Lipovka village, Kiev region
Deprived of human attention, the lonely Milky Way was languishing in the winter sky. The night was utterly still and quiet. Not a single dog was barking, as though the low, starry sky had somehow sedated them all. Irina was the only one not sleeping. She had been awake all night listening to her chest, which had started hurting the previous evening. She lay there quietly contemplating her pain, not wishing to bother anyone and not getting up early in case the creaking of the bed woke Yasya. She got up as she usually did just after 4 a.m. She boiled the kettle, mixed the Malysh formula milk in a one-litre jar and placed it on the warm lid of the old boiler, which was humming away quietly in the little boiler room. The sweet, warm smell of baby clothes and muslins drifted down from the ceiling, where they had been hung to dry the previous evening.
Before leaving the house Irina kissed her three-month-old daughter, who was sleeping contentedly in the corner of their cosy bedroom, directly beneath the icon of St Nicholas. Then she went in to her mother’s room and whispered, ‘I’m off now!’ Her mother nodded and reached for the lamp on her bedside table.
As she left the front yard Irina looked back at the house she’d grown up in – a neat brick bungalow built by her own father, who had recently died of liver disease. A gentle glow of light came from one of the four front windows. The metal frame creaked as Irina’s mother looked under her bed for her well-worn slippers, wheezing and muttering to herself. But Irina didn’t see or hear any of this.
At first they had used firewood to heat the house, and as a child she had loved watching the grey smoke drifting up into the evening sky. But when they installed the boiler her father had dismantled the stove. It made more room in the house, but the chimney on the roof had fallen silent. Even now, on this dark winter’s morning, the house didn’t look quite right without that grey smoke drifting into the sky!
The snow crunched underfoot. Irina hurried towards the road, not wanting to miss the first minibus taxi to Kiev. The minibus passengers all knew one another; they all knew the driver Vasya, and they all knew that his wife had left him. She’d gone off with one of their neighbours, who was a welder and a Baptist and never touched a drop.
A pair of warm, yellow headlights appeared on the road as soon as Irina stopped. The minibus pulled up without Irina even having to flag it down.
It was warm and quiet inside the minibus. Pyotr Sergeevich, who worked as a security guard on a building site in Kiev, was fast asleep with his head resting on his shoulder. The others were dozing. Several of her travelling companions looked up, their eyes full of sleep; Irina greeted them with a nod and took a seat by the door.
Her chest was still hurting but she tried to ignore it.
In an hour’s time the minibus would deposit them all near the Zhytomyrska metro station, and she would wait for the first train to take her onwards, to where she was expected, where she was paid.
Kiev, a winter’s night
Some stories have a beginning but no end. There simply is no possible way for them to end because their beginning gives rise to dozens of separate stories, each with its own continuation. It’s like when a pebble strikes a car windscreen, sending cracks spreading out in all directions, and every pothole in the road causes at least one of the cracks to lengthen. This particular story began one winter’s night and is still unfolding today. But all we know for now is the beginning. And just when you think you’re at the end, you’ll realise you’re only halfway through. It would take more than a lifetime to follow every story to its conclusion. But we do know when and where this story began: one night in Kiev, on the corner of Striletska Street and Yaroslaviv Val, not far from the Radisson hotel. Someone parks their pink Hummer there every night. More specifically, it all started in the narrow gap between the Hummer, which was parked half on the pavement, and the wall of the café on the corner. The café was called Shkvarochka and hadn’t been open that long, maybe a year or so.
It was the middle of the night, and Eduard Ivanovich Zarvazin, pharmacist and inveterate mushroom gatherer, had a strange look about him as he walked along Yaroslaviv Val towards this corner from the direction of the Golden Gates. He was dressed for autumn in a long raincoat and a hat and wore patent-leather boots with pointed toes, which shone in the light from the street lamps. That’s right! It was winter, not autumn – the middle of January to be precise. And everything was gleaming in the light from the street lamps, but most of all the snow and the ice. Eduard Ivanovich was walking at a leisurely pace, as though he were simply out for a stroll on a calm winter’s night through the deserted, picturesque streets of Kiev’s so-called ‘quiet centre’.
At the same time a thirty-year-old woman was hurrying nervously along Striletska Street towards the same corner. She was wearing a long but lightweight fox-fur coat, which had been bought for her two years previously in the summer sales by a lover she could barely remember. The soft light gave her blonde hair a distinctive, subtle sheen and her thin, straight little nose was rather red, either because of the light frost or due to a mild cold.
But let’s assume it was the frost. Beautiful women don’t suffer from colds. At least, not when they’re out on the street in the middle of the night.
She stopped briefly outside the Norwegian Embassy to read a sign giving details of the opening hours for visa applications. Not that she needed a Norwegian visa . . . She was just one of those individuals prone to daydreaming, who love to read the names of streets, shops, cafés and restaurants but stop for even longer by
handwritten notices such as ‘Lost Cat’.
When she started walking again a young-looking, athletic man of around forty started to cross Striletska Street from the Radisson hotel side. He was wearing a dark blue jacket, jeans and brown trainers, and his eyes scanned the winter street with the indifference of a webcam. Even the man walking towards him in a raincoat and a hat failed to arouse his interest. But when the blonde-haired woman emerged from behind the pink Hummer that was parked on the pavement at the corner of the street, the man in the long coat and hat stopped, and a knife gleamed in his hands.
Noticing the glint of the knife, the woman stopped two paces from the man and screamed. The man in the dark blue jacket sprang forward – another second and he knew it would be too late to save the terrified lady in the fur coat. She had backed up against the wall of the café and was standing there rooted to the spot, unable to comprehend what had happened. The man in the jacket grabbed her hand and pulled her after him. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a body lying motionless on the snow-covered pavement between the Hummer and the wall of the café on the corner. And a knife, which was no longer gleaming. The man in the jacket ran down Ivana Franko Street, still pulling the woman behind him. He held her hand tightly in his own and kept looking round and hurrying her along with his eyes and his lips, which were mouthing the words, ‘Come on!’ She was having trouble running in her high-heeled Italian boots. Her open fur coat fluttered like the flag of an obscure winter country, and shock was frozen in her eyes.
Boryspil airport, morning
The world has its share of cheerful souls. Take, for example, Dmitry Kovalenko, the sniffer-dog handler: as he inspected the rows of checked baggage with his German shepherd, Shamil, he was humming a raucous pop song by two schoolgirls that seemed altogether inappropriate for the time of day – ‘They’ll Never Catch Us.’ Shamil had been sniffing suitcases and holdalls since 4 a.m. When he’d started his eyes had been shining, sparkling and burning
with professional zeal, but after three hours of work this zeal was somewhat diminished. Shamil was looking forward to the end of his shift. As if to spite him, that morning’s air passengers were unusually law-abiding. Not the slightest whiff of drugs in their bags. And all Shamil wanted was to please his master, whose eyes had never expressed anything remotely resembling ‘zeal’. He just wished his master would stop yawning.
But that morning Dmitry was yawning for real – not because he was bored at work, but because he hadn’t had enough sleep the night before. His younger sister Nadya had been celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday, so they’d partied all night and he’d ended up going straight to work. There had been about twenty of them there, all close friends. Eating, drinking, singing karaoke . . . The karaoke was the reason that song about not being able to catch them was stuck in his head. ‘Who the hell wants to catch you anyway?!’ Dima thought about the two singers, but try as he might he still couldn’t get the song out of his head.
Meanwhile Shamil’s wet nose carried on extracting smells from the suitcases and bags, until suddenly one completely new and unfamiliar smell caught his attention.
The smell in question was coming from a black plastic suitcase with wheels. The suitcase was new, his nose told him so immediately, but he could also detect a strange, heavy and ominous sense of exhilaration. Shamil didn’t start barking noisily and enthusiastically like he usually did in such situations, but turned to his master in confusion. His master had also stopped but was looking beyond the baggage section at the open doors, the motor trolleys loaded with suitcases and, nearby, the baggage handlers Boris and Zhenya. They were standing there in their green overalls, smoking and
Boris had an impressively luxuriant moustache, which grew down to his chin. He looked over, saw the dog handler and his dog frozen to the spot and fell silent, watching them. The second man, Zhenya, also turned round.
‘Hey, looks like he’s found something,’ said Zhenya.
‘Great, that’s all we need,’ said Boris sadly, with a sigh. ‘Just think, one suitcase full of loot through the back door, and we could retire and live happily ever after.’
They threw their cigarette butts to the floor, squashing them with the tips of their heavy black boots, in accordance with the fire-prevention regulations. They went over to Dima.
‘Well?’ Boris asked the dog handler. ‘Are you going to hand the loot over to your arsehole bosses again, so each of them can upgrade his BMW to a Lexus?’
The two of them fixed Dima with serious, questioning looks. They were both heavyset men in their fifties.
‘I don’t have a lot of choice, do I?’ Dima shrugged.
‘Well, the dog’s not going to go telling tales,’ said Boris, quite reasonably. ‘We can get it out of this secure zone in one piece.’ He nodded at the suitcase.
‘And save its owner from a prison sentence,’ added Zhenya. ‘It’s a win–win situation!’
Dima was feeling stressed. He was paying for his sleepless night – his body ached all over, and now his mind had started to ache as well. And that damn song about not being able to catch those girls was still going round and round inside his head.
‘Well?’ Boris wanted a firm answer.
Deciding to rid himself of all of his problems in one go, Dima resolutely waved his hand.
Boris the baggage handler nodded, then took a piece of chalk out of his overall pocket and drew a tick on the suitcase.
Shamil sensed that something was wrong and looked up at his master.
‘What are you staring at? Get a move on!’ ordered Dima, annoyed. ‘Your job is to use your nose, not your eyes!’
But Shamil didn’t understand why his master hadn’t pulled the suitcase out. Usually when this happened his master would take a walkie-talkie out of his breast pocket and speak into it, using words that fell outside the category of canine commands and which Shamil therefore didn’t understand. But whatever he said must also have been some kind of order, because literally within minutes several people would come running up to them – one would read the luggage tag with a scanner, and the others would quickly pick up the suitcase and take it off somewhere.
‘Didn’t you hear me?’ Dima yelled at Shamil. ‘Do as I tell you!’
Shamil heard him all right. He heard that he and his nose had to continue along the row of luggage. He sniffed a couple of bags, a brown suitcase, a trunk shrink-wrapped in polythene. He picked up the scent of a rather tasty dry sausage, tobacco, a piece of lard. He started drooling with hunger, his saliva dripping to the floor. He
stopped and looked back at his master.
‘What is it this time?’ Dima panicked and glanced back too, at the baggage handlers who were walking towards the motor trolley parked near the open gates. ‘I’ve had enough of this . . . Lie down!’ Dima ordered the dog.
He took out a cigarette and walked over to the open doors to smoke.
Lipovka village, Kiev region
A blizzard had been howling outside the window all night, but by 4 a.m. it had calmed down, leaving a fresh layer on top of the deep snow that was already there.
Irina ran out towards the road, tying her fluffy grey scarf on the way. She stopped at the roadside and peered into the darkness, expecting two egg-yolk headlights to come into view.
She kept her eyes fixed on the road for about five minutes. The frost was biting, its needles pricking her cheeks and nose.
Irina started to worry. She couldn’t be late. Her boss was strict. ‘Don’t bother coming back!’ she would say. And then what? What would she do for money?
Then, finally, the glare of two orange headlights distracted her from her troubled thoughts. She stepped forward onto the road and peered at them. The headlights were different, unfamiliar.
‘Maybe it’s a different minibus,’ she thought and put her hand out to flag it down, just to be on the safe side.
A red Mazda pulled up beside her. The driver, a man of around forty wearing a black leather jacket with the collar turned up, leaned across and opened the passenger door.
‘Where are you off to at this time in the morning?’ he asked.
‘Are you going to Kiev?’
‘Yes, jump in.’
It was warm in the car. Irina removed her scarf.
‘That scarf doesn’t suit you,’ said the man, shaking his head.
‘You’re more beautiful without it.’
‘Beauty is a distraction,’ Irina retorted.
The man looked at his passenger in surprise.
‘You, for example, from the road! It’s dangerous . . . And me,
The driver burst out laughing.
‘You’re distracted by your own beauty?’
‘Stop laughing at me!’ she said indignantly, her voice completely serious. ‘Just because I’m from the country you think you can say anything you like to me.’
‘I’m from the country too,’ the driver shrugged. ‘You can say anything you like to me!’
‘I’ve got a three-month-old baby,’ said Irina, offended. ‘I’m not= some kind of –’
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ said the man, suppressing his smile.
Irina felt stupidly upset, affronted, although she didn’t really know why. Then suddenly she was saved: like the light of a torch leading her out of the dark, she recognised her minibus ahead of them by the side of the road. Nearby she saw several of her regular travelling companions and the driver, down on all fours near the front wheel.
‘Oh! It’s my minibus!’ exclaimed Irina. ‘I need to get out!’
‘But it’s broken down!’ the driver exclaimed. ‘And you need to get to Kiev! You’ll catch your death standing by the side of the road while they fix it.’
‘Stop the car! It’s my minibus!’ Irina repeated stubbornly.
The man shrugged and stopped the car.
Without even thanking him Irina ran up to Vasya, the driver.
‘Why didn’t you pick me up?’ she asked in an aggrieved tone.
The driver looked up at her.
‘They changed the timetable by five minutes. I set off earlier now.’
‘But what if I hadn’t caught up with you?’
‘Look,’ Vasya snorted with irritation. ‘They told me to leave five minutes earlier, so I did!’ He nodded at the other passengers.
‘They all made it! Because they came out and stood by the road fifteen minutes earlier, rather than lying in bed drooling all over the pillow. You like a lie-in, so you missed the bus! Now, get out of my way!’
