Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Russia 3 - Flights


Chapter 2 here ... Chapter 4 here

HOME


I

Philippe took Geneviève to the 19ème arrondissement for a seafood supper.

She loved seafood.

He was the perfect host, which she also loved, they went to see an old Truffaut film afterwards, which he knew she loved and he paid assiduous attention to her throughout the remainder of the night, which she also loved.

As a rule.

What she did not love was that he felt the need to do this, at this time and in this way, knowing, as she did, that the tickets they’d used this evening were light blue in colour but the tickets slightly protruding from one corner of the little plastic window in his wallet, behind the driver’s licence, were maroon, which meant a matinee - either one he’d already attended or one which was coming up.

The worst of it was that she could discuss it with nobody - not Nicolette, not Louisa - no one.

She felt entirely alone.

Plus Marc was a worry; he never complained but everyone knew his heart had gone out to the Russian girl. The girl had been checked out and nothing had come up on the sheet so it must have been just a love at first sight thing.

Well, better to get her to Paris and take a good look at her; Nikki could arrange the details as a surprise for Marc’s birthday.

She turned to the suave, debonair Philippe. The central and overwhelming issue for her was that she was being treated as a wife and told lies by omission, whereas, at this stage of the relationship, he should have been pressuring her to comply with his own demand for marriage.

She hated that she couldn’t break free.

II

Riccardo came home for December, the main work on the treaty completed, the phone was switched off, the doors locked and the lights doused for a night and a day.

On the third evening Lisa took him to Charing Cross and they walked along the Embankment, catching the little tearoom just as it was closing. She looked across at him - the curly hair of the Italian and the not particularly dark or swarthy face - his family were northern, from Vincenze, notables in the local community and he was the favoured son.

When Lisa had been invited over to meet the family, the impression had been good both ways.

Like many a Brit before her, she’d taken to the Italian language with gusto, with a grounding in art and architecture to set it against. Nights with Riccardo were usually set to the Italian language but coffee table conversation was in English. While it concerned art or travel, he was voluble but the moment it came round to the EEC, sorry, the EU, he went into his shell. She dwelt on this a few moments and tried it again. ‘You’ve already talked about the Treaty of Amsterdam, so why the cloak and dagger?’

‘What do you understand about Amsterdam, Lisa?’

‘It replaces … no, redefines Maastricht, the citizen’s place in the union, more power for the parliament -’

‘More democracy.’

‘As you wish. And I think you were working on the peacekeeping proposals -’

‘What do you know of those?’

‘Is this the Inquisition? I don’t know – you were setting up some peacekeeping force to go to Africa or wherever.’

‘Good, Lisa. That’s correct. That’s all it is – a humanitarian force.’

She gave him a quizzical look.

III

December, 1996

On the 29th, Anya finally told him yes but she wanted to know something. 'If we're fiancees, then does the rule about waiting matter any more?'

'Don't you think I've been thinking of that?'

'And?'

'I don't know. We'll decide that tonight.'

They went to the centre by tram and just before it crossed the main bridge, they both looked at each other and jumped off, slipping and sliding out onto the frozen river, past fishermen fishing through holes in the ice, until they found a raised ice knoll.

The rims of their hoods forming a near hermetic seal for five minutes, they then walked along the frozen river round to the Lenin Memorial, where half the population would later be celebrating the lead in to the New Year.

Around the large, orange bricked building were a dozen or so giant, translucent ice sculptures, a large hot air balloon, various beer marquees, a giant lit up tree and a festive spirit; people were starting to arrive. Usually the families got there about seven, little boys and girls, be-coated, be-hooded, sweet faces of wonder taking in everything, parents also touched.

But first the ballet was on, up the road from the Memorial and across Freedom Square. They crossed the flagstoned state square towards the opera house, hand in hand, snowflakes as large as coins falling silently and softly on their hoods and jackets.

Inside, the presidential box hung half-over the orchestra pit and the opera house still sported the U.S.S.R. hammer and sickle, above the heavy main curtain.

.o0o.

Later, at home, she sat him down in the living room and brought tea and torte, which worried him. She wanted to talk.

