing off afterwards.
There was a portion of the wall of the catch area which had been removed two days before and into this they now all fitted. As the boat had ribs and stringers, Hugh and Sam were able to lie in there in a shelf effect, once the two women and babies were in place.
Jean-Baptiste had been quite docile so far and they felt that might get them through as long as he was fed, little Nikki was also quite docile but there was a chance she might cry. The solution was right beneath them – the engine.
It was a matter of half a minute now for two of the crew to unbolt the floor hatch and skip down the ladder to the engine mounting. A minute later, the engine began clanking on each upstroke and the noise would have sent them batty if they hadn’t been secure behind the metal panels, which the crew now screwed back in.
Little Nikki was making noise and it could just be heard if you didn’t let the engine overwhelm you. They unscrewed the panel again and Nikki shouted that she needed something from her bag. She handed the mate Jean-Baptiste, got out, rummaged around and found the rubber duck, got back in, Jean-Baptiste was given back, bawling but that ceased about the time the panel was put back, the mate listened and felt it would probably do – it had to do.
They heard fish being hauled up against where they lay, there was a commotion off the boat and then they heard a thump of another boat alongside. Some minutes later, the inspection team came through and it was clear to the skipper that they were not just overseeing the catch and checking quotas.
They were looking for something.
The senior member started probing around the fish and it was clear he didn’t like the smell but he’d had his orders. Other members of the team were checking berths, panels and floorboards in the cabin.
The four could hear him close, separated by maybe a metre and a half of fish. They heard him complain about the engine, asking them to do something about it. They explained, as far as they could gather, that this would be taken care of the moment they were back in port.
He wanted the fish removed to one place. Fishermen came forward and started to remove them, the senior member saw a grappling hook on a pole, went over and took it, came back and started jabbing the point into the fish, at which the skipper, who’d now arrived, protested that this was their catch.
The senior member didn’t seem satisfied.
Behind his panel, Hugh was silent, Sam was silent, Sophie had her hand near little Nikki’s mouth and Nikki was doing all she could to gently rock Jean-Baptiste and play with the rubber duck and him.
The clanking of the engine was now almost beyond the pale, the senior member demanded something be done, they unscrewed the floor hatch and invited him, by hand gestures, down to observe.
He suddenly decided it was all too much and they went up topsides again.
Sam could have sworn he heard fish being handled again. Time was running quite short for the inspectors, whoever it was in the catch area knew that and then they heard footsteps rapidly retreating and the clang of boot on metal stair.
Twenty minutes later, they heard the inspection party’s boat chug away and soon after, the fishermen started dragging the fish away – four minutes later, they were free of their tombs.
This was not what they needed and what was worse was that one of the inspectors might rejoin the boat near Loch Laxford, in the opinion of the skipper. That was going to necessitate being sealed up again.
The smack sailed in a south-easterly direction past Handa Island, it left Badcall, near Scurie, to port and made its way into Loch a Chairn Bhain; two hours later, they passed under the Kylescu Bridge and landed at a little wharf near the mouth of the tributary leading up to Loch an Leathaid Bhuain.
They hadn’t had the signal to be reboarded, though the four remained in with the fish, the now declanged engine was back to normal and eventually they knew that they were beside a jetty or landing.
The mate appeared and the trek had begun. The party was silent in disembarking, the four following their guides in the sturdy footwear and rugged outer wear they’d been given – just who was paying for all this – up, ever upwards, step by step.
Finally above the loch itself, now came the traverse along the side of the hill, again step by step, watching their footing, babies snuggled up close to fathers.
They stopped and took sustenance, then moving off again – upwards.
The major obstacle was Loch More on the other side, not least because they were exposed to scrutiny and even though they were attired to blend into the area and their guides were authentic, nevertheless, it was a largish party moving across territory they had no business to be in at that time of year and at that hour of the clock.
It was an equally slow climb down to the loch and when they finally made it to the sixteen foot rowboats, Nikki and Sophie had had it. The trip across was for recuperation and eating. Not many hours now and the dull glow of the first light would appear around the hills.
The other side of the water found them in thick forest undergrowth and they were assured that there wasn’t far to go. All guides except for two now returned whence they’d come and the party moved steadily, silently, upwards, taking increasingly more frequent breaks.
It was a compliment to the party that the guides had thought for a moment that they could physically handle the climb but they must have known the background to the four and how innately fit they were, despite the ladies having given birth.
Upwards they went again.
Suddenly they stopped.
One of the guides now slipped into a fissure in the rock, only visible side on and it was clear that they were meant to follow, which they did, in single file, having to turn side on to slip through.
