It had rained in the night. I could tell, because the air smelt different. I woke up early in my blue-and-white attic room, full of excitement and anticipation, because at last I was going to see London, the city of my dreams, and especially because I was going to see it with him.
It was strange, at first, being just the two of us in the Land Rover, him sitting at the wheel and me sitting in the passenger seat with the dog at my feet. What were we going to say to each other? I wanted to talk to him. London is a very beautiful city. English men wear bowler hats. No, not that stupid stuff. I wanted to talk about us, him and me. Tell me who you are, Andriy Palenko. Do you love me? Are you the one? But you can’t say that. So we just drove in silence, crawling in the heavy traffic.
According to the map Maria had given me, we were on the South Circular Road. He had that fixed look on his face, concentrating on his driving. And I know this sounds strange, but although he was a Donbas miner I noticed for the first time that in profile he had a slight look of Mr Brown about him. Then he said, still with that look on his face, as though he was talking to himself, “I wonder what happened to all the carrots.”
“From the caravan. Didn’t you notice? Two bags gone. Only six small carrots left.”
“Only six? Maybe she stole them.”
“To feed to her husband.”
Then we both started laughing, and that broke the tension between us, so we laughed even more, till our sides ached. Then we drove on in silence for a bit, but now it was a different kind of silence.
Suddenly Andriy slammed the brakes on. “Devil’s bum! Did you see that?” The Land Rover lurched all over the road as the caravan bounced on its bracket. “These Angliski drivers! Cut-throat bandits!”
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing. “Is that what they say in Donbas?”
“Devil’s bum!” I laughed.
He gave me a hard look.
“Do you think we’re all hooligans in Donbas? Primitive types?”
“No, it’s not that. It just sounds funny.”
“And so what did you think when you saw all these uncivilised coalminers coming into your Kiev? All with blue-and-white flags to protest against your Orange Revolution? All talking with Donbas accent? Did you think it is the barbarians’ invasion?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, but I can see what you are thinking. Every time I open my mouth you start to grin.”
“Andriy, why are you saying these things?”
“I don’t know.” He frowned again and clenched his jaw. “I should concentrate. Where are we going?”
“ Kensington Park Road.” Maria had looked it up for me and shown me on the map. “You have to turn left somewhere up here. About eight kilometres.”
On Putney Bridge we got stuck in a traffic jam and then it was solid cars all the way, so by the time we got to Kensington Park Road the consulate was just closing. I pleaded with the woman behind the desk. I explained my passport had been stolen and I needed to get a new one. But she was one of those pouty-mouth types who looks as though she finds talking to people too exhausting.
“Come back Monday.” She rolled her eyes, and tottered off in her pencil-tight skirt, which in my opinion she did not have the figure to wear.
“Well?” asked Andriy, who was waiting outside, and when I told him, he said, “These new Ukrainians. They forget who pays their wages.”
Then we went quiet, because obviously we had a decision to make.
“Do you want to go back to Richmond?” he said.
“It’s up to you.”
“No, you decide.” I was being careful-careful not to upset him again.
“I’ll do whatever you want,” he said.
“I don’t mind.”
“Well, let’s toss a coin. Heads we go back, tails we go on.”
He found a coin in his pocket and flicked it in the air with his thumb, and it landed heads up.
“That’s it. We’ll go back, then,” he said.
“All right.” I looked at the coin, and I looked at him. “But we don’t have to if we don’t want to, do we?”
“I’ll do whatever you want.”
“I don’t mind. But I don’t really want to go back to Richmond, unless you do. I mean, they were nice…”
“Nice but crazy,” he said.
We both laughed.
“Where do you want to go, then?” He had that Mr Brown look on his face again.
“I don’t mind. You decide.”
This girl-he’s getting nowhere with her. One minute she’s smiling, then she won’t talk at all, and then sometimes she laughs at him as though he’s some kind of idiot. It’s like the Land Rover gearbox: fourth gear and reverse are too close together. You’re just going along nicely in third, and ready to change up to fourth, and suddenly you find you’ve slammed it into reverse and you stop dead or jump backwards. Now she’s smiling again, saying she wants to look around London and see Globe Theatre, Tabard Inn, Chancery, Old Curiosity Shop. What is this stuff? What does she think he is-an exclusive VIP tour guide? First he’d better find somewhere to park, because driving in this traffic with a caravan is no joke. He can’t even get up into third most of the time, and that second gear keeps slipping out, so he’s been driving in first, and they’re burning up petrol fast, and he’s going to need at least another tankful to get up to Sheffield. If he had the tools, he’d take a look at that gearbox. He has heard that the Land Rover gearbox is quite something. How would it compare with their old Zaporozhets, he wonders? Yes, that had had a similar gearbox fault.
When he was thirteen, his father had bought a second-hand sky-blue Zaporozhets 965-the Zaz they called it affectionately, humpbacked like a kind old granddad. It was the first mass-produced workers’ car in Ukraine. Real metal body-not fibreboard rubbish like the Trabant. He was the first person in their apartment block to own one. Every Sunday he cleaned and polished it out in the street, and sometimes he and Andriy would spend a couple of hours together, head to head under the bonnet, just tinkering. (Listen, boy, his father had said. Listen to the music of internal combustion.) His dad would tune the engine fine-fine, to make it run sweetly. Tut-ut-ut-ut-ut-ut. Those were good times. As the car got older, the tinkering sessions grew longer. Together, they ground down the valves and replaced the solenoid and the clutch. He learnt something about car engines, but the main thing he learnt was that all problems can be solved if you approach them in a patient and methodical way. In the end, the car outlived his father. Poor Dad.
This girl-he has tried to approach her in a patient and methodical way, but she is more unpredictable than a slipping gearbox. Will he ever get to the fine-tuning stage? Hm. He turns off into a side street, and then another, following a narrow alleyway between two tall buildings. Here’s a piece of waste ground where something has been demolished, with a sign saying No Parking and some vehicles parked. This’ll do.
“Let’s walk.” Now, for some unfathomable reason, she’s smiling.
The weather is too warm. Despite the recent rain, the air is already dusty again. It smells of car fumes and blocked drains and the miscellaneous smells of the five million other people who are breathing it at the same time. He feels an unexpected excitement rising in him. This London -once you’ve got your feet on the ground, and you don’t have to worry about those Angliski bandit-drivers-this London is quite something.
He is amazed, at first, just by the vastness of it-the way it goes on and on until you forget there is anything beyond it. OK, he has seen Canterbury and Dover, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer excess of this city. Cars that glide as smooth and silent as silver swans, deluxe model, not the battered old smoke-belchers you get back home. Office blocks that almost blot out the sky. And everything in good order-roads, pavements, etc-all well maintained. But why are all the buildings and statues covered in pigeon-droppings? Those swaggering birds are everywhere. Dog is delighted. He chases them around, barking and leaping with joy.
They come to a row of shops, and the windows are stuffed with desirable items. Minute mobilfons, packed with advanced features, everything compact and cleverly made; movie cameras small enough to fit in your hand; cunning miniature music systems, a thousand different tunes, more, at your command; wall-sized televisions with pictures of amazing vividness, imagine sitting back with a glass of beer to watch the football, better than being at the match, better view; programmable CD players; multi-function DVD players; high-spec computers with unimaginable numbers of rams, gigs, hertz, etc. Too much choice. Yes, so many things that you didn’t desire before because you didn’t even know they existed to be desired.