‘Do you think I’m mercantilnaya?’

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning do you think I’m marrying you just for your money?’

‘What money?’

‘That’s what people are saying though. Not to your face, no one would do that but they’re saying it behind your back.’

‘I see.’

‘Hugh, we have to get out of this city.’

‘It’s not going to be any better in any other city, love. If it becomes too much for you, we’ll need to consider our options. How about going with me for a trip to Cyprus?’

Her face answered that. ‘I’ll arrange the booking,’ she said quietly. ‘We can't do it through the airline but a firm I know can book a hotel in Larnaka. When do you want it for?'

'End of next week.'

'We've waited this long. Let's wait until we get there.'

IV

Olyesa heard her sister leaving the flat.

When Alina left that way, on tiptoes and closing the door with the softest of clicks, there was usually trouble brewing. She checked the wall clock and went over to the window - it was 09:28 and it was a non-study day for Sis, who usually liked her beauty sleep.

Two and two were put together and they came to a porn shoot.

Dressing as fast as a Russian girl ever can, she was finally satisfied and called the number for a cab. Fifteen minutes later she was seated in the back of a white Volga in her grey fur jacket, anxiously glancing between the front backrests and becoming more and more depressed as they drew close to where she was certain her sister would be.

She paid the man and now had to decide how to get inside the building. The air was chill and the sky dark grey.

Posters of fashion models adorned the windows in an otherwise tawdry street on the side of a hill leading down to the main road, the building sparkling new and brassy, out of keeping with the other run-down houses. She was sure she was right in her hunch about Alina – she’d been here herself once before.

They would never have taken the front entrance, as the premises didn’t officially open until 11:00, so she slipped around into the sidelane, glanced up at the CCTV - now why would that be necessary here - and decided on a bold move. She’d already have been on CC video so the guy inside would have recognized her if he was a regular, in which case, he’d either check with Alina but if Alina was already ... well, he’d …

Yes, the door opened, she slipped inside to the desk area and sweetly smiled, dropping a well known name in this organization and knowing he’d check the screen for confirmation. The moment he turned his attention to the screen and hit one or two keys on the keyboard, she flitted through the far door and ran down the corridor, flew upstairs, found the second door on the right and burst in.

What she saw nauseated her and Alina’s stupid smile made it doubly bad. If Olyesa had had a gun just then, she’d have killed all the males present in that room.

V

Dilyara arrived in Paris.

The usual sights were shown her - they lunched at the first stage Eiffel cafe/restaurant, went to the Louvre, took a trip out to Versailles and he, in turn, asked about Peterhof which she’d never seen, having not been to St Petersburg before.

Late afternoon saw them in the Champs-Élysées, munching at a supper in a second floor cafe nearer la Place de la Concorde, before being taken back to the 12ème arrondissement and through the door of a cream brick building, where the first thing which struck her was that Marc was the only man in the room.

A pretty, fair-haired girl with her hair up came forward, introduced herself as Nicolette and then introduced her to what seemed the rest of the staff.

Eventually, she was led through to a back room, larger than the others and here, clearly, was the boss.

‘Enchante,’ said the lady. Charlie’s Angels sprang to mind but Marc was clearly not the king here, he seemed more ancillary than anything and Dilyara half thought that he’d planned it to look that way.

Another man, stockier yet maybe more handsome, now came through from the outer office and was introduced as Jean-Paul Martin. As there didn’t seem much point hanging about too much longer, Marc asked a girl called Claudette to take Dilyara back to her apartment to prepare for the evening.

Marc himself had to stay on a few minutes longer.

The moment she was out of the door, Geneviève turned to him and gave her verdict. ‘Nice enough girl, of course, certainly not planted, not married, pretty and seductive, doesn’t seem to have had too much trauma in her life, had a good upbringing but not a lot of prospects. What are your plans, Marc?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Plans,’ Geneviève smiled. ‘Will you just keep her on as your lover and fly to Shadzhara each time you want to make love?’ There was a confused silence and then Geneviève added, to Nicolette’s amusement, ‘Before you tell us it’s none of our business, you know the score on anyone brought into or near the Section - it needs vetting.’

