The young sapper wheeled to look back and up, ever vigilant for the sniper. A telltale curtain twitching, a barking dog, a wet-haired youngster melting away from a doorway of a boarded house.
The Ulster drizzle that hadn’t stopped since his patrol began got heavier. Greg Stevens, Bomb Disposal Engineer with the Royal Engineers, 33 Regiment Engineer EOD, cursed Ulster, cursed British politicians, cursed the Irish and their impenetrable politics.
Sparky and Johno covered the ground ahead, looking, listening in every direction. Ahead, up, around, behind. Anything could mean something – or nothing. That was the bloody infuriating thing about this kind of soldiering, it was all will-o-the wisp stuff. Yet there was talk of another cease-fire. Sinn Feiners were rumoured to meet Thatcher’s ministers. Greg shook his head and tried to think about the job in hand; daydreaming got you killed.
To his left a line of terraced houses with concreted front gardens the size of post-it notes. Across the street an open expanse of ground used as a football pitch by local kids. Puddle-filled patches in the goal areas, a worn strip down the middle where most of the play happened. No posts - a couple of large rocks marked the goals. The rain beat down, spiking into milky-brown pools of water. He chose to stay this side of the road, nearest the houses, that way he moved shadowy, a less direct target for a gunman from an upstairs window. Times like this he wished he was shorter than his six feet. He checked the whereabouts of the rest of his patrol ahead and behind him.
Shots rang out. In front, Sparky fell, then Johno tumbled and collapsed shrieking in pain. Greg tried to locate the source of the gunfire when the bomb blast hit him. He heard the explosion after he’d flown through the air, a pain across his neck and back as if hit by a crowbar. The force carried him across the narrow street and threw him in a pool of water face down. He swallowed mud, a bitter, putrid taste. He gagged. No feeling down his left side. Vaguely aware of men shouting, the rattle of automatic rifles. He tried to turn his head, pain tore through him. He didn’t want to drown in three inches of fucking water, he lay still. His suffering peaked, he drifted into unconsciousness.
The commotion died down. First on the scene was Captain Harold Brewster. His cheek muscles twitching, he looked along the street, up at the house windows some now showing pale white faces peering through slits in net curtains. Other squaddies crouched nearby, jerking to and fro not sure where to point their rifles, who or what to aim for. Another salvo of shots rang out; the water on the makeshift football pitch danced in a line of spurting jets as gunfire raced along it. Bullets whistled over Brewster’s head.
‘Let's get the fuck out of here,’ he screamed as he ran to the Saracen armoured vehicle.
‘What about the lads?’ someone yelled.
‘Move, move,’ Brewster screeched. They bundled into the Saracen and the driver crashed the vehicle into gear and roared away. Some men looked between the three spread-eagled bodies fading in the distance and their leader Captain Brewster, but remained silent.
Belfast Telegraph cub journalist Sean O'Neill held the scene in his mind like a series of still frames in a film strip. He didn't try to put words to the images, not at this point, that would come later when he sat in front of his typewriter and wrote his copy. He stood frozen in the porch of Kerrigan’s pub, the drinkers inside hunkered around the tables. The army Saracen vanished from view, the casualties left behind lay prostrate, only one twitched in a pool of water as the rain continued to drop. A scary calm descended over the street.
A priest was the first to come into view. He held a white handkerchief that he waved, appealing for immunity from whatever itchy gun fingers might still be around. The handkerchief quickly became a soaked, limp rag. The priest reached the soldiers and bent to check pulses. Twice he shook his head. He reached the third body, this time he flapped his handkerchief, fell on his knees. He tried to move the body but he lacked the strength to shift the heavy frame.
O’Neill took a deep breath and dashed from Kerrigan’s pub doorway. He ran towards the stooping priest. His ankles splashed through water; he reached the frozen soldier.
‘This one’s still alive,’ the priest whispered.
O’Neill glanced around, nobody in sight. ‘Don't move him - yet.’ He checked the pulse, weak, his neck freezing cold. Leaning over the prostrate soldier, his back tense, he expected to feel the whack of a bullet any moment. He turned the man’s face a fraction opening his mouth and with his fingers scooped out a mixture of gravel and slime. ‘Can you hear me?’
The soldier stirred and the pale-faced priest darted his eyes towards silent, unseeing windows. The soldier forced himself over on his side, leaned on an elbow, looked up exposing his full face.
‘Jesus Christ! Greg! Can you move your legs, your back?’
The soldier shifted his limbs a fraction, barely conscious he mumbled something incomprehensible, fell back.
‘You know him? Let’s get him in my car,’ the priest said. The priest and the journalist lifted the soldier to the parked car and shoved him into the back seat.
The priest said, ‘Good man. That was decent of you, a human life's a human life. You a Yank then?’
‘Yeah, I’m a Yank.’
A wave of relief flooded through Sean as the car accelerated away towards Belfast’s Victoria hospital.