He lingers, he reads the lists of special features, studies them almost furtively, as if standing on the threshold of uncharted sin. Such a surfeit of everything. Where did all this stuff come from? Irina is trailing behind, staring into the window of a clothes shop, a look of unbelief on her face.
Food shops, restaurants-everything is here, yes, every corner of the globe has been rifled to furnish this abundance. And the people, too, have been rifled from all over-Europe, Africa, India, the Orient, the Americas, so many different types all mixed together, such a crowd from everywhere under the sun, rubbing shoulders on the pavements without even looking at each other. Some are talking on mobilfons-even the women. And all well dressed-clothes like new. And the shoes-new shoes made of leather. No carpet slippers, like people wear in the street back home.
He is so intent on the shoes that he almost stumbles into a young woman walking fast-fast on high heels, who backs away snarling, “Get off me!”
“What are you dreaming about, Andriy?”
Irina grabs him and pulls him out of the way. The feel of her hand on his arm is like quickfire. The woman walks on even faster. The look in her eyes-it was worse than contempt. She looked straight through him. He didn’t register in her eyes at all. His clothes-his best shirt shabby and washed out, brown trousers that were new when he left home, Ukrainian trousers made of cheap fabric that is already shapeless, held up by a cheap imitation-leather belt, and imitation-leather shoes beginning to split on the toes-his clothes make him invisible.
“Everybody looks so smart. It makes me feel like a country peasant,” says Irina, as if she can read his thoughts. This girl. Yes, her jeans are worn and strawberry stained, but they fit delightfully over her curves, and her hair gleams like a bird’s wing and she’s smiling teeth and dimples at all the world.
“Don’t say that. You look…” He wants to put his arms round her. “…You look normal.”
Should he put his arms round her? Better not-she might shriek ‘Leave me alone!’ So they walk on, just wandering aimlessly through the streets, opening their eyes to all there is to be seen. Dog runs ahead making a nuisance of himself, diving in between people’s legs. Yes, this London -it’s quite something.
But why-this is what he can’t understand-why is there such abundance here, and such want back home? For Ukrainians are as hard working as anybody-harder, because in the evenings after a day’s work they grow their vegetables, mend their cars, chop their wood. You can spend your whole life toiling, in Ukraine, and still have nothing. You can spend your whole life toiling, and end up dead in a hole in the ground, covered with fallen coal. Poor Dad.
Irina is pointing to a small dark-skinned woman wearing a coloured scarf like the women of the former eastern republics. She has a baby bundled up in her arms, and she is approaching passers-by, begging for money. The baby is horribly deformed, with a harelip and one eye only partially opened.
“Have you got any money, Andriy?”
He fumbles in his pockets, feeling vaguely annoyed with the woman, because he hasn’t much money left, and he would rather spend it on…well, not on her, anyway. But he sees the way Irina is looking at the baby.
“Take it please,” he says in Ukrainian, handing her two pound coins. The woman looks at the coins, and at them, and shakes her head.
“Keep your money,” she says in broken Russian. “I have more than you.”
She takes the baby off and sidles up to a Japanese couple who are photographing a statue covered with pigeon-droppings.
They have already turned and started to retrace their steps when Irina spots, in the window of a stylish restaurant where the tables are set for the evening meal, a small card discreetly stuck in one corner: Staff-wanted. Good pay. Accommodation provided.
“Oh, Andriy! Look! This may be just the right place for us. Here in the heart of London. Let’s enquire.”
What does she mean, ‘the right place for us’? How have she and he suddenly become ‘us’? Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, because really she is a nice-looking girl, and she has a good heart, she isn’t one of these empty-headed girls who are only thinking about what to buy next, like Lida Zakanovka. But he doesn’t know where he is with her. She keeps changing her mind. And he likes things to be definite. One way or another.
“You can enquire if you like.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I think I will not stay very long in London. Maybe just one or two days.”
“Then where will you go?”
“My plan is to go to Sheffield.”
“ Sheffield -where is this?”
“It’s in the north. Three hundred kilometres.”
Her smile disappears. Her brow wrinkles up.
“I would like very much to stay in London.”
“You can stay here. No problem.”
“Why d’you want to go to Sheffield?”
He stares in through the window of the restaurant, avoiding her eyes. He decides not to tell her about Vagvaga Riskegipd.
“You know, this Sheffield is very beautiful. One of the most beautiful cities in England.”
“Really? In my book it says it is a large industrial town famous for steel-making and cutlery.” She looks at him for a moment. “Maybe I will come too.”
Why has she removed the orange ribbon from Dog, and taken to wearing it herself? It looked much better on Dog.
“I thought you wanted to stay in London.”
“Don’t you want me to come?”
He shrugs. “You can come if you like.”
“But maybe we could stay in London for a while, to earn some money. Then we can go and look at this Sheffield.”
What’s the matter with you, Andriy Palenko? You’re a man, aren’t you? Just say no.
The woman who ran the restaurant looked Andriy and me up and down. She had black hair scraped back from her forehead in a ponytail, a white powdered face, and red-red lips. Why did she put all that make-up on? It looked dire. She tapped on her teeth with a red fingernail. “Yes, we have a vacancy for a kitchen hand, and we need someone presentable for front of house.” She looked at me. “Have you done waitressing before?”
“Of course,” I lied. “Golden Pear Restaurant. Skovoroda. Kiev.” After all, what’s so complicated about placing a plate of food on the table?
“Have you got a black skirt and shoes, and a white top?”
“Of course,” I lied again. I never used to lie before I came to England. Now it seems I’m quite skilled at it.
It was agreed that we would start tomorrow, working split shifts from eleven till three, and then six till midnight. The pay was four pounds an hour for kitchen hands and double that for front of house, plus a share of tips and service, meals and accommodation provided. She said it all fast-fast, without looking up at us.
“We don’t need accommodation,” saidAndriy. “We have our own.”
“Well, the pay’s the same, with accommodation or without. Take it or leave it.”
I did a quick calculation in my head.
“We take the job,” I said. “Without the accommodation.”
He got quite moody when I asked to borrow some money to buy the waitressing clothes. “You have to think capitalist,” I said. “See it as an investment.” I promised I’d share my money and my extra tips with him. I’d seen a shop with a big sign in the window saying SALE 50% reductions, and I couldn’t wait to have a look. I would go in the morning on the way to work.
When we got back to the caravan, there was a metal barrier with a padlock across the entrance to the site, but that was all right because we weren’t going anywhere. By then, we were starving hungry. Maria had packed a whole feast for us of her peculiar food. She’d even put in some tins of steak for the dog, but Andriy said that was ridiculous and the dog should go and catch some pigeons and sent him off outside, and Andriy ate the dog’s food.
There was an embarrassing moment when I had to go to the toilet, but fortunately it was dark by then. When I had to change into my nightie, that could have been embarrassing too, but Andriy very courteously pretended to be reading one of my books, even though he can’t really read English, and when it was his turn to get undressed I pretended to read the book. But I did sneak a look. Mmm. Yes. Definitely more interesting without the Ukrainian trousers.