As the silence continued, Geneviève took a kindlier tone. ‘Marc, you know the work we need you for but all of us, sooner or later, are going to come up against this question of relationships. Are you any further advanced on that?’

‘I know she wants. Making it work is the question.’

‘Well, no need to decide that now. Your lady awaits you back at Claudette’s apartment and there’s the evening ahead of you.’

VI

January, 1997

Hugh had forgotten Russia’s infinite capacity to surprise, dismay and entangle in red tape.

A few days before departure, he was sitting in Giuseppe, late afternoon, dreaming up possible obstacles to the trip and then one suddenly struck him.

Exit Visa.

He’d need an Exit Visa to leave the country and he’d forgotten all about it - Anya couldn't be expected to know about that. It usually took ten days processing but on the other hand, if he was prepared to pay -?

He went straight to the visa place by car and paid.

Curiously, the travel agency had also failed to reserve their selected hotel, with the result that they’d lost the reservation and had ended up booked for Limassol instead.

.o0o.

They took one of the non-Shadzharan trains late morning and due to the non-coordination of Russian transport, it involved staying the following night at Izmayalovski 4 hotel complex on the outskirts of Moscow.

Rollicking along towards the capital, they occupied the whole of the four berth cabin but she seemed out of sorts on the top bunk.

‘Are you comfortable?’ he asked.

‘No, this is not a calm train. It goes up and down.’

He broke up laughing, reached down from his top bunk, got her a drink from the bag and she felt a bit better but still spent the remainder of the night and early morning nose to the open window at the top.

.o0o.

Next morning saw them alight and find a taxi, a Volkswagen Passat the man was clearly proud of, dropping them at Izmayalovski without too much drama and one of the most boring afternoons they'd had now unfolded. They walked in the park, they walked through another park.

They went back through the parks and caught the Metro to Red Square, looked around, went into GUM, caught the train back, it was almost supper time but they'd eaten enough and so they went to their room, switched on the television and watched one inane programme after another.

The frustration was building.

.o0o.

The night at Izmayalovski 4 passed, the bulk of it in each other’s arms but the trouble came at breakfast next morning.

As they entered the dining room, the waiter/offitsant came up to Hugh, beaming, then uttered a few curt words in Russian to Anya, who went through to gather breakfast at the other end of the long rectangular room. He invited Hugh to take a glass of the special hand squeezed orange juice but when Hugh went to take another for her, the offitsant regretted that it was one per customer.

At the table, he handed her his juice and she pushed it back vehemently.

‘But I brought it for you.’ Then he saw the tears in her eyes.

‘Go on. Tell me the worst.’

‘That juice is only for foreigners. Russian girls aren’t allowed, plus he called me ‘ti’.’

‘What!’

He stood, took the juice back and handed the man the glass. In Russian, he added, ‘You had no right to call my fiancee ‘ti’ without asking.’

The officiant began a mongrel apology but a slight smile was playing at the corner of the lips.

Anya had been watching it all, honour had been satisfied but Hugh wasn’t. ‘Are you finished, darling?’ he asked. She looked at him swiftly. ‘We’ll eat at the airport.’

VII

Viktor Igorovich had had a visit from an old colleague, a former security colonel, as beefy and fit as himself.

It was to talk over old times and nothing more, nevertheless the conversation moved onto an incident in the south of the country, near the Chechen border, about a convoy of refrigeration transports they’d flagged down - the owner of the frozen food business finally nailed on non-payment of taxes.

They’d made the driver at the head of the convoy contact his boss in Shadzhara. Yes, yes, the boss would pay the back taxes within the month, no problems.

‘No,’ the tax police had retorted, ‘he’ll pay half today or we switch off the refrigeration, here and now.’

Later, they’d interviewed the owner himself and he’d begged them to give him just a few more days to clear the backlog. There was money coming in, don’t worry.

Where from?

From Britain.  And how was the money to come in? They’d got it out of him eventually – there was an Englishman living in Shadzhara who’d bring it in.