Although the way itself veered left, the guide now climbed up to his right and disappeared through a gap. They followed suit and came to a dead end. Shock followed when a portion of rock now moved, as if on rollers and they found themselves inside a dimly lit cavern – that it was lit at all surprised them mightily.
Now inside the cavern, the half light revealed that it was a furnished room and at one end, two perpendicular partitions extended part of the way out.
They were asked to remove coats and boots and hang the coats on the pegs, now donning easier footwear and the head guide told them they were now in the Main Room.
As they looked away from the rock door towards the end of the room, actually the north, a second cave ran off hard left, then on either side of the partition, eyes centre, were further caves, to the right of that was another fissure and a path, hard right was another cave, behind them was another partition which they saw housed a kitchen of sorts and once more looking at the centre of the Main Room, there was a large rug and around the rug were two settees and four armchairs.
The guides pointed to where water could be had, showed them their rooms, the two men thanked them, then took their women to their beds to lie down and recuperate.
Something to eat would be brought.
Hugh went for water while Sam went to the kitchen area and looked in the cupboards – much dried food in packets and some skimmed milk in a pot. OK, no fresh milk at this point but some might be brought on the morrow. Both mums were breastfeeding so that covered that contingency for now.
Pot noodles seemed the way to go, Sam knew how to do those and Hugh chopped some vegetables to embellish it with. It would do. There was a bottle of whisky – maybe later – and two bottles of wine, Bulgarian. Well, all right.
Crockery and cutlery were found, trays were found and the snack came together.
When the men returned to the bedroom with two trays, the women looked at each other and decided to say nothing untoward – they had to train these boys.
Sam blew on Sophie’s pot noodle and put it on the table. Putting two bolsters behind her, he helped her sit up, took the bowl and began spoon feeding her. Hugh had put Nikki in position too on the other side of the bed and now spoonfed her.
The two women were creased with laughter but decided to let it go on – it was too good to miss. Babies were on their breasts and the men were spoonfeeding the women. Once it was done, Hugh and Sam sat on the end of the bed and didn’t quite know what to do next.
‘Er, cup of coffee, Hugh?’ suggested Nikki and he scurried out.
‘Kiss, Sam?’ suggested Sophie and he obliged.
‘Oh, I like this, Nikki,’ she said. ‘Bet you don’t know where we are. I heard it from one of the guides.’
‘We’re under Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhugaill, not far from Aultanrynie or the A838. Mean anything to you?’
Nikki smiled and fell asleep. Sophie watched the babies but then she too drowsed off. Hugh came back with the coffees but there was only Sam to join him.
The next few days were spent making the place comfortable, milk was brought in, the systems were in operation and they were at the start of a new life, a concept which worried Hugh no end, given previous experience.
Their hosts made it clear that they could only be visited at night and only every ten days to two weeks. It was too dangerous otherwise. Dried foods would be brought in. Washing of both clothes and themselves would have to be done cold.
Lighting and cooking was by propane. If they kept one light on only at any one time, it would last until new propane was brought in. Ventilation was not a problem because it was a big cavern with many fissures. The down side was that they’d need to stay rugged up most of the time.
Ablution would have to be outside the main door and the barrel would be sealed every time the hosts visited and then rolled into the huge drop adjacent to the entrance. The smell would be minimal from down there but if the enemy got through the first barrier, well, they’d know humans were in here.
Once the guides had gone, the men made the women more than aware of the privations which were coming. They couldn’t build anything as they had on the island and they might have to consider their alternatives before a couple of years were up.
The lack of natural light was going to be the real killer and their eyes might weaken. To the down faces, Sam explained how lucky they were to even be alive, that their hosts were running an enormous risk as it was and that it was not an appalling situation. They’d make it more comfortable as they went along.
Two months in and the babies were still fine, Sam had asked for and received medical supplies but it was a slow business as every request from a pharmacy had to be signed for and entered in the government register by someone. That someone had had to justify the medicine, especially if it was non-prescription.
Every move of any kind in interfacing with government was fraught, government knew that no one wished to deal with them and that suited their book. When someone did deal with them, however innocuously, it had to be investigated.
The four fugitives, said one of the hosts, did not understand the true climate of suspicion out there. People no longer spoke to one another as there were grasses everywhere and you only trusted your former best friends – to a point.
They understood and were enormously grateful.
Once the hosts had gone for another two weeks, Hugh wondered what they’d done to deserve such largesse. He had a feeling someone had done someone a favour. They all felt that.
With the babies finally down about the same time, it was time for them to grab what sleep they could and Sam wrapped an arm over Sophie from behind, hoping for a squeezed hand, which promptly came. The thing was – there was nothing really to discuss, they knew the lie of the land and she murmured her agreement when he said they’d need to find purpose again.