In a small front parlour of one of the terraced houses, an eighteen year old sniper scribbled O’Neill’s description into a crumpled notebook with the priest’s car registration number, poked his sniper’s rifle under a loose floorboard and scurried across the rain-soaked back streets of Belfast’s Falls Road district.
The young soldier lay slumped in the back seat. O’Neill smelt the foul odour of dank water and damp earth and watched his army uniform stain ochre from seeping blood. Why the hell had the British Army run away? He wondered if his drinking buddy and good friend Greg Stevens would ever see the light of day again.
‘Last time we sucked up to politicians...’ Bile soured the back of Greg Steven’s throat. ‘So, what does Brewster want?’
He knew he shouldn’t have spat out the question the way he did. But dirty dealing ignited his self-destruct button. He sat across the desk from the tall, silver-haired man who now leaped to his feet to tower over him. Greg held his gaze while fighting to keep his temper.
Sir Oliver Newton, Chairman of Newton International leaned forward and prodded the mahogany inlaid desktop with a long bony finger. ‘For Christ’s sake, Greg, get a grip. You must meet Brewster. Like now! We need those MoD contracts, or we're all on the street. Newton International goes belly-up. Including you.’ He paused, threw an arm outwards, ‘Meet Brewster. Give him what he wants; no skin off our nose. You’re off to fucking Ukraine anyway; just see what he wants.'
Sir Oliver walked over to the panoramic window on the top floor Executive suite of the Canary Wharf headquarters of Newton International, he looked out across the Thames where Big Ben’s chimes tinkled in the distance. The September morning sky glowed pink over London traffic’s ongoing assault on the ozone layer. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. ‘We must keep the Secretary of State and the Minister sweet. Brewster’s close to both, very close. He advises on procurement.’
He returned and his finger stabbed the desk again, ‘You are CEO. A leader. Show some fucking leadership.’ He sat down and settled deep into his high backed leather chair, squinted through seventy-year-old eyes. His voice softened but the steel grey eyes stayed Arctic cold. ‘Just fix a meeting – straight away. Harold Brewster’s a busy man right now. We need to move fast. I’ll brief you before you go.’ He took a long breath and said, ‘Brewster asked for you – specifically.’ He raised an eyebrow, ‘I didn’t realise you knew him.’’
Greg paused, ‘I knew Harold Brewster.’
‘You did? From where?’
‘Army. I’ve followed his career since he became an MP.’
‘I knew he was ex-army, but you and him...?’ Sir Oliver rubbed his chin.
‘Yes, I served with him, Sappers. Then he was Captain Harold Brewster. In Northern Ireland.’
‘Really. Now that could be useful.’
‘Was a bit of a bastard. Rose to EOD Troop Commander. Still is a bastard from what I hear.’
‘Most of us are. Even us ex-navy types.’ He smiled, tapped the side of his nose, ‘See him, Greg. It’s only politics, dear boy, politics and business.’
The former public-schoolboy and Cambridge educated millionaire wheeled away from his desk. His silver grey suit, framing a lean erect body, glinted in the sunlight. He walked over to the wide window once more, stared along the river with his arms folded and his back to Greg.
‘Can’t have been easy for you this past year, Greg. Hope a month’s R and R has helped.’
‘It has. I needed the break, Chairman.’
‘Good to have you back on the team.’ He continued staring out of the window.
That was it. Meeting over.
‘Right,’ Greg tapped his fingers on the desk, pushed his hands through his thick salt-and-peppered hair, rose and left the chairman’s office, pulling the door firmly behind him. Once outside he swallowed the bile in his throat, clenching and unclenching his fists.
The silver BMW purred along the M40 at a comfortable seventy-five in the middle lane. A blonde woman driving a sleek Audi convertible with the top down overtook the BMW travelling just a few miles an hour faster. Greg looked across at the woman who glanced at him, looked away, then back and smiled. He returned her smile and she pulled in ahead of him. She stayed there for a few miles and darted inspections back at him through her rear view mirror. For a moment Greg thought about having a bit of fun with her but the memory of Karen intruded . His brow furrowed; it had been a long twelve months since her death and time, contrary to popular belief was not proving much of a healer. He eased back and the woman driver raised her hand in salute and accelerated away into the fast lane. Greg didn't want any more complications in his life. No, no more complications. In fact it was good to be away from organization politics even for a few hours on the motorway.
He had held his tongue with Sir Oliver. Daughter Ellen starting Uni, a hefty mortgage, no, he couldn’t afford to say to his boss ‘Stuff you, stuff the company, stuff this crappy world of business’. He hadn’t used to feel that way.