‘Living in Shadzhara or visiting Shadzhara?’ Viktor now asked his friend.

‘Living in.’

Viktor knew of only two ‘Englishmen’ who ‘lived’ in the city at that time and Hugh was one of them. He said nothing but reflected.

Also, Viktor had another matter very much on his mind, having fallen, some months back, for a Shadzhara girl working as a finance manager at a local bank. Twenty nine years of age, Roxana was tall, with short, dark hair and an adventurous character which stood out a mile.

Hugh had considered it wise at the time not to voice his concerns about her and hoped they’d ultimately prove unfounded.

Last summer, for example, she’d broken her collar bone with a stunt she’d pulled in jumping off the roof off a cruise boat into the river, only to strike her shoulder on the railing before bouncing off into the water - that had almost killed her. He knew a wild one when he saw her but Viktor loved her to distraction - why was it always the way that we fall for the most inappropriate partners?

The two of them had joined Anya and Hugh at a bar in Freedom Square to drink and natter one evening and later they’d all gone on to the Flamingo Club.

Dance is a good indicator of character.

Anya would be forever devising clever little dance moves to the faster numbers but would leave the close-in, slow dance moves to him. For his part, he preferred just the close-in - to stand a metre or so from a woman and gyrate the hips was not only unmanly, as far as he could see - it was also a waste of bloody time, excuse his French.

Viktor and Roxana, solid people physically, were also of the tactile school and cut a swathe on the small dance floor with their strange, idiosyncratic form of classic-foxtrot hardstep.

VIII

Anya and Hugh reached Sheremetyevo and the last stage of check in before boarding.

‘Away at last,’ he muttered to her.

Immigration at Sheremetyevo simply said no, just a minor technicality the travel agent had overlooked, so no flight for Anya. Of course, smiled the official, Hugh could go if he wished.

Was the man a fool? As Hugh's shoulders sagged, the man was puzzled that the foreigner did not start getting heavy - they usually did. He lifted the receiver and said a few words.

A short prayer later, the tour operator materialized from nowhere, whisked Anya away in a flurry of activity – on site lawyer, documents, lots of cash paid over, smiling officials and so on to the final barrier and through.

The stewardess, in a pleasant voice, asked Anya to give up the hard won exit seats for the next five hours and forty five minutes to a couple holding three pet poodles, some rows back.

‘No,’ Hugh shot back.

IX

The matter of Marc and Dilyara hadn’t resolved itself.

Geneviève had kept a close eye on it right throughout the Paris visit and as she’d said to Nicolette, ‘I’ve been willing to accommodate it, even help with it against my own feelings for Marc but his work’s dropped off of late. Am I wrong in saying this? Will you take him for a coffee and sound him out about it, Nikki? He wouldn’t accept it from me.’

.o0o.

Marc was seated at a side table in Café Noir in the 12ème arrondissement, the slightly austere décor and wooden chairs suiting his mood and the exquisite coffee compensating for his melancholy. Nikki knew the place well although it wasn’t one of her regular haunts.

He watched her petite figure silhouetted in the doorway and then that idiosyncratic little rush forward on light feet, once she’d found her target, lips pursed but ready to break into a winning smile at any moment. A real little actress, Nikki but a transparent one too. She had a good heart.

He ordered her favourite aperitif and she opened with, ‘Sorry, Marc. Desole. When did you decide?’

‘Couldn’t have worked. She wanted to be based there and to travel here. I needed the opposite. Both of us need someone nearby most of the time. There wasn’t any anger, just sadness.’

‘Desole.’

X

Anya and Hugh settled into their room, he checked out the literature and she went onto the balcony, looking out over the azure Mediterranean, at the blue pool below in the hotel complex and the shops along the foreshore, then came back inside.

He asked if she'd like to go on a safari tomorrow and handed her the brochure. She read it and smiled. 'Let's go for a walk.'

By the water, she took off her sandals and waded in the shallows, he took off the boat shoes and did the same. He told her about the scene in Naked Gun when the odd couple fell in love and ran along the beach arm in arm, only to catch a couple running the other way by the neck, the second couple ending up flat on their backs in the water.

