Screaming Angels By Lazlo Ferran

Beside the Bolshiye road Yulia threw down the bicycle and led Yuri into their field.

“Race me to the haystack!” Yuri yelled, his strong legs beginning to pound his feet through the long grass.

“No!â€
Screaming Angels
Screaming Angels By Lazlo Ferran

But Yuri kept running until he grew tired. Following his wake, Yulia reached their patch of long grass and threw herself down, splaying her arms wide and staring up at the endless dome of blue, whose skirt of trees concealed the dome’s limit and embraced the two Russian children. A crow wheeled and alighted raggedly on a treetop.

Russia seemed as peaceful as ever, so even with war raging all over Europe, life seemed good on the hottest day of the year, and the good seemed to stretch forever.

Yulia unbuttoned her rough, blue tunic, and ran her finger over the ridges of the embroidered flowers on her white shirt, a Christmas present from her uncle and aunt. She bathed in the sun’s heat and throwing her arm over her face to shield her eyes, watched a white butterfly land on a delicate, blue forget-me-not.

Closing her eyes, she watched the red shadows of passing clouds through her lids.

“Come on! I think the field mice have had babies!” Yuri declared, sitting down heavily beside her. “Come on, Yulia!”

“Did you see the white butterfly?” she asked, standing up.

“No.”

They both swung to face a sudden blast of sound above the northern hem of trees. Their eyes settled on a sudden, white puff, but then something silver streaked away from the smoke.

“Firework! And a big one!” Yuri shouted above the noise.

“I don’t think so,” Yulia murmured.

She shielded her eyes from the sun, but still she had trouble following the sleek shape as it shot across their view, higher and higher into the blue dome. But then the jet of flame at its rear went out and it began to tumble.

“Oh!” Yuri said. “I thought it would fly forever! Shall we go and get it?” He made to run after it, but Yulia yelled:

“Stop!”

After a while, two men emerged from the northern hem of trees and strode across the field. Yuri waved to them, but the men either ignored, or didn’t see, him. They vanished behind some trees to the south and still hadn’t returned after what Yulia guessed to be about half an hour.

“We should go home,” she told Yuri.

“Wait. There they are! Let’s follow them.”

Against her own feeling of caution Yulia followed her younger and more impetuous friend after the men. They emerged from the northern skirt of trees into a smaller field where a grey van waited.

A sturdy man, with a broad face and high forehead below a short crop of dark hair, stood by the van, waiting for the men to bring him the rocket. When it arrived, he checked it over and the two men put the missile in the van. All three men climbed into the cab and the van roared into life. As it skidded past the two children, kicking up the summer dust, the large-broad-faced man waved at them. The van bore the letter RNII on its side.

“Wow! A real rocket!” Yuri declared. He could talk of nothing else on the way home. Yulia could not stop thinking about it either and she would never forget that date; 10 June, 1938, two weeks before her twelfth birthday.





***





Edward Torrens straightened up and grabbed the oily ear of rag that hung out of Don’s lab coat, declaring: “It’s ready Don, I think. What about you?”

“Aye! Ready, Ed.”

Don, the only member of his Rolls Royce Nene team that called his boss Ed, was a working-class Yorkshireman, Edward, a graduate from Dorking. They were Surrey chalk and Yorkshire cheese, but when Don had yelled “Pass Ed!” during a company football match, Edward let the term of endearment go with a smile and they had been close ever since.

“Right! Let’s tidy away and get testing!”

The seven men tightened every bolt on the jet engine’s outer casing, checked the test stand bolts for tension once more and wiped everything clean. Edward left the test chamber through the partition door and took up station with the rest of the team, behind the control panel. Don checked the last few hose connectors and left the chamber, closing the thick door behind him, but struggled to slide in the heavy draw bolt for a moment, with his back turned. Edward couldn’t see what Don was doing.

“Don’t touch the master door lock!” Edward joked.

“I never would. There! Got it!”

Edward completed the test form, pushing his spectacles up on the bridge of his nose to focus better:





Monday 22 July, 1946

RB.41 Nene MK.3 throttle-up test. Attending: Nene team, headed by Donald Hill. Manager: Edward Torrens.