He thought ahead to the coming meeting with Brewster, another boss back in Ulster – a cold fish with a track record for no-nonsense dealing with the IRA. Although indebted to him for his life Greg had never liked the man. Always felt there was something evil in him. He recalled talking to Karen about Brewster and she’d shuddered, made pretend fangs with her fingers against her mouth, said ‘Dracula lives on’. He’d heard squaddies return from a dressing down muttering ‘Bastard Brewster’ more than once. He didn’t give flesh and blood bollockings that the men could take and then move on, instead Brewster scorned them with a sneer in his plum accent, implied threats you couldn’t pin down, held grudges. Greg had been on the receiving end of Brewster’s tongue more than once. The crunch came when Brewster accused him of talking too freely over a pint with a young Irish/American journalist, Sean O’Neill, about a raid on Catholic homes. He still didn’t know who shopped him, suspected a pub informer overheard their conversation. He had given a clear warning via O’Neill about a planned raid that saved Karen’s headstrong young brother from being lifted. But Brewster heard and hounded him, felt they’d missed a chance to shaft some Provos, knew about his relationship with Karen. Greg knew he was being set up to walk, army career over. But it was an IRA bomb that finished his army career. And he owed his life to Harold Brewster.
Now he was to see Brewster again. What the hell did he want? Why is he back in my life? A stab of pain sliced across his forehead. He pushed his hand against his temple blinking and shaking his head. The pain persisted and he felt panic. Breathing deep draughts of air he switched on the hazard warning lights and pulled into the hard shoulder. Several passing motorists glanced at him as they sped past; a young guy in a Mercedes gave a one finger salute for no apparent reason.
Holding his hands over the steering wheel he watched his fingers tremble like a man with the DTs. His face turned clammy and sweat gathered above his upper lip. He pressed his hand against his heart – fast but regular. He leaned back into his driving seat and drew in lungfuls of air. Closing his eyes, he leaned forward with his head against the dashboard and fought to regain control of his body. He held the position for a minute and his pulse slowed; he wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief and glanced at his pale reflection in the rear view mirror. From the glove compartment he removed and swallowed a panic attack pill. I’m not good, he thought, I’m not good at all.
He sat still for a few minutes then cut the hazard warning lights, indicated and pulled back on the motorway clenching the steering wheel. He drove steadily half expecting the symptoms to return. He must see Doc Kelly when he got back home, been a while since he had a check-up. He looked at his hands – steady; he furrowed his brow and concentrated on the road ahead.
Harold J Brewster smiled across the dining table of the exclusive London Club, his bright, even teeth evidence of whitening and expensive dentistry. His eyes were still and as blue and cold as a sub-zero frost. Greg Stevens knew those eyes well from their shared past. Having listened carefully to what Brewster had to say, he placed down his knife and fork and leaned back in his chair.
‘So you want me to spy for you? Is that it?’
‘Oh, come, come, Greg. Such an ugly word. Somewhat ‘retro’ as well, don't you think?’
‘However you dress it up, it comes to the same thing.’
‘Not asking too much. Remember our past, Belfast, Queen and Country, all that.’ Brewster looked steadily across the dining table, ‘Remember, Greg. You owe me.’
‘I know. But I’m in civvy street now, Harold. Army’s a thing of the past.’
Brewster ran a hand through his curled, golden hair. He flicked at some invisible flecks of dust on his jacket sleeve, an injured look on his face, ‘Army’s like family, Greg. Remember, ‘Ubique?’ He placed his forefinger over his upper lip. ‘This is a giant opportunity for your company. Sir Oliver will be truly grateful, I’m sure.’
‘I know - but all this cloak and dagger stuff - I don’t like it. What do you mean anyway, “check out a name, an organisation”?’
Brewster sniffed as if an unpleasant odour had drifted across, ‘Let’s get some facts clear. Facts crystallize a situation so much more – don’t you think.’ He removed his gold rimmed glasses and held them aloft. ‘Fact 1 - Newton International rely very much on MOD contracts, does it not?’
Greg knew Brewster had it worked out to the last penny - or even euros given the MoD’s widening procurement policies as in ‘British jobs for British people, ha, ha’. He tapped his foot under the table feeling an old, familiar dislike. The duck a’la Orange he’d had for dinner lay like a tub of lard in his stomach.
Brewster sipped his glass of Hennessy Paradis, ‘You really ought to try this, Greg. Quite something. Ever been to Cognac, old man. Buildings have this smoky coating all over them - rather reminiscent of Bath, come to think of it. But in Cognac it arises from the distillation process - the ‘Angel's share’ they call it. Evaporated brandy. What a waste, don't you think?’
‘What exactly do you want from me?’
‘That's the spirit, old man. No point fighting the inevitable, is there? ‘What we’re asking is not so difficult.’ Brewster held Greg's gaze for several seconds. ‘You know, when we were kicking shit out of Paddy in Ulster there were times when I actually thought you felt sympathy for him. Particularly with that …bungled raid business.’
‘Stop going round the houses, Harold.’
A black-tied waiter came to clear away the table. Brewster leaned back with a smirk across his face until the waiter left. He opened a cigar box and offered one to Greg who shook his head. Brewster slowly lit his cigar. He lowered his voice and said, ‘Well, my dear Grigori, you will be in Ukraine shortly. Your…homeland, yes? Land of your parents…ancestors. And we all know blood is much thicker than water.’