She didn't see anything funny in that but as he was suppressing laughter, she began to laugh along and he half looked for a couple running the other way.

Night fell and they crossed the road to have a pizza.

.o0o.

There they were, both kneeling on the bed, facing each other and both knew what was going through the other's mind.

She said it first. 'Tomorrow evening?'

He looked at her and burst out laughing again. 'No one's going to believe we're doing this - neither of us seem the type. It's like a bedroom farce, you know - I wonder how long we can keep it going?'

'Only till tomorrow.'

‘You want it to be special, same as me. What if it will be a disappointment?’

‘It won’t.  We've done everything but that.’

.o0o.

In the cool of the morning, they took breakfast al fresco in the outdoor restaurant attached to the hotel, gazing over the water. She loved the mackerel, which she knew the Russian word for but not the English and Hugh thought it was ‘herring’ until the waiter set them straight.

‘See, I told you it wasn’t herring.’

He grinned.

The white Landrover collected them and took them to some of the most picturesque spots on the island and now, on the way down the mountain from the statue of Makarios, they stopped off at a hillside café; she went for a wander over to a stone wall to be by herself for a while.

The driver had introduced himself as Konstantine, doubling as property owner and general man about town and he’d taken a shine to Hugh. While Anya went for a wander through the store, the two men went into the main bar section of the complex and two ouzos were produced by an old lady.

‘How long you have your girlfriend?’ the Greek asked, toasting Hugh’s health.

‘Well, over a year, actually.’

‘I have Russian girl too.’

‘Really? For long?’

‘Three weeks. Why you keep yours? I know she is pretty but –’

‘We’re going to marry.’

‘Marry!’ The man was genuinely shocked. ‘I meet them at nightclub, they come home, they want me arrange visa, I leave them at nightclub and go to other part of island. Weeks later I go back to nightclub and get new one.’

Hugh was nauseated. He made hurried apologies and went to look for Anya, who smelt his breath and disapproved.

.o0o.

He weighed up whether to tell her or not.

He did tell her as they lay on their backs and strangely, she was neither surprised nor shocked, just a little saddened. ‘Babe, you’re so naive. Don’t you understand what Russian girls are doing? Some of them are so low – they’re low to start with back home - and they give us all a bad name. What do you think happened in Izmayalovski? This man’s just the same. I’m glad you didn’t tell me that on the mountain.’

‘Would it make any difference if we married sooner rather than later? Would that stop it, do you think?’

She dropped her head and her hair lay across the quilt. ‘Of course it would,’ she whispered, ‘but I’m terrified of marriage with anyone, not just you - you know I have issues with that. Plus, I’m indecisive and you’re too passive. I'm going to marry you but there are unanswered questions.’

‘Such as?’

‘Where would we live?’

‘Anywhere they speak English or Russian. Even French.’

‘Italian?’

‘If necessary. Even German - we both learnt it.’

‘What about Cyprus?’

‘I’ll ask around tomorrow about work, salaries, houses and so on. We might have visa problems, plus neither of us knows Greek. It’s not insurmountable though.’

‘Ask.’ She paused and the silence was deafening.

Eventually she spoke. 'Did you bring any?'

'Yes.'

'I'd prefer you to use mine and don't ask why. And no, there's only you.'

.o0o.

It was quite clear early on that there were issues. He'd never rated himself a great lover but neither had women complained before. She wasn't complaining now either but all sorts of little stop-start hiccups were coming into it. She didn't want him doing this, she didn't like to do that.

It became obvious she wasn't used to foreplay and seemed to want to get into it quickly. Now, the fact that she did fall victim to the massage and he saw the defences fall away told him that at least she was happy enough for it to go ahead. Yet she'd stop him, move a bit and then let him continue. It wasn't something he'd ever experienced.

When they did finally connect, the first few minutes were good, pretty well par for the course - she was delectable, they were moving well together and then he went over the top, as he usually did first time in the evening.

‘Have you always been like that?’ she asked.