I stretched out on the bunk which had been Yola’s, and he crawled onto the bunk that had been Malta ’s. We didn’t even fold out the double bed, because that would have meant we were going to sleep together. It was so quiet in the warm enclosed space of the caravan that we could hear each other’s breathing. Then I started to wonder what it would be like to sleep together in the double bed. Because really he has very nice hands. Sun-brown, with golden hairs. And arms. And legs. And he is also very gentlemanly, with good manners, just like Mr Brown, who is always saying please and excuse me and pardon. And I liked the polite way he talked to Emanuel and to Toby McKenzie’s parents, and even to the dog, and the attentive way he listens to people. Including me. OK, I admit he isn’t very educated, but you can see he’s no fool. But is he the one? When it’s your first time, you have to get it right.
I lay listening to his breathing and wondering if he was lying awake listening to mine. Just as I was beginning to drift off to sleep, the dog came back and woke us up by barking at the door. Andriy got up to let him in and gave him a drink of water-slurp slurp slurp-and spread the old bit of blanket from the Land Rover down by the door for him to sleep on. The dog fell asleep almost immediately, whistling and snoring very loudly-sss! hrrr! sss! hrrr!-which made us both laugh. After that, I didn’t fall asleep for ages. My heart just wouldn’t slow down. I kept thinking of all the things that had happened to me since I left home, and about him, lying so close in the dark, and wondering what he was thinking.
“Andriy. Are you asleep?”
“No. Are you?”
“We’d better try to get some sleep. It’ll be hard work tomorrow.”
In the darkness, I could hear the faraway sound of the city, a restless throbbing hum that is never still, like when you hold a shell to your ear and hear the sound of the sea, even though you know it’s just the blood rushing around inside your own head.
“Andriy. Are you asleep yet?”
“Tell me about this Sheffield.”
“You know, this Sheffield is one of the most beautiful cities in England. Maybe in the whole world. But not many people know this.”
“What is it like?”
“It is entirely built of white stone with magnificent domes and towers. And it is set on a hill. So you can see it from a long distance away-it looks as though it is shimmering and glimmering in the light as you approach.”
“Like the Lavra monastery in Kiev?”
“A bit like that, yes. Go to sleep now.”
I AM DOG I AM BAD DOG I RUN MY MAN EATS DOG-FOOD GO RUN CATCH PIGEON HE SAYS I RUN I COME TO MANY-PIGEON PLACE EVERYWHERE PIGEON PIGEON PIGEON I JUMP I CATCH PIGEON I EAT STRINGY MEAT MOUTH FULL OF FEATHERS NO GOOD HERE IS MEAT SMELL GOOD MAN FOOD MAN SITS ON BENCH EATS BREAD WITH MEAT HE PUTS BREAD AND MEAT ON BENCH I JUMP I CATCH I EAT BAD DOG SAYS THE MAN I RUN I AM BAD DOG I AM DOG
Kitchen hand! How have you allowed this to happen, Andriy Palenko? Your definite plan was to drop them both off in London, then go on to Sheffield. Now suddenly you are not just kitchen hand, but kitchen arms, legs, shoulders, back, feet, etc. The feet are the worst. If the floor wasn’t so greasy you could go barefoot. Yes, when you get your first week’s pay, you’ll have to get some of those spacecraft-style trainers.
During the split in their shift they just wandered around the streets, which was not intelligent because by the time the afternoon shift starts their feet are already aching. The heat is intense in the kitchen, and the atmosphere frenetic. Do this! Fetch that! Faster! Faster! All the time your hands are wet and slimy from the strong detergent, your sleeves soaked, your feet skidding on the slippery floor, and each breath taking in a lungful of steam and grease.
The chef, Gilbert, is an Australian, a big beefy man with a terrible temper, but a magician in the kitchen, wielding the big knives, chopping and slicing like a wizard. This cooking business-Andriy had always thought of it as women’s work, but seeing Gilbert go at a piece of meat with a blade, then fling it in a smoking pan with a hiss of burning-that looks quite interesting. Maybe he will even learn something. Gilbert has two assistants who are from Spain -or maybe Colombia -who fly around at Gilbert’s command, and a team of choppers, stirrers and assemblers. And there is Dora, the only woman in the kitchen, who does desserts. Then there are the kitchen hands-himself and Huan-who clear and scrape the plates, wash the dishes, mop up spillages, and hump big sacks of stuff when the others command-really it’s like being a slave with ten masters, of whom Dora, who is maybe Croatian or Montenegran, and no beauty, is the worst.
As the evening wears on there is less shouting from Gilbert and more shrieking from Dora. More dirty plates to clean. More soap and steam. He can already feel an itchy rash developing between his fingers. At least on the coalface you could set your own pace. When Gilbert slips outside for a cigarette the Colombians sometimes let him taste one of the special dishes, but after a while his gut aches as much as the rest of his body, and all he wants is to sit down near the open back door, where occasionally a slight breeze stirs the soupy air.
Sometimes, as the double doors swing open, he catches a glimpse of Irina in the dining room gliding from table to table-she has been put to serving drinks, so she seldom comes into the kitchen. She’s done her hair in two plaits, which makes her look even younger, like a voluptuous schoolgirl in her black and white uniform. You can see the eyes of the men following her as she moves around the room. Who is she smiling at like that? Why is her blouse so low-cut? Why did she find it necessary to buy such a short skirt?
When she bends over to pour a drink you can see…no, not quite. Look at the way that man is staring at her.
Long after the chefs and waiting staff have gone home, the kitchen hands still have to clear up and mop the floor and get everything straight for the next day. Irina waits in the dining room, sitting on one chair with her feet up on another, picking at a dish the Colombians prepared for her.
It is almost one o’clock by the time they can go. The night is still and starry. Andriy breathes in huge gulps of the cool smoke-tainted air until he feels quite dizzy. They still have a good half hour’s walk back to the caravan. He walks, putting one foot in front of the other, like a robot. Robot. The word means ‘work’ in Russian. That’s what he is. A machine that works.
“Not so fast, Andriy.”
He realises she’s struggling to keep up with him.
“Look, Andriy. This is for you. I can pay you back what I borrowed.”
She reaches down into the opening of that absurdly low-cut blouse and pulls out a rolled-up twenty-pound note.
“Where did you get this?”
“A man gave it to me. A customer.”
“I don’t know why. He just did. I was pouring his drink.”
“I saw him staring down into your blouse. You look like a tart in those clothes.”
“No, I don’t. I look like a waitress. Don’t be so stupid, Andriy.”
“Keep your money. I don’t want it.”
“No, you take it. It’s for you. What I borrowed. Why are you being like this?”
“I said I don’t want it.”
He sticks his hands in his pockets, and thrusts his chin down, and they walk on in silence like that. Why is he being like this?
The way that old man looked at me made my skin crawl like maggots. He got out his wallet, took a twenty-pound note and rolled it between his fingers very ostentatiously, then as I leaned forward with his glass he pushed it down inside my bra. I could feel it there all evening, stiff and prickly between my breasts.
The restaurant had been quite busy, with all the tables occupied and a few people waiting by the door, the waiters rushing from table to table trying to keep their cool, and Zita the manageress strutting around showing people to their tables with that lipsticky smile. He was sitting near the window, so probably no one else even noticed. Maybe I should have given it back. But I thought, I’ll never see him again, and I can pay Andriy back straightaway and that’ll make things easier between us. Then Andriy got all moody, and that was the last thing I needed, because I have enough unpleasant thoughts to deal with tonight.
And the most unpleasant is this-that twenty-pound-note man reminded me of my Pappa. Same build. Same rimless glasses. Same old-age-porcupine hair. He was sitting at a table on his own. I stared for a moment, startled by the likeness, then I caught his eye, and quickly looked away. Probably this is how it all started-the business of the twenty-pound note-with that quick exchange of looks. But this is what’s been bothering me-had my Pappa been like that? Making a fool of himself over a young girl, peering into her blouse?
Because the girl Pappa left home for, Svitlana Surokha, is almost the same age as me-in fact she was two years above me at secondary school. She is one of those girls everybody likes, pretty, with fair curly hair like a starlet, and blue eyes and a turned-up nose, always laughing and making jokes about the teachers. Then at Shevchenko University, where Pappa is professor of history, she was one of the Orange Student organisers. And they’d fallen in love. Just like that. That’s what Pappa told Mother, and that’s what Mother told me, crying into the night, using up box after box of tissues, until her nose was all red and her eyes were puffy and squinty like a piglet’s.
Not a pretty sight. Really, no one could blame Pappa for falling out of love with someone so middle-aged and unattractive who nagged at him all the time, and falling in love with someone so young and pretty and full of fun. “Fallen in love”-the pretty blond-haired student activist and the distinguished Ukrainian historian, drawn together by a love of freedom. What could be more romantic than that?
Of course, I felt sorry for Mother, with all her sniffling and soggy tissues. But really, everyone knows it’s a woman’s fault if she can’t keep hold of her man. She just has to try harder. The worst thing was, even Mother knew it, and she did try harder, dyeing her hair and putting on bright pink lipstick and that silly pink scarf. But then she couldn’t stop herself nagging at him in a really humiliating way. “Vanya, don’t you love me just one little bit?” It only made things worse. I’ll never make that mistake.
That Mister Twenty Pounds-his appearance reminded me of Pappa-an elderly respectable man, probably with a middle-aged wife and family tucked away somewhere out of sight. But the look in his eyes was the look of Vulk. Hungry eyes. You like flower…? Greedy eyes. The way the man watched me was not romantic, it was like a cat watching a mouse, concentrating on its every movement, anticipating the pleasure of catching it.
Had my dear craggy crumpled Pappa looked at Svitlana Surokha in that way? Is that what men are like?
Andriy had his head down and that moody look on his face, and he was walking too fast for me again, but I wasn’t going to ask him to slow down. I wasn’t going to be the first to speak. I didn’t even blame Pappa. I just felt a big empty hole of disappointment in the middle of my heart, not only with Pappa, but with this whole man-woman-romance thing. You go through life waiting for the one to come along, kisses by moonlight, eternal love, Mr Brown and his mysterious bulge, faithful beyond the grave; then suddenly you realise that what you’ve been waiting for doesn’t exist after all, and you’ll have to settle for something second-rate. What a let-down.
So when after ten minutes of silence Andriy suddenly slipped his arm round me, I just pulled away. “Don’t!”
And then straightaway I wished I hadn’t, but it was too late. Sorry, I didn’t mean it. Please put your arm back. But you can’t say that, can you?
That’s it, then. In a few days he’ll collect his week’s wages, then he’ll be off to Sheffield. No point in hanging around here and making a fool of himself, chasing after a girl who has not the slightest interest in him. This London, it is exciting, it gives you plenty to think about, and to tell the truth he is glad he stayed here for a short time and tasted its bitter-sweet flavours. And it will be good to travel north with money in his pocket. But it’s time to go. The girl will be all right. She can stay in the accommodation that comes with the job, whatever that is, and she seems to be bringing home something in tips as well as her wages. Probably that’s why she wears that blouse. Well, that’s her business. It means nothing to him. She can sort out her passport, though she seems to be in no hurry to do this, and save up for her fare and even buy a few nice clothes if that’s what she wants. He doesn’t have to worry about her. He will take the caravan, and Dog. He is quite looking forward to being by himself, on the road.
They are within a block of the place where the caravan and Land Rover are parked when they hear the sound of Dog barking furiously and an intermittent dull thudding noise. As they get closer the sound intensifies, along with a babble of shrill voices. He quickens his step, then breaks into a run.
As they turn the last corner, they see a horde of children surrounding the caravan, pelting it with bricks. Dog is barking frantically, dodging the stones, and trying to chase them off. Where did these little buggers come from? In the shadowless orange glow of the street lights the small figures are dancing about like a bizarre bacchanal. One of them has set a pile of sticks and paper under one end of the caravan and is tossing lighted matches at it.
“What you doing? Stop it!” Andriy races towards them swinging his arms. The children stop, but only for a second. Nearest to him is a raggedy boy with hair like a rat’s nest. Their eyes meet. The boy picks up half a brick and lobs it at him.
It falls short. Andriy runs at the little sod, grabs him by both arms and swings him round, throwing him sideways. The kid staggers as he hits the ground.
Andriy grabs at another kid, who dodges out of his way and starts to run, and another who wriggles out of his grasp, lithe as a cat, and darts off, showering him with spit. Even Irina is getting stuck in. She snatches one of the boys by the arm, and when he spits and swears at her she spits and swears back and gives him a hard wallop on the behind. Where did she learn those words? Dog snarls and launches himself at the boy with the matches just as the fire starts to catch on the paper. The smell of smoke drifts towards them. The children scatter, shouting and throwing stones behind them as they run. Dog chases after the stragglers, snapping at their heels.
The paper has caught fire and now the sticks are crackling under the caravan, sending smoke and sparks into the air. Dog is going mad. Quick as a flash, Andriy unzips himself and pees on the flames. There is a hiss and a bit of smoke, but not too much damage to the caravan. Why is she looking at him with that grin on her face? It was an emergency. Well, let her look. Let her grin. What is she to him?
He sits down on the step of the caravan and rests his head in his hands, surrendering to the fatigue. But she has to come and squeeze down beside him. Her arm, her thigh-where her skin touches his, it’s like hot steel. This girl-why does she have to get into his skin? If it isn’t going to lead to any possibility, why can’t she just leave him alone?
The thought makes him feel bleakly irritated, both with her and with himself. And something else is bothering him-the look in the rat-boy’s eyes as he swung him into the air. They weren’t the sparkling mischievous eyes of a naughty kid having fun. They were blank dead-pool eyes-eyes that have already seen too much. Like the naked girl in the four-by-four. Like the Ukrainian boys on the pier. Why are there so many people in the world with those dead zombie eyes?
“We can’t stay here.”
“Those children-they’ll come back while we’re asleep. They’ll set fire to the caravan with us inside.”
“No, they won’t.”
Why can’t she just shut up and leave him alone?
“They might. And even if they don’t come back tonight, the caravan won’t be safe here. They’re bound to be back.”
“Well, we can move it in the morning.”
He feels exhaustion like a trickle of molten lead seeping and solidifying inside his limbs. He must have pulled his shoulder swinging the boy, and there are other obscure aches in his back and legs. He needs to sleep.
“There’ll be too many people around in the morning. It’s easier to find somewhere now. Let’s go now.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Maybe we could find somewhere a bit nearer to the restaurant.”
So he gets a bit of brick and hammers at the padlock on the bar gate. It comes off quite easily. In fact she is right-driving around at night is better. He even gets up into fourth gear once, without going into reverse. He remembers a quiet side street not far from the back of the restaurant where there are sometimes a few cars parked. That will do for now. It is only a temporary place. Soon he will move on.
After that incident with the children, Andriy got even more moody. I tried to make jokes and cheer him up, but each day that passed he just got more grumpy, and kept saying he would be going to Sheffield as soon as we got our first week’s wages.
I already had about eighty pounds from tips left on the tables. I tried to share them with him, but he shook his head and said, no, keep it, frowning like a belly ache and saying he was tired of this job, and anyway he would soon be going to Sheffield. What was the matter with him? He wasn’t still sulking about that twenty-pound note, was he?
So I went back to the shop with the sale and I bought a different blouse that wasn’t so low-cut. I thought that would make him happy, but it didn’t. He said it was still too low, and my skirt was too short. Why was he being so boring? It’s a nice skirt, only a bit above my knees, good cut, lovely silky lining, and reduced to less than half price just because the button was missing, which I could soon fix. Also it has a deep pocket, which is handy for tips. I saw there was no pleasing him. If he doesn’t like my clothes, that’s his problem. Why doesn’t he just go to Sheffield, instead of hanging around getting on my nerves?
Next morning, I decided to walk over to the Ukrainian Consulate to get a new passport. I still had some money left from tips, so I looked in on that first very expensive clothes shop. Really, the prices on the clothes-they just took your breath away. I spent an hour, trying things, trying other things, looking in the mirror. I never made it to the Consulate. There was one pair of trousers, thirty pounds, reduced from one hundred and twenty. They were black, low-cut, and tight-tight. Actually, they looked fantastic. I knew Andriy would really hate them.
I stopped by at the caravan, but Andriy had already left for the restaurant, and that’s when I noticed that there was some kind of yellow-and-black label stuck on the windscreen of the Land Rover. I peeled it off and put it in my pocket to show him. And there seemed to be something fixed onto the front wheel of the Land Rover, and also to the caravan wheel. That was strange. No doubt he would know how to get it off. We were busy that lunchtime so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him. Anyway, he was looking so grumpy I just kept out of his way.
Then someone else came into the restaurant, and that made things even worse.
It was just before three o’clock, the end of the lunchtime shift, and some of the staff had already gone. There were only two customers left in the restaurant, a young couple finishing their meal. Then a man came in on his own and sat down at one of the window tables-the same one where Mister Twenty Pounds had sat. I didn’t recognise him at first, but he recognised me straightaway.
He was young and dark, with very short hair. He was wearing a dark grey business suit, a white-white shirt with a big gold watch peeping out under the cuff, and a blue-and-pink patterned tie. Quite attractive, in fact.
He smiled. “Hello.”
“Hey, Vitaly! How much you’ve changed.”
“What you doing here, Irina?”
“Earning money, of course. How about you?”
“Earning money too. Good money.” He took a tiny mobile phone out of his pocket and flipped up the lid. “Recruitment consultant, dynamic employment solution cutting edge”-he did a little slicing movement with his hand-“organisational answer for all you flexible staffing need. Better money than strawberry.”
OK, I admit I was impressed.
“Recruitment consultant? What is that?”
“Oh, it just means finding a job for some person. Or finding some person for a job. I am always on lookout for new arrivals to fill exciting vacancies.”
“You can find a job?”
He pointed his phone at me and pressed a few buttons.
“I can find very first-class job for you, Irina. Excellent pay. Good clean work. Luxury accommodation provided. And my friend Andriy. I have a good job for him also. Near Heathrow Airport. Is he here?”
“He is working in the kitchen. Kitchen hand.”
“Kitchen hand. Hm.” He shook his head with a little smile. “Irina, you, Andriy…you make possibility?”
“Vitaly, why you are asking this?” I said. Then he reached up and took my hand, and looked at me with his dark-dark eyes in a way that made me shiver. “Irina, all time I am thinking about you.”
I blushed. It sounded so romantic. Was he serious? I didn’t know what to say. I took my hand away, in case Andriy was watching.
“Vitaly, tell me about this job. What kind of work is this?”
“Very first class. Gourmet cuisine. Top-notch international company desperately seeking reliable and motivated replacement staff.” His voice was deep, and the way he pronounced those long words in English sounded incredibly cultured. “Food preparation contract for major airline near Heathrow Airport.”
Yes, ever since man first lifted his head above the mouth of the cave to gaze upon the heavenly stars, and thought how pleasing it would be to have one such star exclusively for himself, it has been the dream of man to get others to work for him, and to pay them as little as possible. And no man has been pursuing this dream more dynamically than Vitaly himself. He has spent the day trawling through the bars and restaurants of London looking for the right kind of people. The new arrivals, the confused, the desperate, the greedy. You can make good money out of people like that.
For as that brainy beardy Karl Marx said, no person can ever build up a fortune just by his own labour, but in order to become VIP elite rich you must appropriate the labour of others. In pursuit of this dream, many ingenious human solutions have been applied throughout the millennia, from slavery, forced labour, transportation, indentured labour, debt bondage and penal colonies, right through to casualisation, zero-hours contract, flexible working, no-strike clause, compulsory overtime, compulsory self-employment, agency working, sub-contracting, illegal immigration, outsourcing and many other such maximum flexibility organisational advances. And spearheading this permanent revolutionisation of the work process has been the historic role of the dynamic edge cutting employment solution recruitment consultant. Not enough people appreciate this.
This is why despite the exclusive hand-tailored charcoal-grey pure wool suit, the state-of-the-art Nokia N94i nestled in his pocket and the genuine Rolex Explorer II winking boldly from under his cuff, he still feels sadly unappreciated. What you need, he thinks, is a girl to share your good fortune with-a pretty, clean, good-class girl, not a painted-up cheap-rent girl; an innocent girl, whom you can train in the art of love the way you like it; nice-looking enough to attract envy from other men, but not so nice-looking that she will run off with the next chancer with a Nokia N95ii and a Rolex Daytona. What you need is a girl who can reassure you that, really, you are a good man. A dynamic man. A VIP. Not a criminal. Not a loser. And here she is, the very girl you’ve been dreaming of, smiling sweetly as she pours you a second glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. Really, this is a very nice wine-one of the nice little perks of the business. And-here is the real tragedy of it-even as you gaze into the silky hollow between her lovely breasts, a businesslike voice in the back of your head tells you: you could make good money out of this girl.
For if you have grown up in the faraway Dniester valley in a provincial town nestled on a bend in the river that divides Moldova from the Republic of Transdniestria-where the only law is the gun, where your father and two of your brothers were shot down in the main street near your home for refusing to pay protection money, and your third brother was killed in the war of secession, and your mother died of sorrow at the age of forty-two when your house was razed to the ground, and your two younger sisters have been traded by a Kosovan wide-boy to a massage parlour in Peckham-if you grow up in a place like Bendery, it toughens you up a bit.
Ah, Bendery! Whose desolate Soviet-era concrete blocks conceal a feral heart; whose alleys smell of blocked drains and frying garlic; whose sunsets glow like fire through the burnt-out windows of the buildings near the bridge; whose wide river laps in silvery ripples along those sandy banks where from time to time a corpse is washed ashore; in whose forests the ghosts still sigh; whose streets have run with blood. Ah, Bendery! His eyes go misty with bittersweet pain. He gazes at the opening of Irina’s blouse. Once, he had a girl like this in Bendery. Rosa. The school librarian’s daughter. She was fifteen and a virgin. So was he. Her eyes were dark and gleaming with promises. They met after school in a secret glade on the riverbank. Probably she, too, is in Peckham now.