He took a long drag on the cigar, blew smoke across the table in Greg’s direction. ‘Come to think of it, I might be wrong about you. You might go native. In fact that's probably more likely even than feeling for dear Paddy.’ He took another drag and exhaled. ‘I was sorry to hear about your wife by the way…Karen, wasn’t it?’
Greg felt the clamminess he’d experienced earlier on the motorway return. His leg jiggled furiously below the table. He ignored Brewster’s ‘sympathy‘. ‘Listen, don’t question my patriotism. I grew up here. I fought for my country, I dismantled bombs for my country.’
‘Of course you did. And did a damned good job. However, back to the facts. Fact two. You speak Ukrainian - born to Ukrainian parents. Good Slav stock. Right?’
‘Fact three. You make a lot of money, great job, big country house, daughter at Uni...’ Greg reached for the brandy bottle and poured himself a glass of Paradis. He took a sip, the wooziness in his stomach eased.
'I’ve worked bloody hard for what I have.’ He raised the brandy glass, ‘Enough to afford my own Cognac, Harold, unlike some who rely on HM's expenses. Get this through the Fees office?’
Brewster’s face darkened. Their mutual hostility hung in the air like a storm cloud. Eventually Greg broke the silence, ‘Tell me something. Why me?’
Brewster shrugged, ‘Circumstances – serendipity. Several names came up from Intelligence. We wanted someone with a military and technical background, businessman, Ukrainian speaker. I put your name up to the Minister.
Brewster smirked, “This is our boy?” I said. ‘He agreed.’
‘So you set me up.’
Brewster turned down his mouth at the corners. ‘Quite.’ He suddenly brightened. ‘But come on, Greg, I wanted you. I value you. You and I – we’ve worked well in the past.’
Greg sometimes wished he was back in Belfast again in uniform. Sure, it was dangerous but it was concrete, you knew what you were dealing with. He hated this murky world of political ‘smoke and mirrors’, of deception. Brewster was manipulating him, he cursed inwardly that he owed this man his life. His foot tapped faster under the table.
‘So what is this ‘not-asking-so-much’ job then?’ he said.
Brewster pulled his chair closer to the table, gave a quick glance around the dining room. ‘You know that the G8 countries recently signed up to a deal in Moscow. Fight international money-laundering, drugs crossing boundaries, other… nefarious practices.’ He smiled, ‘But it’s not drugs we’re interested in here.’
Brewster touched his glasses and looked over the rim, ‘No – gemstones.’ He leaned towards Greg, ‘Brussels thinks there’s a scam being worked. More a hunch than a proven. They’ve asked us for help – UK Government, that is. Want us to look into matters. Don’t trust their own auditors.’
‘Hah,’ Greg said. ‘No change there then!’
‘Big political kudos if we pull this off, Greg. For you, for Newton International.’
Greg looked squarely at Brewster. ‘And you?’
‘Congratulations,’ Greg said. You always were ambitious.’
‘Bogdan Katchenko. That’s our target. BK Industries. And I think I’ve found the right vehicle to get someone inside Katchenko’s operation.’
Brewster held his glass up against the light. ‘The EU Triple E project. Expertise to former Eastern Europe states - helping them get new industries up and running. Spread democratic capitalism.’
‘Sounds a contradiction in terms.’
‘Well worth while.’ He rotated the glass and watched the pale amber liquid cling to the inside. ‘Glycerine effect, you know.’
‘Yes, I do. Tell me, is this job for Defence-or Intelligence?’
‘Lines get hazy, old chap. Let’s just say we all work for the same show – HM Government. Your company has a presentation planned shortly? On the 'Triple E' project?’
‘Yes.’ Greg didn’t feel at all surprised. ‘Yes, we’ve had preliminary discussions about it. I’d have thought espionage was a sure way to bugger up…a well worth while project.’
Brewster winced, ‘You do have a common way with words, dear friend. Been reading too many thrillers recently.’
‘Not thrillers. Dodgy dossiers maybe.’
‘Listen, my dear Greg. Triple E's genuine enough, support for new high tech industries in countries like Ukraine. Mutually beneficial to west and east Europe. Benefits for your company as well. You have friends in government.’
‘Sir Oliver’s domain, not mine.’
Brewster smiled and took a sip of brandy. ‘You never can tell when having a friend…in influential places…might come in handy.’
‘If a problem - any problem – arises. Where you might need help.’
‘The problem you see is the age old one. Money. Our EU friends seem to think that their well-meaning funds are being misappropriated.’
Brewster touched the bridge of his nose nudging his glasses up a tad, ‘They believe someone is using their cash – and the UK’s - to produce fake gemstones. Bloody things flooding the international market. US especially. Danger of destabilizing world economies.’
‘You mean destabilise US global corporates? Can’t have that then. So…you want me…to check out this gemstones thing?’
‘Yes, we want you to be our 'UK expert', so to speak.
‘What I don’t understand is this – why all the subterfuge? If the EU think their money is being misused they can send in their own investigators – auditors, even Interpol?’