Next door, similar sentiments were being expressed. Most of it was being said through touch – Nikki doing much of the reassuring that she was fine with things, such as they were. Strange situation altogether, strange being a family under these circumstances.
Late November, 2012
Their hosts arrived and one was missing. Young chap, son of one of the local shepherds, had had a fall and was in hospital.
‘Thank goodness for that,’ said Sam and everyone understood.
The tall one [they were never named] said that it was worse. To fall into the clutches of a local hospital would see you at risk of being taken for experimentation, spirited away forever. There were many tales.
They were all very concerned for the lad.
There was a piece of good news but they daren’t announce it ahead of time. On the next visit, they’d mention it.
Fifteen days later, the stone moved at the entrance to the main room and there were their hosts again. Nikki went to put the kettle on as she always did but this visit, the residents were intrigued.
Four blow-up airbeds were brought in, a quantity of bedding, a box of twelve bottles of Italian red and one more lamp. The sight of the wine had their eyes popping out. The fact that the hosts hadn’t commandeered it was also not lost on them.
Sam assured them that it had all been noted and one day they were going return the favour in some shape or form. Their hosts waved it away. He asked if they were staying overnight and no one said anything. Hugh asked how the young lad was. He was fine and they’d got him back.
The hosts finished their cuppas and took their leave.
Two days before Christmas, the entrance stone rolled back and into the room, in climbing outfits, stepped Geneviève, Jean-Claude, Anya and what presumably was her Italian.
No one knew whom to embrace first and in the hubbub, the hosts were forgotten until Hugh slipped over and shook their hands profusely.
Words finally came and Anya explained, ‘It’s bad out there now. People are hiding wherever they can and anything which even looks like a cave isn’t safe. It’s all coordinated in Europe from one central point. Massimo -’ ah, that was his name, ‘he got my mother out and we’re on the way to join her and some of his family who are left. Don’t ask how we got here – there’s a network.’
‘Is it possible to eat something light now?’ asked Geneviève, then we’ll then sleep and tomorrow we can talk.’
‘Of course,’ said Nikki. ‘How long do you have?’
‘Until midnight tomorrow. I see a child. Yours, Hugh?’
‘Both are ours. Explanations tomorrow morning.’
They ate the quick supper, then Sophie took them through to the water source. ‘It’s primitive, I’m afraid.’ No one was in the least concerned.
The beds had been made up in the third room and the light was doused thirty minutes later.
It was late rising for those without babies.
An hour after the necessities had been done, they all assembled in the big room and Geneviève cleared her throat.
‘The last time we were all free people, four people here today met in a farmhouse near Fontainebleau. Not one is with the partner he or she chose.’ She spoke bitterly.
‘No need,’ Nikki spoke softly, going over and sitting with her on the long divan. Geneviève looked around at everyone. ‘We have much to thank our hosts for … bringing us together like this. Let’s think about that for now and for the time we have together.’
Anya gave her little cough, which was really only her cough but everyone thought she was asking for their attention. When she realized they were all waiting for her to speak, she went red and stuttered but finally got the words out. ‘We [cough] we were able to move about because [cough] Massimo was … um …’
‘I was working for the Italian authorities,’ he admitted. ‘This is how why were in Iceland,’ as if that explained anything, ‘and now we are to go home. Anya’s mother is there.’
People looked at Anya and she added, ‘In Vicenze.’
‘Ah,’ said Hugh and she looked straight at him. Was it an appeal, a last ditch appeal or was it the realization that when they did that, this would be the last she’d see of anyone outside that town?
Attention turned to Jean-Claude and Geneviève, the latter who spoke again. ‘We were in Strømsø, we found a boat to take us, it would have cost Jean-Claude dearly but it was the danger more – we were looking for a way out.’
‘I had a name, a friend from the past,’ Jean-Claude continued the story, ‘it was our final chance, so we thought, and I made contact with him. He was hiding, just like us. He found a place on the boat to Iceland for us and we arrived at Akureyri, it was not difficult to remain hidden. Then came a very great risk once more.’ His English had deteriorated somewhat, Hugh was thinking. ‘Our host asked if we wished to meet this man they spoke highly of although his English and mine … well, excuse us please.
Our host was sure the man was on the right side and he had helped others, so I said yes. Geneviève was to remain and I was to go to the farm near Grenivik. It might have been the last time she and I would be together so you can imagine our parting.’
‘It was awful, Hugh, Nikki,’ said Geneviève. Then she forgot she’d not included the other two and nodded towards them quickly, which they acknowledged, Sophie with a smile. ‘Well, it was awful, as I say. And all that day I was alone and not wanting to go on.’ She paused, gathered herself and continued. ‘Jean-Claude had gone before sunrise and he came back in the night.’
‘I told Geneviève,’ he continued, ‘that I’’d met the man, that he knew of another couple and had spoken with them if they wanted to meet us. He had not used names, of course and he had lied about where they were staying. My instincts said that this seemed too easy, too … ah …’
‘Too pat,’ supplied Hugh.
‘Oui. I said that we were interested in principle but that now I needed to go back and ask my wife. He understood but I was not able to return until the night.’
‘Jean-Claude spoke to our host and nothing happened for two days. Our host then came to us and said it was safe, it was not a trick. He asked if he could give the man a name to give to the other couple. I said yes – Barbizon.’
‘It was a slow process,’ continued Jean-Claude, a very slow process. We had to be careful of course.’
Massimo took up the story, in his lyrical voice. ‘I did not like this and yet Anya wanted to give him the word Shadzhara and I finally said yes. Our hosts had also agreed the man was un amico. I said yes and the name was given. Three times the women gave more names and then we all agreed to meet, in Akureyri. This was when we now heard about Hugh and Nikki, forgive me, Sophie and … er … Sam.’
Anya added, ‘Naturally I wanted but Massimo warned me, warned us, that this all seemed too possible, too easy, to get us all together like this. And the man did not seem to want money, which could be good, could be bad.’
‘A very great risk you all took,’ commented Hugh.
‘Yes but look at the alternative and we have taken risks before, have we not, Hugh?’ said Anya. ‘First, the four of us met and then we all thought we would do it. Massimo was the problem because he was one of the other side and they had to do much checking on him. It took weeks but then, one night, we were given two hours to be ready. We were always ready.’
‘You could write a book,’ observed Hugh.
‘No, you could write a book,’ she returned, with a smile.
‘I’m just,’ began Nikki again and then stopped. ‘I’m just happy it was possible.’ They looked from one to the other and it became a bit obvious but they had run out of conversation for now. At least, they’d run out of the type of conversation you could have en masse but all were dying to meet with others one to one.
With the morning jobs done, with Jean-Baptiste and Little Nikki playing on the only rug in the place and with all seated around the rug on the divan and chairs, it was time to get down to their situation.
It was Hugh who asked Massimo to give his thoughts on their chances of getting away from here and getting back to any sort of life.
‘Non c’è alcuna possibilità. There is no chance. It is difficult to describe. Perhaps Anya …’
She took up the thread. ‘The government still throws people from their houses because they can’t pay but there is no more prison because the prisons are full.
The people have bad food and no exercise. They cannot rebel, fight back because their soup stops if they protest. So they don’’t and the situation continues. My mother and I have been lucky because of Massimo but now he is suspected and he must return.’
She paused and Jean-Claude took up the story. ‘That is true, that there is nothing to return to. If we go back home, we go to our death, sorry Geneviève but it is the truth. We are planning to go back to Fontainebleau because we wish to be in what was our home when it ends. You four people in this cave – this is your only safety for now. There is one small safety – that there is no order anymore and so they are disorganized in the centres.’
‘Yes, controlled by the State, of course. They are free and make excellent toilet paper. If someone reports you have done that with the paper, you are executed in the central square of the town.’
‘So,’ observed Nikki, ‘our hosts here are doing far more than even we knew, to bring us food and to protect us here.’
‘They speak highly of you all,’ said Jean-Claude. ‘You were championing the cause of the oppressed and you must have said or done something for Scotland at some time – that is always going to find a grateful people. You are luckier than most.’
Silence now descended on the room, until Nikki indicated for Geneviève to go with her to another room and that was the signal for everyone to pair off for discussion of those matters between two people.
Supper time saw Sam asking, ‘Is there no sport?’
‘Oh, there is sport,’ said Massimo. Manchester United still play Real Madrid on the television channel but it is a controlled spectacle for the television. There are old films to make people feel good, unless they need recruits for the next battle and then they play a political documentary about the enemy.
‘Well,’ said Nikki, ‘isn’t this fun?’
Midnight was approaching.
Those who had no particular connection with others now held their farewell conversations – Hugh and Massimo had little to say but they kept it pleasant, ditto Sam and Jean-Claude. They all wound up a bit early, with about an hour to go and so drinks were poured and passed round.
Now came the important farewells. Hugh was the shakiest of all but as he nodded to Massimo and approached Anya, she imperceptibly pulled back, chafing at the bit and Hugh knew her back to front. ‘Never could stand partings, could you?’
She smiled weakly and accepted his handshake, then they hugged. Short on conversation these two days, now she said, ‘She’s beautiful, dearest man, they both are. So was Ksenia. But of course you only choose the best, don’t you?’
‘Absolutely.’ It was a quick kiss.
He nodded to Jean-Claude and was allowed to approach Geneviève. She had tears in her eyes and he was struggling too. He shook her hand and both had to control themselves but they also hugged.
Nikki now spent some minutes tightly entwined with Geneviève, exchanging assurances, hands on the other’s face.
The visitors dressed, donned their packs, the rock slid back, the hosts came in, spoken farewells were said and they were gone.
Just like that.
Hugh just stood there in the middle of the floor, unable to move. Sam it was who handed him a wine and he sat down with Sam, who had his own memories too at this time. Hugh toasted, ‘To them.’
Little Nikki now awoke, which woke up Jean-Baptiste.
Sam was in bed when Sophie joined him, he watched her, his woman and of course knew that she wasn’t, not in her eyes, nor in his. It was an arrangement, a nice arrangement but an arrangement. Yet there was a growing affection, a groundswell of affection, a shared purpose, a shared future.
She cuddled up to him and didn’t look directly into his eyes. There was silence for the best part of a minute, he caressed her and then she spoke. ‘Can we do this, Sam? The next few weeks, the next few months?’
‘If you want, we can. We’re in the same boat, Sophe, we’ve both had losses, only yours is next door.’
Next morning, they all felt empty but there was Jean-Baptiste who seemed to be coming down with a sniffle and Little Nikki was also showing signs that way. It took all of the morning and the men bringing the lunch to the ladies until there were any spare minutes.
Even now, no one was interested much in sex or talking or anything and there were only so many cuddles you could fit into one day. With the children being so comparatively docile, probably due to having mama and papa on call 24/7, the only real worry was the milk supply. Baby food came courtesy of old stocks in the village but these had to run out sooner or later.
It was OK. They just rested up for the afternoon, punctuated with set breaks for sustenance, then Little Nikki awoke and cried and coughed and was snotty, which needed attending to. Jean-Baptiste woke up, heard Little Nikki and thought he’d make it a duet.
Thus it went on into the late afternoon, by their watches, and they did try to stick to the usual time frame, just to keep their sanity.
As a rule, the ‘evening’ would see one of the women look after both babies one day and then they’d swap the next. Not a bad plan but if, say, Little Nikki would wake up and mama was not there to hold her, then even though Big Nikki was good with her, sometimes it didn’t work and Sophie would have to come through.
Occasionally, the men would go in one room and take turns, in rotation, to look after the progeny and the women would try to get some much needed sleep together but then one of the babies would not play ball, despite everything the men would try – all the silly faces and gootchy-goos – and that would disturb the women’s night off.
It worked enough times to keep them all fairly relaxed but the sniffles were an added pressure.
This evening, Jean-Baptiste was propped up in their bed, something he liked very much indeed and he looked from one to the other, a captive audience and then sneezed, before that familiar smell wafted across and Hugh would get the cloths.
Nikki was anxious that he would only put up with Jean-Baptiste in their bed for so long but from her point of view, when Jean-Baptiste was in there, they never seemed to have any dramas and this was the point, the point in their lives when she preferred to have this situation, rather than the lovemaking and the old life.
They did manage to get one particular time to talk while Jean-Baptiste was in with the other two, Nikki rewarding Hugh with a bout of about 15 minutes of sex, keeping her mental and physical weariness at bay, he took it fairly gently and the ensuing lying in each other’s arms for some minutes restored the morale, which is why Nikki’s question came out of the blue.
‘Is the world ending do you think?’
‘I’m perhaps not the one to ask because I’ve done that reading on it and all the signs say yes. I think we crossed a line some time back, I think it was when Jamieson was able to displace the PM – we had some lovely times after that,’ she thought she’d not remind him of the other times, ‘but it was like being the other side of a hill – it’s still flat up there but it’s downhill now all the way – it just takes time.’
‘No time frame – could be next year at this time, it might be ten years. It really depends how far the lunatics destroy the land, the atmosphere. That one needs a crystal ball but something easier to read is the presence of Gabriella – that’s not normal, not usual, that says to me that the time is not all that far away.’
‘Should we ask her?’
‘I’ve been meaning to but something always happens and I keep forgetting.’
‘Perhaps it’s best not to – perhaps we’re not meant to.’
‘Perhaps. Are you regretting having a child in these times?’
‘In these times – yes. Having Jean-Baptiste – not at all. You?’
‘Same. I wonder if they think the same next door.’