‘Like what?’

‘Quick, like that.’

‘First time, if you’re attractive.’ She said nothing and lay beside him, kissing, until he was ready to go again but she seemed to have something on her mind. He asked her to say it.

‘Well, it’s a problem, isn’t it?’

‘What is?’

‘That. Being so quick.’

‘Why? If I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been too much of a compliment for you.’

‘Is it going to happen again?’

‘If you mean this evening - no, only the first time - if you excite me, which you do. I can't speak about the other way round.’

‘But it is a problem, isn’t it?’

He looked at her. ‘For whom? Have you been reading books on lovemaking - journals? Who told you it was a problem?’ She didn’t answer. ‘For what it's worth, the first time is always as you've seen and after that, it's when we want it and how we do it. That's just me.’

He began again but it was obvious from her body movement that she was brooding. The fact that it was about twenty minutes down the track that he stopped again and nothing had ... er ... escaped didn't seem to have occurred to her. Or perhaps it was something else. He pulled out and lay beside her.

'We've been pretty well making love for a year or more, though it's true we haven't done the last part until now. You know how I move, what I'm like, all my little faults plus the things you like. You've done certain things to me, so there don't seem to be complexes. If you'd really disliked intimacy with me, you'd have shown me through your body language ... but you never did. So what is it?'

'I don't know. Just the way you're doing it is very ... rude.'

'Rough? Uncaring?'

'No, just rude. You're looking inside me and doing things like that. I'm a bit - private, you know. You take so much for granted. I think I didn't expect that ... from you. I thought you were ... more timid.'

'You mean you'd prefer me to be?'

'Well, I look up to you. You know I love you so much.'

What she looked up at him as he didn't dare ask but he was starting to get ideas and those ideas seemed to preclude sex. It started to dawn that she saw him differently to how she might have seen some of the Russian males.

'Well, shall we continue or don't you want?'

'I want but I don't want. I can't get the two images together.'

'Let's stop then.' He held her close, which she warmed to and eventually they dropped off to sleep.

XI

The director of Hugh's school had called a crisis meeting over the growing balance of payments crisis, it had not been deemed necessary for him to attend and perhaps it was better he didn't.

A profoundly unsatisfactory situation, which had simply not occurred in Soviet days, Svetlana Anufreeva was moved to throw up her hands and cry, ‘Da, so here is this democracy we all wanted. Now what shall we do with it?’

Milya Aleeva was in tears and most of the women were close to it. Payment in the New Year of the wage arrears, all three months of them, had not occurred across the nation or at least the word was that the money had arrived but someone was holding it back for ‘administrative reasons’, the mood was ugly and Russia had slipped into the payment trap.

Businessman A did a job for B but B couldn't pay him because C hadn’t paid him because D hadn’t paid him. Everyone was looking after Number One and the result was dysfunction. This was the standard Russian reaction to any crisis - all would meet, decide who was to blame and then decide what to do about him [or her], without actually solving the problem itself.

Inevitably it resulted in written resolutions served on authorities who made placatory noises and then ignored the matter.

Thus it was today, heads nodded defiantly, much tea was consumed and then they all went home and tried to make ends meet on their last remaining roubles or dollars if they’d had the sense to stash some of these away.

XII

They had to make a decision between The Holy Land and The Pyramids.

The overnight boat to Egypt, the Louisa, deposited them in Sinai, where they boarded the bus for Giza, following a route parallel to but not visible from the canal; they crossed the Nile and the bullrushes were very Moses indeed, he couldn't help but think, the outskirts of Cairo were appalling, either derelict or part of some new housing project, all in the same mud brick and he could scarcely imagine a worse way to live.

True, much of Russia was dire but at least there were new building projects underway there to clear the slums and put in new multi-storey housing.

Here, there were slums upon slums, abandoned housing projects on the outskirts and a small canal with a boat being rowed along it for light relief.



At Giza, the beaming tour woman warned him, ‘Don’t go on camel. They say it free but it not, it end up cost you much money, even for photograph.’