‘True enough, my dear Greg. Only thing is – within the EU there are…how can I put it…sensitivities. Their auditors haven’t covered themselves in glory. Thinking is they’d blow it. No, a more...indirect approach is favoured. From outside Brussels. From a source they can rely on to find the truth.’
‘This Katchenko producing fake gemstones…’
‘Katchenko gets EU grants?’
‘Right. Through his company BKI.’’
‘What do they do that attracts EU funds?’
‘High tech stuff. Make abrasives, cutting tools - and industrial diamonds –just like Newton International. Except they’re passing them off as the real thing, allegedly.’
‘Big money there.’
‘Yes. We think that a joint venture proposition between Newton and…our target might smooth things over, open doors…’
‘You have a contact then. A broker you want me to work through?’
‘Yes, an EU official, Italian...’
‘No...oo,’ Greg said.
Brewster blinked a couple of times missing the irony, ‘Yes, you’ve already met him. Signor Marco Bonnetti, works out of Brussels. He’s in on this investigation – but we need someone else – you! A recognized expert who knows industrial diamond production. Someone who can report with authority and credibility on Katchenko’s organisation. Is he genuine – or a front for fake gemstones?’ He paused, ‘The Minister and the Secretary of State are both keen that he’s been looked into by someone we can trust. Someone authoritative.’
‘This Katchenko – he’s the top man?’
‘Yes, one of the new oligarchs. Made millions already. But you know, dear Grigori, once they get the taste for money…’
‘You want me to find out if Katchenko runs a genuine plant - or if he’s in the fake pretty stones business?’
Brewster hesitated, ‘Not exactly...you see…we’re after a particular result.’ He stood up and moved his chair around the table, sat close to Greg. ‘HM Government want you to give Katchenko’s operation a clean bill of health!
‘You don’t need to know why. Let’s just say, national security. Bigger fish to fry. We want to allay EU fears so they back off Katchenko. As well as your company, you’ll be doing your country a great service. Now, what do you think?’
‘I’m not keen, Harold. Right now I’ve things to deal with - personal stuff.’
Brewster fixed Greg with a blank, intimidating glare, ‘This is personal. We want you to do this job. It’s important - to HM government, your company…to you; even your family.’
Greg took time to register what Brewster had just said. ‘My…family?’
‘Take a day or two, but not too long and let me know what you think. Remember, you owe me. Now finish your Paradis, old friend.’
Bogdan Katchenko sat with a fur coat draped over his shoulders at the rear of a cavernous warehouse on the outskirts of Kiev. He smoked a Havana cigar and stared straight into space through unblinking, piggy eyes. His feet rested on a table top. A single fluorescent tube threw down a stark light, sparkling his close cropped grey hair and beard.
He waited for a visitor, a small time businessman whom he was not sure yet what to do about. He suspected he must hurt this businessman. He always hurt people who did not deliver their debts, who let him down one way or another. Standing up, he stretched letting the fur coat slip from his shoulders. His bulky body muscled beneath a white, tie-less shirt and expensive hand stitched black silk suit. He was irritated; he had missed his daily gym workout. He scratched his beard with a white-gloved hand and muttered under his breath, then snatched up his head and yelled into space, ‘Igor, where the fuck are you. Bring the little cunt to me.’
Igor Motlokov tensed, swung on the heels. He wore a black double-breasted suit that bulged at the shoulders and was thrust forward by his barrelled chest. For a huge man he walked with the delicacy of a stalking cat, the balls of his feet touching the ground a fraction before his heels. His unseen eyes bulged in concentration behind wrap-round black shades. He ran his hand across the top of his shaven head and dismissed thoughts of Ludmila, the latest prostitute he used regularly. He hoped it would not end the same way with her as it had with the others. He strode down the warehouse and flung open the doors, pulling them closed behind him. A smile of anticipation touched his mouth.
Taras Prakhov sat quietly at the end of the table working on a laptop computer. He looked up quickly at Katchenko who smiled at him through gold-filled teeth. ‘You know me well, Taras, I am not a patient man.’
‘I understand, Bogdan, I understand.’ He did understand, he understood very well.
‘Good, good. You are an understanding man. We do good work together, you and me. Many years, yes?’
‘Yes, we do, Bogdan, we do.’ Prakhov returned to his laptop, his studious middle-aged face buried in his work. Behind rimless glasses his black eyes hid his despair.
Igor was joined by another member of the Butcher of Kiev's Mafiosi whose name he kept forgetting. He worried about how he easily forgot names but it had been like that for most of his life. He called him ‘Bear’ when he forgot his name. He watched Bogdan Katchenko, better known as the Butcher of Kiev, pull his fur coat back up over his shoulders and stare down the warehouse watching a vertical chink of light between the double doors. Igor licked his lips in anticipation.
'Grigori, your father's dying.’
Greg Stevens, born Grigori Stevanovich forty years earlier in a small village outside Kiev, stopped playing. His fingers fell still on the piano keys and he lowered his head. The time was seven o'clock in the evening. His mother, Tanya sat slumped in her chair. She pulled herself upright.