“Right. Fire her up Don!”

Edward’s affable smile belied the tension in the small control room. The cream, concrete partitions had been designed to muffle the sound of WWII piston engines, not stop exotic alloy jet turbine blades, turning three or four times as fast, from exploding. Only a few weeks previously another of Edward’s Nene engineers had been injured when a fragment penetrated the wall and ripped part of his cheek away. As Don pressed the starter button, Edward wondered why such an alchemist’s brew of wires, alloys and unearthly, screaming power amounted only to the placid sounding ‘Nene’ in the Rolls Royce executives’ minds. Everything went well until Edward yelled into Don’s ear at the top of his voice:

“Full power!”

Edward realised he had actually crossed his fingers, just before he heard a high-pitched, metallic ‘ping.’ He lunged for the red cut-off button and smashed it down with his fist.

Don and the others stared at him with blank expressions, as if trapped in a slow-motion movie clip.

“Duck!” Edward yelled, before dropping to the floor and scrambling under the bench, dragging Don with him.

The turbine’s shriek had dropped in pitch about half an octave in those few seconds, but then the air ripped apart with a giant explosion. The sound or rending metal, mixed with the sound of concrete being ripped apart and debris hitting the walls made them shut their eyes and pray.

Eventually, silence returned, followed a moment later by the blaring of alarms and the sound of rushing feet.

“I didn’t hear owt!” Don said between coughs. “Bloody good job the engine revs dropped a few thousand! Or else I don’t think any of us would be here!”

Covered in white concrete dust and debris, the others scrambled to their feet while Edward looked for his spectacles in the debris. He found the metal frames, but the round lenses were both missing.

“I heard it!” he muttered. “A fan blade breaking loose. One of the advantages of managing four test teams and attending all tests – not that Sanderson approves. You learn what to listen for! I lost my spectacles and I think some of the glass went in my eye. I can’t see!”

“Here, let me help you!” Don replied, putting his arm around Edward.

A First Aid officer quickly arrived and found the single, tiny shard of glass in Edward’s eye.

“Hold still Mister Torrens. You’re very lucky! It’s not penetrated, just lying on the surface!”

“Stupid really! I only need them for close work … I usually take them off for tests.”

One of the first people they encountered upon reaching the main shop floor was that of Edward’s boss, Sanderson.

“In my office Edward. Five minutes. Get yourself cleaned up. And what’s wrong with your eyes?”

Glass went in one. Sore as hell. The other is just weeping in sympathy I think! Ha!”

“Good. Ten minutes then!”

Edward exchanged glances with Don through the eye that was still half open. Don raised his eyebrows.

Ten minutes later, Sanderson didn’t waste any time:

“You’re a liability Torrens. This isn’t the first explosion. Your alloys are too brittle. Nimonic 80a was genius, but these exotics you’re trying now are a stretch too far. You’re wasting time and money, my time and my budget! You’re a good metallurgist with a bright future, but unless you stop taking such wild risks, I’ll have to let you go. Do you understand?”

A defiant glint in Edward’s half-open eye must have shown that he didn’t, because Sanderson reiterated:

“Yes, wild! I know Hooker thinks you’ll go far, but I have the final say. This Russian delegation; it’s your last chance. I don’t know why Hooker volunteered you, but the whole deal is backed by no less than Stafford Cripps!” He added, “The President of the Board of Trade and former Minister of Aircraft Production,” as if Edward didn’t know who the man was. “The whole thing is supposed to cement good relations between our two countries. I don’t want anything to go wrong. They will get their Nene engines and they will have a good time doing so. And you will not … balls it up! And remember, they must not work out our secret alloys! If they do, we’re buggered! We don’t mind them having the engines, but we don’t want them building their own!”

“Yes sir.”

“Don’t be late leaving. Be at the main workshop at 4 pm for their guided tour and then go with them to the Midland hotel. Dismissed!”

Edward hated the way Sanderson addressed subordinates as if he were still a Captain on the Army parade ground. When he saw the sour look on Don’s face just outside, he knew he couldn’t hide the truth from his friend.

“Looks like I’m for the high-jump!” Edward said, dabbing his red eyes with a handkerchief.

“Aye. I heard him. It’s not right, shouting like that. And you’re the best talent he has! No justice.”

By the time he left to join the Russian delegation at 4 pm, Edward’s damaged eye had lost its redness and the slight swelling had almost vanished. But his efforts to feel cheerful after Sanderson’s attack were failing and the morose darkness, which often rose in him, threatened to overpower his own shadow beside him when he pushed open the double doors and joined the milling visitors in the machine shop.





***





Edward didn’t trust women. But only his morose mood led Edward to notice anything unusual about the spectacularly beautiful woman’s red shoes that day.

As the Russian delegation filed out of the Rolls Royce factory doors, Artyom Mikoyan paused for a moment, looked up at the sky and declared:

“So is true; always it rains in England!”

Everyone stopped behind the broad Russian while heavy raindrops drummed on the ground. Staring down at the rubber mat and those red, high-heeled shoes, Edward noticed a sliver of something glisten on the wet rubber mat. At first, he assumed it to be a worm and a vivid childhood memory flashed into his mind:

Under the bleaching spotlight of their Dorking patio, his mother, Elizabeth, had paced up and down to show off the shoes that she had just persuaded her husband to buy. She trod on a worm that had been brought up by the evening dew and screamed. Stooping low, she whispered:

“Oh God! I’ve hurt it, maybe even killed it!”

“Fashion is so cruel!” her husband, Dominic, asserted. His tone, sarcastic, because he did not share his wife’s sensitivity to the suffering of beasts, didn’t distract Elizabeth from picking up the worm and placing its half-squashed body in the soil, underneath a chrysanthemum.

“I hope you live!” she whispered.

Edward remembered the worm continuing to writhe under the harsh light from the patio for hours, making him adore his mother even more for her tender heart.

That evening Edward imagined his parents’ closet to be a witch’s cave and crawled in, pointing his torch and Buck Rogers Rocket Pistol ahead. He shone the torch onto the pile of female and male shoes, magical alligators that he had to tame. He carefully lined up the male ones and began doing the same for the females, but he fell asleep before he could complete his quest. His mother found him and scooped him into her arms, declaring:

“Dar-ling! Oh, what a dear! Look Dominic! Come and look!”

She covered Edward’s face in sticky lipstick before tucking him up with a bedtime story.

The drumbeat of heavy raindrops drew Edward’s attention back to the present. The limousine still hadn’t arrived. Mikoyan chatted with Stanley Hooker, a senior Rolls Royce engine designer, but Edward didn’t hear what they said. The shuffling of the Russian woman’s feet had revealed a second silver sliver. The drums in his head told him this was significant, but he couldn’t think why. Then Edward remembered his mother’s shoes in the closet that night.

‘Her soles were rock hard,’ he recalled. ‘These might have picked up one metal shaving from a machine and carried it a few yards, but not two, and not this far. These soles look unusually thick.’

With his memory of the last half hour still fresh, he forced himself to go over the woman’s movement in the workshop. He remembered Mikoyan, the ‘Mi’ half of the MiG aircraft company, trying to get close to the lathe and milling machines, before Hooker stopped him. Mikoyan had sent the woman to fetch something for him from the office. When she had returned, Edward thought he recalled her going by mistake to the lathe that cut the turbine blades for the Nene engine. He went over the memory again and recalled more clearly her stopping at that lathe. Hooker had glanced at her and Mikoyan called her away.

‘She could have deliberately picked up shavings from the lathe, if her soles were made of soft, thick rubber. Maybe she’s a spy!’

The black Daimler arrived and the party climbed in. With difficulty Edward managed to find a seat next to the woman. Finding that her perfume intoxicated him he inhaled deeply while the car glided through the roads of Derby. He couldn’t help revelling in the touch on his wrist by her dress, which clung to her like a second skin, but seemed too tight for her to keep still. Edward longed to touch her legs and realised, with surprise, that he felt a deep attraction to her, an attraction that he hadn’t felt for any woman in a very long time. The big Daimler engine’s power kicked in, making the dress material rustle on her sheer stockings as the woman fell slightly forward. She turned to him, slightly embarrassed, and smiled, but he looked away, out of the window. Her smile reminded him momentarily of his Ewa’s.





***





Edward automatically recalled the teary telephone call from his fiancée’s mother on 28 March, 1945:

“Another one of them V2 rocket bombs fell in Whitechapel yesterday,” her teary voice gasped between sobs. “Ewa was one of those killed. I’m sorry! I have to go!”

He still couldn’t order his feelings from that night, when he had felt only sheer disbelief; he thought the War almost over and the V2 attacks finished. Angrily he pushed the memory away.

Since then, Edward had stumbled through a string of failed romances, never quite regaining the optimism of his youth that had helped fire his relationship with Ewa. The string ended in his marriage to a second-generation Czech immigrant, Viktoria. Her lively nature and eagerness to please had bewitched him, but the marriage had quickly turned sour.

Now his confidence had reached an all-time low. Since Viktoria’s affair one year before, he had only been granted the privilege of sex with her twice. The previous night had been a, “No!” The price he had paid to keep his marriage intact had become too great.

“It’s Rolls Royce for Christ’s sake!” Viktoria railed, at breakfast that Monday morning. “One of the richest companies in the world. Everybody’s heard of Rolls Royce. They must be able to pay for your wife to go for one day! It would be wonderful! A luxurious hotel in Derby! A day out from godforsaken Barnoldswick! There’s nothing here but a bridge club! I bet the other executives are taking their wives! Besides, I’m proud of what you’ve achieved. Working with Lucas to come up with magical expansion chambers! No wonder senior management are taking notice.” Viktoria’s Czech upbringing made her emphasise everything, as if putting up a defence for her life.

“Well I think my promotion has more to do with my acting talented! It seems like I’m achieving wonders, because I’m good at taking all the credit for the ideas of others! And I told you; there is nothing magical about the chambers. That’s just what we tell the Russians to put them off the scent of a real secret. It’s fake, like almost everything else in my life!”

Edward finished his scrambled eggs on toast and left to catch the milk train to Derby without either of them speaking another word. Only on the train did he guess that Viktoria would have interpreted his last comment to mean that she was fake!

‘Oh god!’ he thought.





***





Edward turned from watching the smoke-stained streets of Derby roll by, to glance at the woman beside him. Her exotic beauty intoxicated him. Like a great, green dragon, he knew it would consume him, if she spoke to him, even once, and thereafter he would be powerless against her, but she remained silent.

‘I have to think of myself now,’ he told himself. ‘This Russian girl’s up to something. I know it. Maybe this is my chance, a chance for promotion! And yet if I accused the Russians now, without proof, Sanderson will have all he needs to fire me. No, better to report it to The Vapour.’

Edward read avidly, comics most of all. He often gave secret names to people he didn’t like, so at first, he called the man, who had appeared next to him on the Derby pavement, The Creep. But because the man proved creepier than other creeps and had a habit of smoking incessantly, Edward had renamed him. The Vapour told Edward:

“We know about the Russian delegation. I work for the government and we will be watching you and the other Rolls employees, just for protection. You need to be careful; giving information to the Russians is a hanging offence. And if you need help, you only have to call Whitehall 71 and say your name, or drop a crushed matchbox into the gutter.”

The last instruction disconcerted Edward most, because it meant they were watching him night and day. He knew they would be watching him now. He tapped the outside of his breast pocket for his spectacle case, a nervous habit.

Outside the Rolls Royce headquarters the limousine stopped and the party disembarked. Trying to make it look like a natural movement, Edward stooped to check the car’s carpet where the woman’s stilettos had been. He felt somehow disappointed when he saw a few shiny slivers there.

When the party reached the chairman’s office, Artyom Mikoyan signed an order that allowed him to leave with ten Nene engines and their spare parts on Saturday and receive fifteen more the following March. Stanley Hooker announced the dinner that would be held in the Midland Hotel that evening and turned to Edward:

“You stay with the delegation Edward. Make sure they’re happy. See you at dinner tonight.” Hooker’s smile reassured the young manager that he was doing alright, so he followed the Russians back to the limousine feeling more confident. But this time the woman sat on the opposite side of the engine designer, Vladimir Klimov, and one other official. Three more Russians sat in front, facing the rear, each wearing a heavy, black raincoat and a short, fur cap. Edward had been briefed that they worked for Russian intelligence, the NKVD, so he tried to avoid making eye contact. Mikoyan sat on the front seat, half turned with his sturdy arm on the seat back, so that he could joke loudly with the other Russian, while the face of the oldest agent, a short, thick-set man with dark hair above a receding hairline, never held anything but a dour expression.

Suddenly the woman seemed to notice something outside the window and cracked a joke in Russian. She laughed, but Mikoyan turned and yelled at her, mortifying the woman into silence and shocking Edward. Mikoyan turned to threaten her for a second time, this time with a glare that looked brutal and terrifying to Edward.

‘So she is a victim too,’ he thought. ‘She’s been forced into this, but I can save her. I won’t tell The Vapour about my suspicions just yet.’





***





During the lavish roast beef dinner, Edward felt most acutely aware of one thing; his impatience to get closer to the radiant blonde.

She sat next to the dour agent, slightly further down the opposite side of the table from Edward. The Russian had a broad face, deep-set eyes and a mouth that curved downwards at its ends. During the soup, his hand touched Yulia’s frequently, but she didn’t flinch.

Edward did. Nevertheless, he forced himself to try and get her attention, but she never noticed him until a waiter served coffee. Her glance seemed to speak to him of warmth and curiosity. He felt he had been given the keys to the castle, been given permission to drink down all of her beauty and his heart fluttered in wild abandon.

Whereas her hair had been tied back previously, framing her features, but giving her a slightly serious look, now her mane of wavy, blonde hair rested on her delicate shoulders above a white, ladder-back evening dress, reminding Edward of the variegated gold of ripe corn under an August sun.

‘Appropriate perhaps for somebody from the pastoral plains of Russia,’ he mused.

Her face would have been considered too thin, were it not for her very large, brown eyes, crinkled at the corner by natural laughter lines. A delicate, concave nose sat above a full mouth, with ruby red lips, whose creases, running diagonally to the fragile side-orbs of her nose, suggested laughter as ready as that of a little girl. Her ears, now concealed by that golden sheaf, had reminded him earlier of fine sea shells, and her neck curved as finely as that of a swan. Edward had to wait for the right moment, and suck in his breath, to dare glance lower.

Below delicate shoulders, narrow but not so much as to make her head look big, swooped a cleavage that out-stripped any man’s fantasy Helen of Troy. She laughed at one of Mikoyan’s jokes and looked down, before meeting anyone’s gaze.

In that moment, Edward had drunk in his most secret fantasy. A night with this woman would answer every question that he had ever asked. He knew he would not dare to look at her again during the meal, so he stared at the starched, white table cloth, twirling his wine glass stem between his fingers for a while, in case any of the party had noticed his forbidden glance. But his exile came not without pleasure. His crotch had stiffened without him noticing, so ardently surged his passion, but its waning proved to be a gradual, down-hill run, full of the recollection of dreams and desires that could last a man a lifetime. At its end, he felt only an indescribable ache, which pressed its wings around his very soul.

Conversation around the table waned, so Edward glanced up, more out of fear than curiosity. Mikoyan raised his hand and everyone fell silent. The large Armenian swept back his flamboyant bang of greased, black hair, turned to Edward and said:

“We are not introduced.”

“Edward Torrens.”

“You very young. Are you engineer?”

“Yes. I think you could say that.”

“And you work on Nene engine?”

Edward nodded, so the Armenian continued:

“Which part you work on?”