She now took him aside and whispered conspiratorially, ‘Your lady, she very beautiful, be very careful, they take her away, you never see again.’

He glanced around and half the bus had its eyes on her - it was always the way and some were now looking at him, trying to fathom out what these two were about.

They wandered over towards the Great Pyramid and took each other's photos, then she saw the camels.  She desperately wanted a photograph on a camel and as they sauntered across there, as if on cue, the dark camel rider, white teeth gleaming, cantered up.

‘How much?’

‘Two pound.’

‘Two Egyptian or two Cyprus pounds?’

The man didn’t seem to understand the question, so Hugh gave him two Cyprus pounds and stood astride the exit path, took her photo then when the rider showed signs of not budging, demanded Anya be allowed down.

‘Meester, a little ride, yes?’ ingratiated the Egyptian.

‘No no, down, down!’

The rider pushed on the camel which now knelt down and let her slip off.

With her feet once more on solid earth, she wanted to take her own photo of him on the camel and now he made the fundamental error - he climbed up.




The instant he was in place, the rider suddenly whipped the camel into action, clomping awkwardly but swiftly along the sand beside the bitumen road parallel to the pyramid.

‘Turn around!’

‘Just a ride, meester.’

‘No, turn around now.’

Some police driving nearby saw was happening and began calling to the rider through a megaphone but then the full horror of the situation struck him.  The police were on the road, yes but the camel was on the sand and out there was the Sahara.

He began to slip off the camel as it clomped along but the rider’s ‘brother’ was suddenly alongside, the two of them pinning him between them, the police addressing them the whole time through the loud hailer.

The riders immediately introduced the topic of money. First, a moderate amount, then more and more.   They knew he had his wallet and that there might be cards in there and yet they didn't seem interested - they just wanted the cash.   They even knew he hadn't given them more than a portion of it and didn't seem to want the rest.

They started trotting back, the police car keeping pace all the way.

‘Why did you go so far? she was furious, when he finally climbed down.

‘Sorry, my love, I just got carried away.’

He made a mental note not to tell anyone about that bit of stupidity, ever and by the time they’d reached the papyrus place in the city, she’d largely forgotten about the episode - at least she didn't refer to it.  He was very quiet the rest of the day.

Now came the trek back to the boat, the passport business again, the boarding ramp, a photographer wanted to take their photograph, she was impatient, they ordered dinner in the cabin, with oodles of afters, she was grumpy.

'Long trips,' she caught his look.   'I hate them.'

'But you were so keen on the pyramids.'

'I was but that doesn't mean I have to like the trip.'

She dropped off first and he stared at the cabin wall.   No, he wasn't ever going to mention that little error today.

He shuddered.

XIII

March, 1997

That awful time came round when everything thawed, the once beautifully white but now dirty brown snow disappeared and the simple business of walking doubled in time - it was difficult.

Trucks would fly past, shooting sheets of muddy water over trousers and the sun began to struggle out from behind the clouds. This was the time when last year’s rubbish, thrown into the lakes, floated to the surface and perfect girls in expensive ersatz-label outfits had them ruined by passing trams.

In Britain, Major had called a dissolution and it was possibly best to be out of there at that time. John Smith’s death had seemed a trifle too convenient but who was Hugh to comment anyway?

Apart from fairly vacuous conference speeches, Blair was a pretty face but it would have been good to find time to look into the man and that other one – what was his name? Brown? The pundits seemed to feel that Blair would cruise in but there was something just not right about the man.

Hugh wanted to get over and tell Britain, ‘It’s a trick, it’s a cookbook.'

XIV

April, 1997

Geneviève poured Marc and herself another cognac in her sitting room, walked across to her window and stared down onto the tree lined street below. She went over to her bureau and extracted a file. Going carefully through the sheets inside, she found the one she wanted, took it out and quietly laid it in front of him on the low glass table.

He skimmed over it and whistled.

Marc felt that some sort of defence had to be mounted. ‘There might be a mistake, Mademoiselle. This is a close friend of yours mentioned here.’

‘She’s been three times to Russia, Marc.’

‘Even so.’

‘It would explain the money.’