'There's no point in crying.' she said. 'Pray for us, Grigori, please.'
Anatoly worked in the garden tidying up his vegetable patch. He harvested the last of the season’s Scarlet Emperor runner beans in the late autumn sunshine. The light and warmth were fading.
Greg placed his hands across his mother’s shoulders. They looked out to the garden; Anotoly placed a bowl filled with beans on the pathway. He blew into his hands and picked up a garden fork.
Tanya held Greg’s hand and said, 'I didn’t want you to stop playing. But I'm choking. We need to talk.' She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed her eyes and nose. ‘Your father hasn't been well for some time.’
Greg shook his head, 'I didn't know.'
'Cancer.’ Her body tightened. ‘He won’t tell you – not yet.’ She gave a strangled laugh, ‘Sees dying as weak.' Looked out again to the garden, ‘Don’t let him know I’ve told you. He’ll tell you when he's ready.'
Greg hunkered down beside her and pressed his face into her hair. For some time they held a silence. He asked, ‘How long...?’
'The doctors – they are vague, three months, six.' She shrugged, 'Longer…maybe.'
'What about treatment?'
She said, 'He doesn't want that, not at his age. Both lungs poisoned, you know your father: too much dignity.'
'And stubbornness,' Greg said.
'Yes, that too.' She grabbed Greg by the arm, ‘I must ask you to do something - for him.'
'He'd never ask for himself, but I will. Take him to Kiev. It's what he wants. Since the end of Communism he has thought of going back, to visit his past, see his brother. Pyotr and Natasha are all he has left of his family.’
‘Uncle Pyotr? Wasn’t there a great family feud?’
‘There was.’ She hesitated, ‘But Pyotr has written. Things have changed.’
‘I’ll...it is better you hear from your father. Will you take him? I have written to Pyotr – he’ll welcome all of you.’
‘You won’t travel?’
She stared into space. ‘You know I hate flying. I haven’t flown in thirty years since we left Ukraine. And I never will again. Terrified. Greg, take him, soon - please.’ She pinched her lips creating fine vertical lines above her mouth. ‘They are brothers. They have been away from each other for too long. Take him, please.’
‘Now? Nearly winter? Be well below freezing…spring is warmer.’
She spoke quietly, ‘Grigori, he may be dead by spring.’
Greg stretched and pressed his hands into his back. Outside a siren screeched and an ambulance hurtled past, blue lights flashing. A distant car horn hooted, the siren faded, and silence fell.
She gripped his arm, ‘Take him. It’s what he wants. Please.’
‘Yes, mum, I’ll take him.’’
She got up and put her arms around him. ‘You haven't seen your uncle Pyotr since we left.' She smiled and touched his cheek, ‘You were a boy, a bright boy.’
The back door opened and closed. Anatoly called out, ''I'll make some coffee.' Greg moved to the piano and tapped his fingers on the lid.
He thought how his mother would have rehearsed how she might break the news to him. Especially knowing how the last year had been for him - since Karen’s death. But there was no easy way. So – ‘Grigori, your father’s dying.’ That was it. That was all there was to it. He knew Anatoly would never tell him about the cancer. That task was always going to fall to his mother.
Greg took a few deep breaths. For the previous half hour his long fingers had moved deftly across the piano keys as Tanya listened. The bold harmonies of Rimsky-Korsakov, of Shostakovich drifted through the suburban semi-detached house while Tanya sat in her favourite chair by a window, embroidering a pillow case in intricate patterns of white, green and yellow foliage with intertwining wine red roses. She hummed along to his playing, her head swaying. Greg loved music; his mother had taught him how to play the great Russian composers, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Borodin.
Playing always brought back childhood memories for Greg. He sniffed again the cold, sharp air of Marinsky Park where the family walked together; mother, father, his sister Olga and him - ‘little Grigori’. He still saw clearly in his mind’s eye the park vista – the blue and white rococo Marinsky Palace, once a royal residence for the Russian aristocracy, gazed down into the valley where the mighty Dnieper River flowed. A landscape that inspired celestial music. He also recalled as a ten year old his silent disturbance as he viewed the giant titanium arch over the muscular statues of two ‘brothers’ Ukraine and Russia, fists raised in unison. Broken ‘brothers’ now. Just like his father Anatoly and Uncle Pyotr, also brothers who had broken.
Greg followed Tanya’s gaze as she leaned forward in her chair to better see into the kitchen where Anatoly made coffee. He would not come in and be seen to listen to Greg's playing - no, that would not be dad - but in his garden, alone, he took in every note. There was a time though. As a young boy. Listening together to Rimsky Korsakov's Scherazade, both poring over an illustrated copy of A Thousand and One Nights, steeped in the magical fairyland of the Orient. Anatoly had held his young son on his lap looking out from a tower block window over a snow-covered Kiev, absorbing the music. They shared joy.
But years of dust and grind and backbreaking work in Birmingham and Black Country foundries, England’s dampness and an incurable mood of alienation had closed in on Anatoly over the years. With the passage of time, scales grew over his heart as he closed off the outside world. His family, and his memories were his solace.
Greg lowered the piano lid and went to the kitchen doorway to help bring the coffee through. Anatoly stared out the back window at the well-kept, tidy vegetable garden. He absent-mindedly stirred the coffee clinking the spoon with slow circular movements; a content expression on his face. A face etched by life but in repose now, capped by steel-grey hair still thick despite his seventy four years.
Tanya joined Greg at the kitchen doorway, both reluctant to disturb Anatoly's reverie. A pang of regret seared through Greg, for years passed, words unspoken, love withheld; regret mingled with pity for his father, scarred first by Russia, then by England. At least his beloved Ukraine was independent once more, Kiev now the capital city, not of a subsidiary Russian republic but of a nation state. He would like that. Hope reborn.
Tanya chewed on her lower lip. Yes, Greg determined, Dad would see Kiev again before he died.
‘So,’ Tanya said. 'I've spoken with Grigori. You will visit Ukraine soon; you will see Pyotr.’ Anatoly continued to stare out the window. Slowly he nodded his head. Greg stepped alongside him and placed a hand across his shoulder, followed his eye line down the garden.
Greg entered his garage through a side door from the kitchen. He opened the up and over door with the remote, started up and rolled his silver BMW onto the sweeping circular drive, applied the parking brake and stepped from the car.
He stretched and breathed the morning countryside air as he looked south across Worcestershire to the winter sunlight sparkling off the Malvern hills about twenty miles away. A few bars from Elgar stirred in his mind. He dragged his attention from the view as his handyman-gardener, Don approached in slow loping strides. Greg glanced at his watch - 7.30 am. He rubbed his hands together, hunched his shoulders.
'Morning, Mr Stevens. Nip in the air. Time to go through things?'
Greg nodded and pointed, 'We'll talk in the workshop.'
'Righty ho.' The weathered man strode forward, his silvered hair blowing in the breeze.
A strident voice cried out over the patio and lawns. Sylvia waved from the top of the curved steps outside the conservatory, a cordless phone held aloft, a yellow duster flapping from her other hand. 'Whooee! Mr Stevens, it's your Ellen.' Her plump body jiggled as she waved the phone.
'Tell her I'll call her back in a few minutes, Sylv,’ Greg shouted Telephone conversations were seldom short with his daughter. He looked back at his house, a large Victorian building with a walled garden and outbuildings; a familiar low struck him when he took in the wilting herb garden; he resolved to get Don to clear the patch. It only stirred memories. He could see Karen bent over, weeding, her blonde hair falling over her eyes, then standing tall, slim, her hands pressed against her arched back.
‘Says she needs to speak to you now, Mr Stevens.'
'Can't it wait? I’m with Don.'
Sylvia shouted the message into the phone. Her premise was that a handheld cordless phone must need help for communication to be effective. She called out shrilly, 'Says she's got an early lift waiting for her.'
'I'll call her mobile.'
More loudspeaker contact ensued before Sylvia cried out, 'No credits left.’
'I give up! Excuse me, Don - you carry on, I'll catch up with you later.'
'No rush, Mr S. No rush at all.’ He laughed as Greg took the steps two at a time, called out, ‘A daughter's want is a father's duty.'
'Don't I just know it!'
'We all learn it sooner or later.'
Don smiled and moved off towards the greenhouses and workshops, rolling his shirtsleeves until they were above his elbows.
Sylvia handed the phone to Greg, 'I'll go and say hello to the birthday boy then,' she said tossing her head in Don's direction. 'Big seven-oh today.'
'Don, really...I didn't realise...'
'An' don't let that young madam twist you around her little finger.’ Sylvia grinned as she wobbled down the steps.
'Dad - how are you...listen, bit of a prob...'
'Hi, Ellen. How’s my IT genius? Are you all right?'
'Yes, yes, I'm fine, dad. Uni starts soon. Doing some prelim work, reckon I could hack into the Defence Ministry given half a chance.’
‘Don’t even think of it!’
‘Thing is, dad, it's just...well, slight cash flow prob. Living away in Manchester’s turning out more expensive than I thought.'
Greg hesitated for a fraction. 'Right, right, I'll make a transfer to your account today.'
'Oh, thanks, dad...it's just...well, it just seems to go.'
'I know, we'll have a look at finances when you're next back home. Two hundred okay for now?'
'Dad, you're a star!'
'Oh - and Dad. I was on the phone to grandma last night. She was a bit down at first. But she really perked up when she told me that you're taking Granddad to Ukraine?'
Greg hesitated. ‘Yes, that’s right. She told you…why?’
'Yes...yes, he wants to see the old country again.' She paused, 'Especially now the politics are different. And his brother Pyotr. He’s your uncle?'
'That'll be good. They haven't been the closest, have they?
'No, no, they haven’t.’
'And she told me about Auntie Natasha as well, she's a doctor, isn't she?'
'Yes...works in a Kiev hospital. Strictly speaking she's not your aunt. She's my cousin and...'
'Oh, dad - don't be such a pedant. I'd like to have another auntie, anyway. Besides Olga, that is. Natasha – her husband died young, in an accident. This is all news to me you know. Grandma seemed to want to talk last night.’
‘Yes, Sergei died in the Chernobyl disaster.’
‘Yes, massive exposure. Soon after the explosion, he was a fire-fighter. A liquidator.’
‘God, how terrible. That was when?’
‘Oh my God – when I was born!’
‘Yes, your grandparents didn’t want to talk much about it.’
‘Oh, how horrible. Why did they not talk about family.’
‘Well…they came through difficult times.’
‘You’ve never said much about your childhood, dad. In Ukraine as a boy.’
‘Ellen, look, I’ve got to get to London this morning…’
Ellen paused then blurted out. ‘Dad, I know it's asking a lot...but can I go with you to Ukraine...please!’
‘I’m sorry, darling, but I’ve got work to do there as well as…think about your granddad, he is getting on.’
‘Please, dad, please! I'd love to discover my roots.'
Greg squeezed the phone tightly. ‘I’m sorry – I’ve got a big job on. There won’t be time…for sightseeing.’
‘I don’t want to sightsee!’
‘It’s - awkward, Ellen.’
‘But dad, you know I want to see…’
‘I’m sorry, Ellen…it’s a bad time right now. Anyway, you start Uni soon. I’ll tell you what, next year…we’ll do it then. Besides, it’s winter there now, sub-zero.’
‘No, it’s impossible.’’ Greg felt his daughter’s disappointment hurtle through the ether. A part of him yearned to say yes but he stayed silent. He spoke eventually. ‘Look…we’ll go together. Next year…summer hols, I promise.’ Like a stab in the back he heard Karen’s cry hurtle from the past. ‘Promise…you promised, Greg, you promised!’
Ellen became subdued and distant. ‘Anyway, dad, thanks for the cash. Much appreciated.’
‘Right, then…listen, I must rush, got to be in London in two hours.’
‘Right, good luck. Dad…’
‘I do love you. Bye.’
Greg held the phone away a moment and went to say something but Ellen had switched off. He tapped his fingers against the table then gathered his briefcase and laptop and picked up his overcoat.
Sylvia walked across the lawn to where Don loaded tools into a wheelbarrow.
'Young wench wants more money again I suspect - no end to it.'
'She's young - and his daughter. Come on...'
'You're too soft - like most dads.'
Don laughed, 'And granddads.'
'Er needs taking in hand, I'd say.'
'Sylv - give over, it's difficult for her - and him.'
'That's as may be. But you have to learn them to respect money. I got three and none ain't got a clue. Right pains in the bum they can be, kids.'
'Sylv - he wants her to feel good. Been a bad time for that family.'
'Well, that's true...still, I say...'
She glanced back again towards the patio.
'I wonder sometimes if he'll ever get over ‘er.'
'Karen? He will.' He levered up the wheelbarrow and stood erect. 'He has to. I did. Part of life, Sylv.' He grinned suddenly. ‘I had to get over working thirty years at Longbridge for the Austin! Now that really was coping!'
'And now you have the life of Riley, eh, Don? Oh, many happy returns by the way, Big seven oh!'
Don drew a beanie from his pocket, pulled it tightly over his head and strode out pushing the wheelbarrow. 'Thanks. Yes, thirty years on the track - my prison years,' he shouted back. 'I must have done something bad in a previous life. And you'd better get back inside and do a bit of cleaning as well, my girl.'
Greg hurried down the steps from the house, a frown creasing his forehead. He rushed to the car while checking his watch and called across the lawn, 'Don, work plan'll have to wait till tomorrow. Running late.'
'Okay, gaffer, whatever you say.'
From overhead, a spray of leaves spun to the ground from several large sycamore trees and the Malverns darkened as a thick bank of cloud scudded across the sky. Rain spotted the car’s silver bonnet
Greg threw his cases, coat on the passenger seat, and fired the engine. He raised his hand towards Don and Sylvia and drove down the drive. The car wheels crunched on the gravelled surface as he snatched at the steering wheel and turned into a deserted rural road. He pointed the BMW towards the M42 and the M40. He sped off thinking of the day ahead, how he hated Board meetings and the stuffed shirt formality that went with them. He guessed most would be dressed in the usual coats of armour; dark suits, black shoes and wielding that mighty shield the mobile phone. Just as he would.
He switched on his hands free mobile and spoke to his secretary. ‘Jean, can you get a birthday card, please. Get a company driver to bring it to my home address today. Write ‘To Don’. Message is, ‘Many happy returns – and thanks for everything. GS.’
He thought of Ellen again; a promise made. Then he thought of another promise made; one he could never redeem.
Copyright Tom Bryson ©