Irina stared at the driver incredulously, shocked by his callous indifference. She couldn’t believe that someone whose personal life she knew about in far more detail than she would have wished could treat her, his regular passenger, in such a way.
Vasya sighed and stood up.
He told them all to get on. Everyone took their seats in silence. Irina took her usual seat by the door. The engine started and normality seemed to be restored. The day was beginning in its usual rhythm, surrounded by the usual sleepy faces.
Irina took the metro to Arsenalna station, where she left the half-empty carriage. She adjusted her scarf and looked over her shoulder, noticing that she was the only one on the long platform. She went up the first escalator, then the next. She was still alone. And there was no one coming down either. It struck her as odd, although it was the same every day – this station was just particularly dead. For some reason it only got busy later on; she was the only one so early.
Her chest hurt. It felt constricted. The escalator crawled slowly upwards. It wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere.
Irina thought about the driver who had given her a lift. She sighed at her own stupid behaviour, then smiled. What a funny man! But she had to admit that he’d been right about the scarf. She would have to dye it.
Apartment No. 10, Reitarska Street, Kiev
‘Where have you been? Where have you been?’ The repetitive jangling of his wife’s voice assaulted his ears like a miner’s pick.
Semyon opened his eyes. His head was full of noise. His feet were aching, as though he’d been for a long walk in shoes that didn’t quite fit.
‘Have you gone deaf or something?’ The tears filling Veronika’s eyes had overflowed into her voice.
Semyon raised his head and looked at his wife in her towelling dressing gown.
‘I haven’t been anywhere.’ He waved his hand dismissively. ‘What are you going on about?’
‘What am I going on about?’ she repeated indignantly. ‘You went off somewhere at one in the morning, came back at four and then fell asleep right there in that chair, without even getting undressed! “I haven’t been anywhere,” he says. And what’s that
on your sleeve?’
Semyon looked down at the sleeves of his denim shirt. There was some kind of stain on the right one. At his feet lay his dark blue winter jacket, bought for a trip to Alaska that had never taken place. A group of rich adventure-seekers had promised to take him with them as team masseur and all-round nice guy (with an impressive physique and experience of working as a bodyguard).
At the time they’d said, ‘Make sure you get yourself the right kit, it’s going to be minus fifty!’ He’d got himself the right kit, but the expedition had been postponed. Indefinitely. He still had the jacket, though . . . And for some reason it was now lying on the floor.
Semyon looked around. He took his trainers off.
‘Well? Aren’t you going to answer me?’ There was that importunate jangling noise again.
‘What do you want me to say?’ He stared up at his wife.
Seeing the look on her husband’s face, she took a step back, afraid that she’d gone too far.
‘I must have been out drinking with someone.’
‘Who would you have been out drinking with all night? You never go out drinking!’
Semyon shrugged and felt a sudden pain in his left collarbone.
He rubbed the sore place with his hand and looked up at his wife again. She was crying. But at least she was doing it quietly.
Brushing her tears away, Veronika went out into the hallway and stopped in front of the heavy iron door. She opened it decisively and slammed it hard behind her. Thunder reverberated down the stairwell.
When the noise had died away, the sound of footsteps could be heard from below. Veronika adjusted her towelling dressing gown and looked down. Her neighbour Igor was coming upstairs.
‘Locked yourself out?’ he enquired sympathetically.
‘A draught caught it,’ she explained. ‘Semyon will let me in,’ she said, and pressed the doorbell.
As if to spite Veronika, her neighbour stood and waited at the door with her, apparently hoping his services might be required. When Veronika pressed the bell a second time, Igor followed it up by rapping on the door with the back of his hand. Again, thunder filled the landing and stairs.
‘It’s OK,’ Veronika said to her neighbour. ‘He’s probably just in the bathroom . . .’
Igor nodded and walked over to his own door, which was directly opposite. He stopped and looked back.
‘A pharmacist was murdered tonight, just outside,’ he said. ‘He was a good man. A mushroom-gatherer, too. Used to cure friends with his own medicines. Better than that Kashpirovsky and all his psychic healing!’
Veronika heard the jingling of a key behind her and felt the rush of air displaced by her neighbour’s door as it opened and closed.
A moment later her own door opened.
‘Make your mind up, will you – are you going out or coming in?’ Semyon’s expression was one of genuine bewilderment. He looked exhausted and still half asleep.
‘Let me in!’ Veronika pushed him aside and ran into the hallway.
She stopped in front of the mirror and bitterly examined the new haircut she’d had the day before, which her husband hadn’t even noticed.
‘A bit shorter and it would be what they call a “gamine crop”,’ thought Veronika. ‘No, it’s fine as it is . . . I don’t need to start relying on shorter haircuts to make me look younger just yet.’