Once, in a different kind of time, Vitaly had been the bright hope of his family, the student, the dreamer of great dreams, the apple of his mother’s eye. He would most likely have grown up to be a lawyer or a politician, had he not lived in Bendery, and had he not come across that life-changing book, locked away in a school cupboard full of out-of-favour texts, some dating back eighty years and more, which the librarian was keeping hidden just in case any of them should ever come back into favour again. Probably they are still there.
He had just turned sixteen when Transdniestria seceded from Moldova in 1992 over the issue of language. Cyrillic versus Roman. He had joined the patriots, of course, along with his brothers, but his heart wasn’t in it and he managed to keep out of the worst of the fighting, even though Bendery, which lies on the west bank of the river Dniester and is joined to the rest of Transdniestria only by a bridge, had been in the front line of the civil war. Two thousand lives lost, his oldest brother’s among them, hundreds of homes burned out, theirs among them, over how a language should be written. OK, he was a patriot as much as the next man, but he just didn’t think it was an issue worth getting himself killed for. Some know-alls said it was really about politics-about whether it was time to say goodbye to their Russian-dominated past and cosy up with Westward-leaning Romania. And others said that it was just a tribal war between rival gangster families. Probably each person had his own reasons for getting involved, and some had no reason to but still did.
After the truce had been agreed and life got back to an abnormal sort of normal, he tried for a few years to make a go of it in the family construction business, he really tried. He worked all hours, humping bricks and mixing concrete, laying pipes and drains, hammering in doors and windows, and paying protection money all the while. But after his father and his younger brothers were shot dead in the main street of Bendery by a henchman of one of those gangsters for daring to query a hike in the protection fee, he realised that work was for losers, and the wily old grizzle-jaws was right (probably that’s why those dangerous books had to be locked away) and if you want to join the elite, you have to learn to tap into other people’s labour, and let them make you rich. Harvest the efforts of the others-the losers. It is the only way.
So he got in touch with that Kosovan phoney-asylum-seeker wide-boy who had transported his sisters, and offered to get four girls for him in exchange for a passage to England. In the event, he could find only three, the two daughters of his impoverished former English teacher at school, who had been sacked for refusing to teach English in the Cyrillic script, and a deaf-and-dumb girl who sold pickled mushrooms in the market. The Kosovan wide-boy got them all Greek passports, and Vitaly escorted them on the ferry to Dover, where the wide-boy, who was working under the name of Mr Smith, took the girls off his hands and introduced him to his uncle, Vulk, who had once run a similar business in Slovenia and Germany, who introduced him to farmer Leapish, who made the mistake of introducing him to his wife (ha ha), who introduced him to Jim Nightingale of Nightingale Human Solutions. That’s how it works in the world of business-you need contacts, and if you have the right contacts you can sell anything.
And now, look, only four months later, here you are, sitting at the best table in this expensive London restaurant, wearing a good-class expensive suit (the shaved head and gold chain with pendant knife belonged to a different phase, which may have given a wrong impression to some Angliski businessmen), with a genuine Rolex Explorer II, not one of those replicas which any fool can see is fake, enjoying a glass of reassuringly expensive super-chilled New Zealand Blind River Sauvignon Blanc while waiting for your client to arrive, taking a picture of this attractive and potentially very expensive girl on your expensive Nokia N94i, and facing the pleasant dilemma of whether to keep her for yourself or sell her on to someone else. You know a couple of guys who might be interested if you send them her picture.
For in Bendery, girls as pretty and innocent as this used to be two a penny, in fact you yourself deflowered several of them-that was after Rosa, after the war, after all the killings-and you’ve been thinking recently that spending so much money on the visibles, the suits, watches, phones, girls, is all very well, and probably an essential investment for creating the right brand image for the business, but if you want to be seriously wealthy, you can’t just spend it all, you need to accumulate and invest, to build your capital, and property is hellishly expensive here in London. And you could really do with the cash.
Not enough people appreciate what a struggle it has been-what a lonely struggle-rooting yourself out of that nowhere town on the borders of an unrecognised republic which is really nothing but a strip of countryside with half a dozen little towns sandwiched dangerously between the east bank of the Dniester river and the western border of Ukraine, and establishing yourself as an advanced motivational human solution recruitment consultant here in the bona fide Western world; they don’t understand how dynamic you have to be, and sometimes how ruthless, and how lonely it is not being able to trust anyone, no one at all, because every other chancer will take their opportunity to knock you down and steal your business, and your closest business partners are also your deadliest rivals.
For in the transition from the old world to the new, as that cunning old bushy-beard wrote, all fixed, fast-frozen relations are swept away, all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and a man has to face up to his real choices in life and his relations with others. For in this new world there are only rivals and losers. And of course women.
She sidles up to him with that infuriating smile.
“Andriy. Vitaly’s here. Vitaly from the strawberry field.”
This is all he needs. The mobilfonman coming to taunt him as he stands with his hands in the sink.
“Here. Here in the restaurant. Sitting by the window.”
“What does he want?”
“He says he has a job for us. A first-class job. Gourmet cuisine near Heathrow Airport.”
Andriy feels the anger rising in his face.
“Irina, if you want to go with Vitaly, that is up to you. I have no interest in that job.”
He gropes in the hot caustic water and grabs at a couple of slippery plates, noticing how red and raw his hands have become.
“He says the pay is good. And the work is clean. Maybe it will be better for you, Andriy. Better than kitchen hand.”
“He knows I am kitchen hand?”
“I told him we were working to earn some money. At least go and talk to him.”
“What else did you tell him?”
Really, it’s not her fault, this girl. She doesn’t understand anything.
“I don’t know. What’s the matter with you, Andriy? He is trying to help us.”
“He is trying to help only himself.” He dries his hands on a damp cloth. “Did you pour his drink out for him, Irina? Did you let him look inside your blouse?”
“Stop it, Andriy. Why are you like this?”
“Did he show you his mobilfon?”
“Just go and say hello. He’s your friend, isn’t he?”
“I’ll say what I want to say.”
He stacks the slimy plates on the rack and kicks open the swinging door to the dining room. He looks around. Vitaly is sitting at one of the tables in the window. He is sipping wine and fiddling ostentatiously with his mobilfon. Where did he get that fancy suit? Suddenly the street door of the restaurant bursts open and another man strides in-a tall man with a shaven head and an ugly scar across his cheek and lip. Poised by the kitchen door, Andriy watches, rapt, as the scar-cheek man spots Vitaly, moves across the room and positions himself in front of Vitaly’s table. Andriy is sure he’s seen him before, but he can’t remember where. Irina is in the kitchen, hiding out of the way. Now here comes Zita, looking around for Irina, who should be out there offering the customer a drink.
The scarface man says-his voice is so loud that everybody can hear-“Where is she?”
“She is somewhere here,” Vitaly says. “Please sit down.”
“You owe me one girl, dead-boy. You promise four, and you only bring three.”
“Please, Smitya, sit,” says Vitaly in a quiet voice. “We can discuss everything. Have a drink.” He beckons to Zita.
“Those Chinese bitches you sell me. Neither one was virgin. I got burned.”
Now Andriy remembers where he has seen him before. Vitaly holds his hands out in a gesture of placation. “OK. We can make deal, my friend. I have proposition for you.”
“Just show me the girl.”
“In a minute. She is here. Sit down. I will fetch her.”
Andriy has broken out into a sweat. His body is taut with rage. If he had his gun in his hand he would just shoot Vitaly dead right now, he thinks. But he steps back quietly behind the half-open kitchen door where Vitaly can’t see him. Irina has melted away somewhere.
The man with the scar looks around wildly. His eyes light on Zita.
“Is it this one? This ugly dog? Do you take me for complete cabbage-head?”
“Please, Smitya. We are civilised men, not gangsters. Let us talk business.”
“You no play tip-tap with me.” His scar is purple against his livid skin. “You forgotten who I am, dead-boy. You think you talk clever business? You forgotten how we talk business in here.”
He sees the man draw a revolver from an inside pocket of his jacket. It all seems to happen very slowly. He sees a scarry smile stretch across his teeth. He sees Vitaly’s face contort in fear. Zita screams. The man fires four shots: two at Vitaly, one at Zita, and one at the mirror behind the bar.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
The quick succession of blasts reverberates like underground explosions in the contained space. Andriy puts his hands to his ears. Around him there is a chaos of screams and shattering glass as Zita falls backwards, Vitaly slumps forwards onto his table, and the young couple eating their meal start to shriek hysterically. The man turns, walks quickly back out of the front door and disappears into the street.
In the stillness that follows, Andriy can hear Gilbert shouting from the kitchen, “What the fuck’s going on in there?” He can hear the woman of the couple talking to the police on her mobilfon. He can hear Zita’s long quivering moans as she examines the shattered mess of flesh, blood and bone that was her left leg. There is no sound from Vitaly. He steps carefully over to where Vitaly has fallen across the table. Dark blood is oozing in a vivid widening stain into the white damask, along with some other greyish stuff that is bubbling out of a gaping double wound in his forehead. The eyes are open. The hand still grips the stem of the wine glass that has shattered in his hand. Suddenly, a strange music erupts from his body-a grotesquely cheerful jingle-di di daah da-di di daah da-di di daah da-daah! It rings for a few moments, then goes quiet.
Andriy stares. Horror rises up in him like bubbling grey matter-horror compounded with guilt. Should he have intervened? Could he have saved him? Was it his own unspoken anger that had summoned Vitaly’s death to him? His first instinct is to laugh-he has to put his hand on his mouth to stop himself. His next instinct is to run-to run from death into the sunlight of the living world.
Beefy Gilbert takes control in an amazingly matter-of-fact way, telling the dining couple to shut up, sit down and wait for the police, attempting to staunch Zita’s wound with clean napkins.
“You can go if you like.” He pulls Andriy quietly to one side. “If you’re worried about the police.”
“Is OK,” says Andriy. Then he remembers the gun in the bottom of his backpack.
When he goes back into the kitchen, he finds that all the other staff have disappeared. Only Irina is still there, clutching onto the sink with both hands, as though she’s about to be sick.
“Are you feeling OK?”
She nods silently. She doesn’t look OK.
“Where’s everybody?” she asks. Her whole body is shaking.
“I think they’ve gone. They’re all illegals. Apart from Gilbert. Someone called the police.”
Gilbert shouts from the dining room for some ice. Andriy gets a bowl, fills it with ice cubes and takes it through. In a space between tables, Gilbert is struggling to staunch Zita’s wound, his big meaty hands amazingly deft at knotting the napkins into a tourniquet. The smell of cordite still hangs in the air. The young couple are gazing in stunned silence at Vitaly’s forehead, which has stopped oozing and started to congeal, and at their own congealing dinners. The girl is crying softly.
Suddenly, the front door of the restaurant opens. Andriy looks up, expecting to see the police or an ambulance crew, but in walks a big man holding a mobilfon in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other. He looks like another diner in search of a pleasant meal who has opened the door and stumbled by chance across this terrible scene. But it isn’t just another diner-it is Vulk.
Vulk stops in the doorway and looks around slowly, as if he’s trying to make sense of the chaos. His jowly face reveals no emotion. Andriy backs away noiselessly, his heart pounding. Vulk walks across to look at Vitaly’s slumped body, and mutters something under his breath. Just as Andriy reaches the kitchen door Vulk looks up. Their eyes meet. Vulk lunges forward. Gilbert bars his way with a beefy arm.
“Sorry, sir. We’re closed.”
Vulk tries to push through, shouldering Gilbert aside, using the flowers as a flail, but Gilbert is as big as he is. He blocks his way.
“Didn’t you hear? We’re closed.”
“Hrr!” Vulk gives him another hefty shove and barges through to the kitchen. But in the moment’s grace that Gilbert’s intervention has bought him, Andriy has grabbed Irina, pulled her into the kitchen storeroom and, taking the key from the lock, has locked the door from the inside. Clack.
The storeroom is cool and smells of onions. The light switch is on the outside. In the darkness they wait and listen. She is shaking and whimpering. He grips her tight against him, putting his hand across her mouth to keep her quiet. He can feel her heart jumping around inside her chest. On the other side of the door they can hear Vulk still charging around. They hear a crash of plates and the metallic bounce of a saucepan rolling on the ground, and that voice, like a mad beast bellowing, “Little flower!” The storeroom door judders and the handle rattles, but the lock holds. Someone-it must be Vulk-switches the light on from the outside, and for a moment they gaze into each other’s terrified eyes.
“Little flower! You vill never hide from Vulk! Every place you hide I vill find you!”
Then they are plunged into darkness again.
He holds her closer. A moment later he hears Gilbert.
“What the fuck are you doing? Get out of here, you asshole!”
There is more crashing and banging, and a yell that could be Vulk or Gilbert or someone else. Then the kitchen is suddenly quiet. They can hear a faint wail of sirens.
“Is he gone?” Irina whispers.
Andriy listens. “I think so.”
As quietly as he can, he turns the key and eases the door open a crack. In the dining room he can hear voices, but no one is in the kitchen. He tiptoes through to the scullery end and the washing-up sinks. No one. No one in the cloakroom. He peers through the back window. The yard is empty. He picks up his backpack from the cloakroom and Irina’s striped bag-ever since the incident with the children, they don’t leave anything of value in the caravan-and makes his way back to the storeroom. The door is locked. She has locked herself in again. He taps softly.
“Open the door. Quick. It’s me.”
He hears the key turn in the lock. Clack. She opens it two centimetres and sticks her nose out.
“Is he gone?”
“Yes. Let’s go!”
He grabs her by the hand and together they sneak through the kitchen and out of the back door. There is no one in sight. When they are in the street they start to run. The wail of sirens is everywhere. He has slung the bags over one shoulder, and holding her hand he pulls her along. The caravan is only a couple of blocks away. At least, he thinks it is. Maybe it’s the next block. No? Maybe the next one? No, surely it was back there by those bins. They turn back. They are no longer running, but panting for breath as they walk. They go round the block a couple more times before they realise that the caravan has definitely disappeared.
He sits down on the pavement and sinks his head in his hands. His legs, stretched out in front of him, have turned to lead. His heart is still thumping. The caravan and the Land Rover. Their sleeping bags. A few clothes. The carrots. Their water bottles. All gone.
“Dog! They’ve even taken Dog!”
But even as he is thinking of what he has lost, another part of him is thinking, you’re alive, Andriy Palenko, and the mobilfonman is dead. His blood is turning sticky on his fancy suit, and yours is pumping through your body. And you held the girl in your arms and felt her body against you, yielding but firm, soft but lithe, tenderly curved. And now you want more.
And here’s the problem: they all want more-the twenry-pound-note man, Vulk, Vitaly, and all their seedy cohort of clients-they all want what you want. To wash themselves in the sweet pool of her youth. This decent young girl, as fresh as the month of May. And she senses it. No wonder she trembles like a hunted rabbit. No wonder she jumps about all over the place. Leave her alone, Andriy. Be a man.
I AM DOG I RUN I EAT TWO PIGEONS MY MAN AND MORE-STUPID-THAN-A-SHEEP-FEMALE ARE GONE AWAY I AM DOG ALONE TWO MEN COME TO TAKE AWAY OUR WHEELIE-HOME I BARK I SNARL I JUMP ON THEM I BITE BAD DOG SAYS MAN HE IS BAD MAN I AM BAD DOG I AM SAD DOG I AM DOG ALONE WHEELIE IS GONE MY WHEELIE-HOME IS GONE BAD MAN CATCHES ME PULLS ME INTO BACK OF WHEELIE CAGE WITH MANY SAD DOGS WHERE ARE WE GOINS WE ARE GOINS TO DOGS’ HOME SAYS SAD DOG I KNOW THIS DOGS’ HOME IT IS NOT A GOOD PLACE SAYS SAD DOG IN THIS HOME ALL DOGS LIVE IN CAGES SMALL CAGES AND ALL THE PLACE SMELLS OF DOG SADNESS AT NIGHT SAD DOGS CRY THEY HAVE NO MAN I WILL NOT GO TO THIS SAD DOGS’ HOME I AM A RUNNINS DOG MAN OPENS WHEELIE-CASE I JUMP I RUN MAN RUNS I RUN FASTER I RUN FROM CAGE I RUN FROM DOG SADNESS I WILL FIND MY MAN NEAR THAT PIGEON PLACE I RUN I RUN I AM DOG
When he held me and pressed me against him in the storeroom and I could feel the grip of his arms around me, strong and protective, that’s when I knew for sure he was the one. It was dark in there. I couldn’t see anything. I could only smell and feel. I could smell onions, and spices, and the warm nutty smell of him, my face pressed against his chest, and I could feel our two hearts beating together. Boom. Boom. Boom. I was scared, yes, but he made me feel safe. It was so beautiful, like that bit in War and Peace when Natasha and Pierre finally realise that they’re meant to be together. Except I think he doesn’t realise it yet.
He grasped my hand as we ran, riot in a passionate way, but it was still romantic. And I thought, even if it doesn’t always last for ever, all that man-woman-romance stuff, you still have to believe in it, don’t you? Because if you don’t believe in love, what else is there to believe in? And now I’ve found the one it is only a matter of time until the night. Maybe tonight, even, him and me together in the fold-out double bed, wrapped in each other’s arms in our little caravan home. OK, I know it’s not War and Peace, but so what.
When we found the caravan had disappeared and we had nowhere to go, he sat on the pavement with his head in his hands and I thought he was going to cry, so I put my arm round his shoulder. But he just said:
“Dog! They’ve even taken Dog!”
I love the way he really loves that dire dog. I was thinking that they had also taken my new thirty-pound trousers, which was annoying as I hadn’t even worn them yet, but I didn’t say that. Of course I also felt very sad for the loss of our homely little caravan, especially when I realised that tonight wouldn’t be the night after all. I showed him the yellow-and-black sticker I found on the windscreen, and he said, in quite a nasty voice, “Why didn’t you show me this before?” Then he said, “Sorry, Irina. It’s not your fault. Probably it was already too late.”
I love the way he says sorry. Not many men can do this.
We sat side by side on the pavement, with nothing except what was in our bags. We hadn’t even been paid our first week’s wages. At least I had some tips. How I was wishing I hadn’t bought those trousers. Andriy said that we should get out of London and go to Sheffield straightaway, so I said I’d go with him. Sometimes you have to let men have their way.
We spent that night outside, huddled up on a bench in a square, not very far from our caravan parking place, because Andriy said the dog might come back. We put on all pur clothes, and we found some newspapers and cardboard boxes to put underneath us and two unused black plastic rubbish bags outside a shop which we climbed into like sleeping bags. And though it got cold in the night I think it was one of the happiest nights of my life, feeling so safe with his arms around me, his body solid like a tree, and all the brilliant lights of the city twinkling away, and up above them, very faint in the sky, the stars.
We didn’t get very much sleep, because so many people came by to talk to us-aged alcoholics, religious types, police, drug dealers, foreign tourists, a man wanting to know whether we were interested in posing for some photographs, another man who offered us a bed for the night in his luxury accommodation, which I thought sounded quite nice, but Andriy politely said, “No thank you.” Somebody feeding the pigeons gave us the bread she had brought, and also some cake. Somebody else brought us a cup of coffee. It is surprising how many very kind people there are here in England. For some reason, that thought made me start to sniffle pathetically.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. He must have thought I was really stupid. “Tell me about this Sheffield.”
“You know, Irina, this Sheffield, it is one of the great cities of Europe,” he said, in that funny Donbas accent, but I didn’t laugh. “It has wide-wide avenues lined with trees, so there is always shade in the summer, and cool water plays from many marble fountains, and there are squares and parks filled with flowers, and red and purple bougainvillea grows over the palace walls.”
“Is this really true?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“Tell me some more.”
“And the inhabitants of this city are renowned throughout the world for their gentleness and kindness and their welcome to strangers, for they have learnt the art of living in peace from their ruler, Vloonki, who is a leader of great wisdom, who lives in a bougainvillea-covered palace on top of the hill, and he is a visionary even though he is blind. When we get to Sheffield, Irina, we will be safe, and all our troubles will be over.”
I can’t remember what else he said, because then I fell asleep, still with his arms around me.
When we woke up in the morning the square was full of pigeons, and Dog was there, sitting at Andriy’s feet, wagging his tail.
He can picture them so clearly-the fountains. Was it in Yalta or in Sheffield? And the bougainvillea tumbling with such abandon over the walls, cascades of red and purple pouring down the stone. He had asked his father what it was called. Yes, probably that was Yalta. That was a nice place. In the old days, in the days of the Soviet Union, when a miner was somebody, and a miners’ union representative was somebody who counted, there was a sanatorium at Yalta for miners and their families, where they went every summer. Surely they must have something similar in Sheffield? All the buildings were of white stone, and they gleamed in the sunlight. That was a good time.
And you told her about the blind ruler, Vloonki, and his words of peace, and the warm welcome that awaits you in Sheffield. But isn’t it time, Andriy Palenko, that you told her about Vagvaga Riskegipd?
Because now she wants to come with you, and she’s a decent girl, a good-class girl, and she seems to like you. And even if she has some stupid ideas, and she can’t make up her mind, still you shouldn’t lead her on if you’re going to abandon her when you get to Sheffield. You have to decide, one way or the other. So maybe this is the time to make a possibility with this girl, and forget about Vagvaga Riskegipd and Angliski rosi and red Ferrari, which is probably just a stupid idea anyway. Bye-bye, end of story.
And don’t be troubled about Vulk and Vitaly and Mister Twenty Pounds. You’re not in that category. Because you’re the man who will protect her and make her happy with your love. Sooner or later-it will be sooner, you can tell from the way she is looking around, smiling at every man who comes her way-some man will take her and have her for his own. And it could be you, Andriy Palenko.