‘Maybe but I couldn’t believe she -’

‘I could. She might be quite close to me but remember how I came to know her. She was never a childhood friend.’

‘Do you realize what you’re saying? The one who introduced you two -’

‘I know.’

‘You trust no one, do you, Mademoiselle?’

‘I’ve been shown to have been wrong too many times.’

Marc whistled again and shook his head.

XV

May, 1997

Summer was on the horizon, they hadn’t made a clear decision about their future and now Hugh made a major error. They’d discussed living in the west but she couldn’t do that yet. There was her job and this was the holiday season, there were family issues and his things were currently in three countries.

They'd not sorted out the wedding, neither of them had insisted and it had just kept getting postponed. Now he brought up the issue of whether she wanted. 'I want, I want,' she insisted. It was hopeless.

He said what was on his mind. 'I think it's both my age and the way I look. If it is, be honest and let me find someone else.'

She was shocked by that. The notion of them suddenly parting after they'd - got it sorted out perhaps - it was mortifying. 'No, no, it's not that. It is a little bit that but I know everything about you and still I'm with you.'

'Don't wish to be alone?  What?'

'I don't know.  We go everywhere together, do everything together, we make love and it's fine, I love you.  I hate it when you're not here.   I just don't know.'

What was at the back of his mind now was that this was no time to spend time apart from her and yet he had to get down to Australia to see his parents who'd decided to see out their days there, instead of coming back to England. Worse - he had to get back to England as well, to collect most of his belongings.

He broached it, wincing as he told her and the result was predictable - she was dead against. ‘No, you can't,’ she pleaded. 'This is the time we need to be together, right now, to arrange the wedding, to do what we need to do. This is a very important time.'

‘I know that but my mum’s not well - it’s age-related. She’s waited a year for this, I've kept her on promises until now and it would be cruel not to go to her. She hasn't asked, she's not pressured me in the least and that’s all the more reason. I really have to do this, love, especially as she'd want to know about you, about our plans and so on. Your mother and you are so close, you'd understand. Maybe I'm not as close but this would be on my conscience, you know - I'd be moody and irritable.’

‘How long?’

‘Three weeks in Australia and two in Britain.’

‘Half the summer!’

‘One time only, I promise. Australia's been booked for months and it goes through Britain anyway, the route. It's a one-off and next time I'd time it much better and take you with me as well.’

‘I need you with me, Hugh, I’m telling you straight. This is exactly the time we should be together. Why can’t you go in September?’

‘Work, of course. A teacher can't not be there. He has to be there, especially at the start of a semester - you know that.’

‘When do you go?’

‘Mid June.’

‘Koshmar. There's something I have to tell you and I don't want you to start imagining things. There are many people, I meet them each day and they put pressure on me.'

'Men.'

'Yes, men. I do love you but what am I to do? I don't mean that I'm dying to make love to someone but what am I actually going to do? Have you thought about that? Go to the dacha? Stay in a boiling flat in the heat of summer? Sit here on my own and watch TV? I'm not being selfish or clinging to you but what will I actually do? I'll be phoned the whole time, once they know you've gone and I'm alone. I don't know if you can see the danger but in our culture, it's - expected. I can keep most of them away but I'd have to be a hermit. I wouldn't be able to go to parties because single women are never left alone. You know me and alcohol.  You know I have no real girlfriend to go with, especially after we've become so - close. There'll be invitations for me to go with a group somewhere, where we'll drink and laugh ... and you know. It's the summer. Please don't do this.'

'I checked other flights, other possibilities, your leave isn't due until November and flights downunder are almost double the cost from here through Britain at that time, plus it's exams and I have to be here - I'm running those exams. I feel trapped.  I do see your situation, our situation.  Could you change your leave?' 

'No, I did that last year and I can't get anyone to change again.  Besides, I don't have that much left.  I see the situation but I also see danger for us - real danger.  I'm not threatening you, seriously I'm not, I'd never do anything to you but you can't expect trouble not to happen if you're not here.'


Chapter 2 here ... Chapter 4 here

HOME

No comments: