Originally posted in 2009, the story has been rewritten in 2014 and reposted.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
It was a million to one chance, maybe even more.
‘That comes to £108.99, with the shirts.’ The woman took the Burtons Card, swiped it and began to wrap the purchases.
‘I’ll wear the trousers, if you don’t mind.’
‘Let me remove the labels.’
So that was one job done this Saturday before the Easter weekend. It was always a pleasant drive up the A2, parking near Greenwich and taking the boat to the city.
Exiting Debenham's, such thoughts were interrupted by two sirens before him, two obviously foreign sirens and his throat went dry.
True, London was a city of foreigners but these two were something else again. They had to be those ice dancers you see on television ... they were definitely continental, the way they moved ... he had to find out.
‘Excuse me,’ he asked quickly, lest they walked past and out of his life, ‘but are you … er … Russian?’
‘Da, mi Russkiye,' the one with the golden hair replied, taking in everything of note - the cheeky grin, the now balding pate, the nerve in even addressing her; she thought she liked his sheer gall.
In the 12ème arrondissement, Cafe Noir was quiet today.
Nicolette Vasseaur curled a strand of fair hair round her little finger and shuffled on her bar stool, observing the other woman. ‘Will you take Philippe's name?’
In her eyes, Geneviève should long ago have pushed her Casanova into tying the knot but Mlle Lavacquerie was not the type to push, she was seriously indecisive. The events of five years ago in Paris had sent them both over the edge, they'd both vowed revenge on every man who'd ever treated a woman that way and Nicolette had arranged for her best friend to meet this Philippe Legrande, the only one in Bercy, so she'd been told, who would take their idea for a security section seriously.
He hadn't laughed, Philippe, he'd seen the value of Section 37, ostensibly to expose corrupt officials but it had other distinct political possibilities as well, he'd taken a shine to Geneviève and as usually happened with her, she'd fallen in love in return, he'd organized the finance and they were off and running.
‘The most Philippe can expect is a hyphenation,’ she murmured. ‘Anyway, he’s not even broached it. If I could think of a way, Nikki, I'd have done it already, the nightmares are back too.’
‘I can deputize.’
‘No, I have to know how the money’s getting through, why they don't just wire it to us. Why must I fly there and why in cash?’
‘Russian law perhaps? I can go if you want.’
‘No, I’ll send Marc, that's more in his line. Besides, there's no point going yet, the next collect's not until July - he'll go a week ahead of me.’
'Seriously, does it really matter? You return with the money, we do what we do, what's the problem?'
'I am. I'm the problem.'
‘Do either of you speak English?’ he asked, customers sweeping past as he tried to maintain a place by the counter.
‘Yes, a little,’ replied Golden Hair. That seemed to be the end of that and as he racked his brain for something else to ask, she stepped into the breach: ‘We do shopping but you can come.’
‘Maybe I could even help you.’
They ran the gamut of the perfume counters and every so often they’d poke a fragrant wrist under his nose, then Dark Hair suddenly asked: ‘What do they call you?’
‘Er … Hugh Jensen. And you?’
‘Dilyara … and that’s Anya. I see you prefer blondinki, da?’
‘Not at all. Whatever gave you that idea? Are you hungry, ladies?’
‘Da,’ replied Anya but Dilyara wasn’t so sure they should go down this path. He wasn't exactly what ... well, within the range of what they'd hoped to find. Anya seemed interested in playing this out though, so she sighed and went along with it.
Eventually, they decided to try McDonalds and as they ate in the sidestreet of Oxford Street, perched on the black wrought-iron railing surrounding a tree, Anya seemed nonplussed.
‘Hugh?’ she whispered.
‘How do you eat this thing?’
‘With your hands.’
‘I don’t need a spork or a foon?’
He glanced to see if she was pulling his leg but actually, she was deadly serious. ‘Use your hands – hold it in the paper wrapper if you like.’
Greenwich Park was the obvious choice - tube - tickets - the boat with the hollow, distorted commentary booming through the tannoy, all good stuff and an hour later, the three were seated, cross-legged, on the grass near the flower bed fence, soaking up the sunshine and warming to this new association.
‘Where are you both from, may I ask?’
‘From Russia,’ answered Anya.
‘I gathered that, but from where in Russia?’
‘You wouldn’t know it – it’s a town called Shadzhara.’
‘Actually, I do know it - an academic from there visited our school - not long back. Care to tell me?’
‘Hmmm. It’s in the east, halfway to the Urals, as you call them. We have about a million people, half Russian, half Shadzhari and about 80 other nationalities.’
‘You speak good English.’
‘We learn it nine years,” said Dilyara. ‘We’re on Berlitz course,’ she thought to add, ‘for Anya’s job, you know and I came too.’
‘Do you teach English? I mean, what’s your interest in it?’
‘Anya works for airline company; I do this and that.’
That caused a lull in the conversation and he realized he’d have to do something to keep the momentum going.
‘Would you like to see the deer?’
With eight lanes of traffic gridlocked below on Leningradskaya, Sergei Safin was tearing at his dried fish. Before him on the table sat two empty glasses and one half full bottle of Kristalnaya Vodka.
Safin watched the man opposite out of the corner of his eye and it put him off his food. The Beast was gross, he'd seen military service, he’d done time for some minor infraction after leaving the army and then, unable to find gainful employment of the kind he’d hoped for, had simply devoted himself to the task of making money hand over fist, money Safin envied.
Attaching himself to an organization which made such money, The Beast had soon accrued some powerful protection, in return for certain favours of a delicate nature. A good arrangement all round, but today he’d been compromised.
‘Sirozh,’ he said quietly, ‘you appear to have me over a barrel,’ indicating the graphic photo on the table, turning it face down with his podgy fingers. ‘What exactly do you want, while you still can?’
‘I'd like to feel, Oleg Alexandrovich, that there'll be no accident to the head of the family.’
‘You’re in security – what could possibly happen?’ The younger man smiled, a point not lost on the Beast. ‘Why didn’t you just ask me, Sirozh? I would have agreed, without all this - this high drama. Your sister was perfectly happy to -’
‘We need a guarantee.’
‘And now you’re certain you’ve bought that?’
The younger man wasn’t certain, no and he’d had to use his sister as a sort of family insurance policy; it now looked increasingly as if it might not have been enough.
He hoped his sister would understand.
The executive meeting at the south London school on the second Monday was grimmer than usual, the Principal’s mouth a tight line as he came through, settled down, arranged his notes and began.
The prognosis was not good.
Basically, someone in the school’s recent past – the bad old days - had been cooking the books, contracting sub-standard constructors for the basic edifice and the whole thing had finally imploded. Even the damning accounts had disappeared and this was not good in such a small school, particularly in these new days with Ofsted starting to throw its weight about.
Robin Wilson gave a little cough and spoke. ‘I need hardly remind you that we can’t meet the cost of the renovations at this moment, given the monthly salaries we’re currently paying and something will have to give, I’m afraid. Any suggestions?’
Ashen faces stared back at him and they waited for the bottom line but there was not to be one. ‘Thank you. Give it some thought and we’ll discuss this on Thursday, at 16:20. Anyone can't make that?’
The staff trooped out and he took Hugh and Paul Medhurst aside to ask them from where they felt the first cuts should come.
Both promised to think on’t.
‘Fancy a pint?’ asked Paul as they stepped onto the flagstones, a weak sun popping out from behind a bank of clouds and immediately hiding itself again.
Silence prevailed all the way over to the Rose and Crown but the first pint loosened Paul’s tongue. ‘I know it’s not the done thing but I can guess your salary as Prep Head, given mine as Head of the Sixth Form College. You catch my drift?’
‘Loud and clear.’
‘We’d save Robin the requisite deposit on the repairs, along with four who’d be offloaded anyway – French and Maths for a start.’
They sipped silently for a minute.
‘You’d probably be retained as Junior Head,’ said Paul, ‘but on half the money. You present well.’
‘As do you. I’m obviously not going to suggest it to him but I think Robin should retain Lisa as nominal head and take on the admin himself.’
‘Josephine could double up with my role.’
‘I don't feel the school owes me anything. Nor I think does Robin. Look, it was nice to find some stability after I came down here. Holed up in Mill Hill, scanning the TES on Fridays and visiting Hendon Aircraft Museum to break the monotony is not my idea of a future. I thought landing Prep School Head was a bit of a miracle -'
'Many did. I don't mean to be cruel but you were hardly experienced at it. Not a bad job done, mind, no one's moaning. Bit of a pisser for both of us though, isn't it - to get that, everything then seems fine ... and now this.'
'I was told you'd turned down Pocklington for this - why?'
'Stay in London. Family moves up from Horsham. It's nice. Not insulting you or anything but I didn't really want to go north.'
'What would you do if it came to it, Paul?’
‘Not sure really. Maybe go back to Horsham, find some work at my old school. You?’
‘I think I might do something remarkably crazy.’
‘Going to Russia.’
Three evenings later, at a small table at the Traveller’s Arms down the A2, sat an Infant Mistress and a soon to be ex-Prep School Head.
Lisa James gazed over and knew she was expected to comment. ‘What do you want from me, Hugh … to give you the seal of approval? You jumped before you were pushed - I would have waited - but still you tell me it was inevitable.’ She suddenly grinned. ‘I can guess what really precipitated it though.’
‘Does it look bad from where you sit?’
‘Which of them are you looking at?’ she asked, taking a mouthful.
‘I have Anya in mind.’
‘I thought as much. Bit of an age difference.’
‘So forget it, eh?’
‘I didn’t say that. What about children? Where would you live? How would you live on a Russian salary - what is it these days - sixty pounds a month? How would the family accept you anyway, with your track record – two wives and no children - doesn’t look so good.’
‘There were children.’
‘But not yours. Do you want kids?’
‘Not particularly but if she does, I’m still within range.’
‘Of course she’ll want and why isn’t she married already? You have to consider that too. You know nothing about her and anyway - are you sure she feels the same way about you going there?’
‘Seemed to when I phoned yesterday. Look, this is a firm job offer, so the romantic side hardly matters at this point –’
‘Oh, come off it. I've seen the photo, remember.’
‘All right, true confessions - it wasn't discussed but I'm sure she knew what was on my mind. She made no excuses whatsoever, dropped no hints that it might be a bad idea … it’s just that … well … with this thing imploding here, Lisa, it’s either the dole queue and hours poring over the TES again or else ... well ... let me get the refills.’
She drank the last few drops and gazed at the glass for want of something to do.
When he returned, she said, 'It's all so sudden. Couldn't you hold on until the end of Michaelmas Term? It would help me.'
'I would do but there are a few factors - the cash just isn't there to run both you and me anymore, with this offer from Shadzhara I have somewhere to go and it's only fair on parents and kids that we announce it early and get you prepared. You'll need to work with Robin and start talking to the parents, answering their questions. For me to come back after summer and hang around like a bad smell is no good for anyone.
She looked across at him and finally said, 'I hope you know what you're doing.'
‘Anyway, what about Riccardo?’
She snorted. ‘I’m working on it.’
‘Plenty of time.’
‘I’m approaching thirty. That’s not plenty of time.’
In Shadzhara, in the old part of town, it was cheerful enough today, even if cramped and stuffy in the heat.
Ludmilla Valerievna Petrova congratulated the section, the Sovyetski champagne flowed, they tucked into the kolbasa and red caviar on rye, plus the inevitable salads. The mild sunshine, through one cracked pane of glass, cast a jagged shadow upon the table.
Ksenia Sharova, The Siren they called her only half-jokingly, made the speech, she thanked Ludmilla Valerievna - their coup in London couldn't have been achieved without back up and so on and so on and so on.
She hated being cooped up inside old state buildings with poor ventilation, her nylons flecked with slush from the thawing roads. It still wasn’t wise to complain too fervently; communism might have died as a political force, the oligarchs were running amok in the scramble for the dollar but old habits died hard in the security services and people didn’t appreciate the unappreciative.
In the Russia of the mid-90s, you did what you had to do, so Ksenia kept her own counsel, she and brother Zhenya accepted the accolades and awaited their return to London.
Marc Lacour checked the travel case on his home scales and it weighed in under 14 kilos.
He checked the mirror and decided the hair needed cropping before departure.
Sitting at the kitchen table he'd need to replace, he looked over the five pages of notes and frowned - the cash seemed to peter out at Nizhny and restart in Shadzhara, further east. Who was getting paid for what and who was couriering it? More importantly, what sort of business was generating that sort of cash, why was it always in dollars and why did Mademoiselle always have to travel to Shadzhara to get it?
The Moscow end had been primed, Zhenya had already taken through the first tape and, predictably, had left Ksenia the task of taking through the second and more damaging.
She needed a bunny, someone who was not likely to be searched. It could be one of her countrymen but chances were they knew the ropes.
Yes, she needed a bunny. Looking once more in the mirror, she flashed that smile and knew she'd always have to smile to get what she wanted. When she didn't smile, her face was hard and reflected the life she'd had.
At last, satisfied, she gathered her cabin bag, keys and the door card, looked around, hadn't left anything, took the lift down, paid the Charing Cross receptionist, saw the car pull up and the porter following with her wheelie case.
In the back seat, she thought out how she'd do it, went over it in her mind, then looked out of the window as they joined the M4, wondering who occupied all those little boxes in a row in this green land.
At Orly, Marc sipped one last coffee with the petite Nicolette, she of the anxious grin and the fair hair swept up in a bun.
For her part, she thought he looked quite dashing this morning in his charcoal blouson, polo tee and cords but knowing his lack of interest in things sartorial, concluded there’d been a female behind the choice.
Not Genevieve, she was fairly sure - Mademoiselle was more conservative. Hmmm – the fashionable Francine? Nikki hadn’t heard of anything going on there and she’d have been the first to hear.
Ah, she had it - the efficient young Claudette, non?
‘Claudette not travelling with you, Marc?’ The shot found its target. ‘Oh Marc, surely not with Claudette?’
‘What’s wrong with Claudette?’ came the reply.
‘Well ... er ... nothing, nothing at all. Will we hear wedding bells?’
Now it was his turn to grin. ‘The brain works overtime with you, Nikki, doesn’t it?’
He said his farewells and went through, the plane took off and in the next sentient moment, he was once again queuing at Sheremetyevo 2 immigration control, discovering that the stamp on his visa was not sufficiently over the photo and having to fork out the equivalent of $US152 plus 400 roubles for inconveniencing the authorities, all of which bemused rather than annoyed him – he knew all the horror stories of Sheremetyevo and considered he’d got off rather lightly, all told.
A taxi took him to the station for eastbound trains and it was now a case of killing a few hours until the 19.28 departure. He checked his bag in at the left luggage and went for a wander.
Aeroflot SU 241 for Moscow was open for check-in at Heathrow.
In the slow moving queue, about the only excitement, Hugh felt, was when a young lady accidentally fell against him, knocking his cabin bag to the ground just as he was opening it to get a mini-Toblerone, spilling all the documents, photos, Toblerones and bits and pieces over the concourse floor.
At second glance, he wondered if they cloned them over there - sculpted face, athletic figure, high cheek bones and blue-grey, melancholy eyes.
She apologized profusely in heavily accented English, scrambling over the floor, helping put them back in his pack but when he protested, she simply disappeared. Not that there was anything valuable in there – the cash and documents were in his special underpants with the holdall gusset, one of his inventions but still - he did an inventory as far as he could remember.
All through that flight, her eyes remained on his mind. Did they all have melancholy eyes?
Over Russia proper, he looked down from the cabin window onto the forest below; it was easy to make out a long straight road with bumper to bumper traffic and he could see a cruise ship on the meandering river - that might be something nice to try out one day, he thought, as the last of the whisky in the plastic beaker went down the throat neatly.
The moment they hit the ground in Moscow, passengers were out of their seats, scrambling for baggage from the stowage lockers, the hostess pleading through the intercom for them to remain seated - he grinned - then, in next to no time, they were in the customs area.
Two uniformed, auburn haired women were sharing a private joke; one took up her place in the booth. She seemed friendly enough, which augured well and it certainly began pleasantly enough - until her eye caught the visa.
The face fell, the pouting lips tightened, she left the booth to consult with her superior; an eternity later she returned; there was a problem with the photograph, the stamp hadn’t been placed correctly over the corner; no it wasn’t incidental, he’d have to wait to one side and his bags would be held for the next plane back in the morning.
One of the airline officials now slid over to him and spoke soothingly. ‘It can be resolved, my friend, don’t worry, the consulate can solve this problem of yours.’
Nervous waiting followed, interminable waiting but eventually the official returned with a spring in his step and a bundle of documents; all was well. Did Mr. Jensen have dollars? A little matter of $US152 plus 400 roubles fine for inconveniencing the authorities.
Anyway, it got the clunk of stamp on passport and now followed the unwanted attentions of the unofficial, deregulated taxi drivers, vying with each other for his fare. He’d prepaid Intourist for a taxi to the station and his lift was meant to have been here by 17:00 but there was still no sign.
He bought a drink, about the only thing not a rip-off, found a free table and watched the door for a man in a hurry.
The driver rushed in at 17:45, thin and wiry, rubbing his moustache, well aware he was late. He also knew how to cut through Moscow’s peak hour traffic, Hugh’s hands gripping the door handle as the Muscovite mounted footpaths and shaved parked cars with his wheel arches, all the while keeping up a jaunty monologue.
‘You only true Moskvitch if you born inside Garden Circle ring road.’
‘Watch the old lady!’
‘Da, da ... ya Moskvitch –’
‘Tovarishch, the old lady! For goodness sake.’
‘No to worry, friend,’ puzzlement on his face. ‘Vsyo normal, khorosho.’
The Volga shot through gaps and brushed curbsides but they got to the train on time, screeching to a halt at an angle to the traffic, the driver grabbing Hugh’s case and shoving his way through the throng towards the carriage in its grey-green livery, with him tagging along as best he could, avoiding random passengers lugging tartan pvc bags, carrying their worldly possessions most like.
He’d taken half a ‘lux’ and was relieved to see a frizzy-haired chap with stubble, French as it turned out, which augured well. Expecting to have to speak Russian, he could practise his French instead, that is if the other could stand it and if not well, the man was bound to fancy a tipple or two.
The train gave a shudder at 19:28, creaked a little, then shuffled out of Moscow into the more open countryside, slowly picking up speed.
The wooden sliding door was flung open, and with the increased noise came a uniformed woman, perching on the olive vinyl bench with a sort of bus conductor’s leather satchel at the ready. Some passing girl in the corridor said they wanted tickets, passports and some money; after she’d collected, neatly folded and stowed the items in her satchel for the night and offered heavily sugared tea in glasses jammed into ornate metal holders, there was relative peace and both finally felt they could relax for the first time.
The silver birch trees began to rollick past outside as the train settled into its rhythm and both men settled back on their bunks.
Neither Hugh’s French nor the Frenchman’s Russian passed muster, so they settled on English as the medium, both wanting to know what the other was doing heading for this eastern outpost.
Marc thought Hugh’s story the most romantic he’d heard in a long while.
‘Do you really think so?’ asked Hugh. ‘Tell you what, if you give me your mobile number, Marc, I’ll give it to her best friend Dilyara tomorrow –’
‘Not to Anya herself?’ he smiled.
‘- and I’ll say there’s a wonderful Frenchman who came here just for her and who’s expecting her call. What do you say?’
Lacour handed over a card, Hugh apologized that he had no business card in return, they lapsed into silence again, lying on their bunks, until Mark came out with, ‘I’m not really French, you know, though it helps a lot with the girls.’
He had Jensen’s attention.
‘Actually, our family roots are French but two generations ago, they went to Warminster, of all places, settled down and I’m from that branch of the family.’
‘I thought the English was a bit too good, yet you retain the French accent.’
‘My parents returned to Châtelet-en-Brie when I was four, I grew up in Melun and the French generally take me as one of them. Your accent has something in it as well, I think. South African? Educated but it has something else.’
‘Bit of antipodaean, actually - the family’s split between both places.’
‘So we have our first common ground. Let me show you some photos of my two elder sisters.’
Hugh scrutinized each in turn and the family resemblance was there – the long-bridged nose, the pleasing curve to the jaw, the wavy hair.
‘And this one?’ Hugh asked.
‘That’s Marie-Ange. I don't know why I brought that really. It's in the past now.'
Hugh produced his, of Anya and Dilyara.'
'Ah, I see.'
The train came to a shuddering halt only two to three hours out of Moscow, Shadzhara still another nine hours or so away.
It had started raining some time earlier, the window of the compartment was partially fogged and droplets were trickling down outside of the pane. Rubbing the glass, Hugh could just make out some figures over by another stationary train – obviously they were at some station and much as he tried to glimpse its name, it was to no avail.
People were jostling for position out there, holding up crystal chandeliers and all sorts of glassware for passengers to peruse; a handful of passengers actually did step down to buy and were immediately set upon by up to fifteen vendors trying to push their wares onto them.
He remembered he’d read about it now - Vekovka, where the workers were paid in their own products and had to sell them to passers-by to survive. This was a legacy of the Soviet days no doubt.
One girl of about twenty, cigarette hanging from her mouth, had become bored, she was now joined by a young spiv, clearly on the make, right under the carriage window and though neither Marc nor Hugh could make out the words, the tone was guttural and the intonation harsh.
‘Fancy her?’ smiled Marc and Hugh’s look said it all.
Sergei Safin was bored, waiting for the call.
The tie had been loosened, his shirt opened at the neck, only the pips on the epaulettes of his khaki jacket indicated his rank. Feet up on the other wooden chair in the office, he stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, ran powerful fingers through his unruly fair hair and then the cacophany of the phone began.
‘Da? Khorosho. Da. You’re sure? Khorosho. Kama Camp? Tomorrow morning, all right, I’ll find him; he’ll be the centre of attention, won’t he?’
The woman continued at the other end and Safin assured her: ‘Ladno, I promise - I’ll just observe, that’s all.’
He replaced the receiver and went out for a drink.
07:12 saw Lacour and Jensen both stepping over the tracks at Shadzhara railway station - no roofed in platforms here - and there were three cars waiting to take a largish party, including Hugh, straight down to Kama Camp, the resort by the Kama River. These were his new school colleagues but of Anya and Dilyara, there was no sign.
Marc Lacour bid adieu and seemed to slip into the shadows.
Hugh took one quick look at the Kama as their car pulled out and drove past the imposing white Kremlin with its leaning, brown bricked tower and rattled past low, cream coloured buildings, broad waterways and stone Venetian bridges.
The oppressively hot day was improved not one bit by the potholed road and he settled back for the panorama, the Lada alternately racing ahead and suddenly slowing to a crawl, then back to breakneck again.
An hour later, they turned left into another road and he saw the river on the right.
They eventually slowed, turned right through the Soviet green wrought iron gate – there was an inscription in Cyrillic in the wrought iron archway, which he suspected might say something like Arbeitet Macht Frei and now they came out on a domed, flying saucer shaped building, which, had it been in the west, might have been labelled art deco.
A short distance from this, to the left, was a long table under the silver beriozi trees which they now joined, many guests, many speeches, every new speech by someone further down the table a signal to raise glasses.
A young man standing behind Hugh saw it as his job to keep the foreigner’s glass full of vodka.
The speeches wore on.
The day wore on.
He excused himself and stumbled some distance in search of a tree and had just zipped up when Dilyara appeared from the forest, an exotic bird in olive bathing costume and yellow wrap. On autopilot, he kissed her cheek and she nodded - so Mr. Jensen had come to her home after all.
Swaying slightly from the heat and vodka, which impressed her not, he reached into his pocket and extracted Paul’s card.
‘What’s this?’ she asked.
‘It’s a Frenchman who’s patiently awaiting your phone call at his Hotel, handsome chap and he’s heard all about you.’
Dilyara glanced again at the card and commented, ‘And what if I already have a perfectly good boyfriend?’
‘I’m sure you have to beat them off with a stick. Do you think you could show both of us the city tomorrow?’
She murmured, ‘I think Anya has plans for you tomorrow.’
Reason now reached his foggy brain, he went to put the card away but her hand stopped him, she took it and slipped it inside the cup of her costume. ‘Never know what might happen, do we? Did you bring your swimming costume?’
‘Er ... no,’ he slurred.
‘Pity,’ she replied, finding a place on his cheek and kissing him there; she turned and went back to the forest.
He stood there for some seconds, turned and stumbled back to the others.
The next morning, Anya finally turned up with her father in a red Zhigoulie, the local variant of the Lada, she sat in the front, he in the back; the ride wasn’t too bumpy but it was in silence.
The city came into view, they drove through the outskirts and then the father pulled up outside a flat in the Kvartel area - Anya called it ‘the edge of geography’ - one of those long housing blocks, nine storeys high, a hundred and forty flats in one block. Within the kilometre square, houses were interconnected by a labyrinth of service roads, most connecting with others, some not, some leading to archways through one of the houses, all surfaces potholed and in need of urgent repair.
Her own flat was a brisk twelve minute walk away, through the yards between these service roads and houses, bleak yards generally, some leafy and pleasant, all of them with tubular metal rug-beating frames and broken children’s play equipment.
She went inside, then returned some minutes later and a rapid Russian conversation ensued, the father not happy, thick fingers drumming impatiently on the roof of the car. Anya poked her head through the window and announced, ‘They’re redecorating your flat; you can’t stay here. Would you mind staying with me instead?’
‘For how long?’
‘For the rest of the summer.’
All belongings were deposited upstairs at her house, he met her mother in passing and the usual head self-consciously dipped, broad smiled greetings were exchanged - what a honey - then Anya asked, ‘Can you be ready in five minutes? To go to the Garden.’
‘Garden, what garden? Do I need to pack?’
‘Clothes, things, you know, to take with me.’
‘Enough for a few days, da.’
Seven minutes later, they were en route for The Garden, to Zhilploshatka, on the outskirts of town and the heat had not become any less oppressive. He stole a glance across at her in the car, she allowed herself the quickest of smiles and just as quickly, it faded. He wondered what was going on here.
He was also wondering why the Russians always had to rush to and fro - was there some legal time limit to each journey or were they just charged by the minute?
Dilyara met Marc at Cafe Giuseppe, on the broad, tree-lined administrative street called Kryemlyovskaya, high up on the ridge, looking down over the old town. It was shortly after opening, 09:45.
If she was expecting a wolf, she found a lamb, a well-dressed lamb too, with perfect manners and with the grace to ask what her tastes were. She hoped he wouldn’t ask because the silly reason she’d chosen the place was no more than that it was originally called the Hotel France.
Besides, it was the perfect stepping off point for the little tour she’d organized but she’d have to put him straight on alcohol. Also, there was something she’d read, that in France there were certain sensitivities about Muslims in some quarters and she wasn’t sure how Marc was placed that way, whether he’d react negatively once he knew she was Muslim.
After a coffee and cakes made on the premises, he paid up, they embarked on their tour and the conversation was little more than desultory, again using English as the medium, he asking about her family and friends, she asking about Paris and French life in general.
‘You say you live in three rooms?’
‘You mean three bedrooms?’
‘Three rooms. One’s a living area during the day, one’s a study with books and one’s for storing things. At night, they become bedrooms.’
They sauntered along the footpath a hundred metres or so and then Dilyara suddenly cut through a clear area between two buildings and they were separated by a stone rampart. When they eventually met up again, she murmured something in Russian, he asked, she explained.
'Privyet na sto lyet. Hello for 100 years. It's for good luck, you know, so we're not separated for real.'
By Lake Nabak, the two of them leaned over a parapet set above the lower walkway, his calm presence was pleasing, quite different to the local guys, yet his conversation lacked their earthy repartee. His awkward self-assurance, if there was such a thing, was hard to get a line on.
For his part, it was her long dark hair and eyes which did the damage. He'd heard they were exotic in this part of the world and now he saw it was so.
‘When must you leave?’ she asked.
‘This evening – this is the last day.’
‘Will you return?’
‘Now that I have a reason.’
‘You’re French,’ she chuckled nervously, ‘you’d say anything.’
‘I’m sorry. I just get a bit nervous when I like someone a lot.’
‘You can visit me in Paris if you like. Would you do that?’ As she didn’t reply, he added quickly, ‘Or I could telephone.’
She smiled and wrote the number on the piece of paper he offered, with the pen he offered. He folded the slip carefully, placed it in his wallet and as he was clearly not going to make any other move himself, she quickly touched his cheek with the fingers of one hand and then her lips, causing him to blush.
‘Does everyone have a garden outside the city?’ asked Hugh, as the car slowed over a broken section of asphalt.
She turned to face him. ‘Families need somewhere to grow fruit and vegetables for the winter. Only those who work stay in the city – those or the poor.’
The father drove on stolidly, not sure if he liked the yabber yabber yabber of the English language or not.
The rough approach road was like something from ancient photos of cities, bordered by rickety wooden fences.
Eventually they were adjacent to a green painted weatherboard doll’s house, overhung by leafy trees which had grown to full height and width over the decades, the vine-entangled verandah on the far side looking out upon row upon row of cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes, with the berry trees behind that again - all irrigated.
Garden of Eden.
They went through.
In the far left corner of the allotment, above the toilet, was the Tin Roof she’d said was for suntanning, accessible only by stepladder. In the far right corner was the banya – the Russian sauna they’d apparently enjoy in the early evening.
And in the middle, under a huge apple tree, was The Table, the centrepiece of the whole garden.
From around the corner of the doll’s house now came an elderly couple and the pieces fell into place. It was their garden, their pride and joy. The grandfather was a good looking cove, about his height, with wiry strength in a thin body; the grandmother was not undernourished and now she beamed from ear to ear.
She saw Hugh gazing at The Table and asked, through Anya, ‘Lunch. You must be hungry.’
The reason he’d really been scrutinizing the Table was the mobile telephone carelessly left lying there. In the west - yes at that time but here, in this province … well, he was puzzled and besides, it wasn’t like his chunky vodaphone – it was the small, two piece, snap-open variety.
In an office on the outskirts of Shadzhara, Viktor Igorovich wound up his festivities about 23:00.
His old cronies from the tax police were putting on the regulation knees-up and they fell roughly into two categories – those who understood and wished him all the best with his new English language venture and those who failed to understand how he could give away the camaraderie for some vague notion of self improvement.
Actually, he’d been learning English for years, he'd been part of the soviet youth underground which listened to British music whenever bootleg copies found themselves past the Iron Curtain and there was always the Samizdat. Now he’d made a promise to himself to knuckle down and pursue English to the point where he’d be taken for a native, he’d buy cassettes, he’d travel … if he could scrape together the money, of course.
That day he swore off all but the odd social drink and the cavalier lifestyle. Putting his Paul McCartney cassette into his player, he readied himself for bed, frowning at the triceps in the mirror - ten days off training and he was already going soft.
Posted by James Higham at 13:55