This was the moment Edward had nervously anticipated. Noting Hooker’s warning expression, he took time to consider before answering:

“The expansion chambers. We have a new technique, part of the reason for the engine’s great power output.”

Mikoyan studied him coldly and replied:

“Yes! Yes! But we have no problem with expansion chambers! Stator and rotor blades, we have problems with. With such high temperatures as Nene engine, they disintegrate. I understand you have new material … ?”

“All materials in our engines are top secret, I’m afraid.”

Mikoyan played with his glass, looking disappointed. The dour NKVD agent rested his sour face on both his hands and peered into Edward’s eyes while the woman leaned back on the chair, so that she could see the side of the agent’s head. The NKVD man’s look froze the young Englishman’s heart and he realised the woman would not glance at him again, perhaps ever.

Mikoyan turned back to Klimov and conversation stuttered into life around the table. But nobody even glanced at Edward.

‘What’s so fascinating about that fat Russian!’ he wondered.

Edward gulped down his dessert of fruit salad and passed on coffee and biscuits, making the excuse that he felt tired. But he didn’t go to his Suite. He steeled himself for the task of catching out the Russians. For this he would need the woman’s room number and he prayed that she would be staying alone. He stopped at the bar and sipped a double whiskey on the rocks while he waited.





***





Before the limousine had reached the Midland Hotel, Yulia had already become interested in the handsome Englishman. His nose might be considered too big and his eyes too close together, but his short-cropped brown hair and gaunt face gave him a hawkish look, which she liked, and his eyes were blue. She had also noticed the mark on his nose that indicated a man who wore glasses, something else she found attractive. He glanced frequently at her feet, or more accurately, her shoes. At first, she felt glad that he had noticed her feet before anything else.

‘Perhaps he will not be like other men, only staring at my cleavage when talking to me. He would have seen my ankles, which I know are fatter than those of most Russian girls, for my height and weight – ugly even.’

“If you have a fault, hide it with a virtue and shout it from the rooftops!” her mother had told her. “My own bust is too small – your daddy told me so – so I wear a padded brazier, which makes me look like Jane Russell!” With this, Yulia’s mother cupped her bust and jiggled it up and down with a glint of joy in her eyes. “It makes all the locals jealous and your daddy proud.”

Hence the red shoes. But the discomfort of walking on shoes with metal shavings embedded in the soles had stung her feet and stilted her gait, making her feel even more nervous. Her NKVD training had shown her how to observe without being noticed, so she had seen the young man stoop to check the floor of the car before climbing out at the Rolls Royce headquarters. Now she had the hardening conviction that he had noticed something, and not her ugly feet.

‘He must have seen the shavings!’ she realised, horrified. ‘What if he works out what I have done?’

But Yulia knew she was beautiful. This fact had always been her ace in any game with men. When she walked into a room she knew every man would watch her, respect her for her power. Her beauty had, however, proved to be a glass cage in the game of life; she looked at everything through the filter of men’s desire. She could always tell when men were staring at her, even when her eyes were closed. Only very rarely did a man not stare at her, and then only because he tried too hard to ignore her. But this young man had ignored her until he saw her feet. Perhaps, she speculated, because he felt sad about something, he had been staring at the ground and noticed her shoes, the one eventuality she hadn’t anticipated.

Yulia resisted the urge to chuckle at the coincidence in the car, but consequently half-choked. The young man glanced at her with concern on his face, so she had to smile. He didn’t smile back. This made her feel anger, the same anger she felt when her uncle Makar told her she was fat. How clever he had been.





***





When Yulia heard from her uncle in the NKVD that he was involved in planning a mission to England, and to Rolls Royce in Derby no less, she couldn’t wait to get involved. She begged him to talk to the right people, move mountains, and he had.

Her childhood in Porozhek had been dreary at best, and at worst, a nightmare. Her other uncle, Makar, ran the grocer’s shop in the nearest big town, Tosno, and came to visit a few months after she had seen the rocket. Scared of his unfamiliar face, she went to hide in the shed with their old goat.

“Hello Yulia. Do you still have the football?” he said, when he found her.

“No. I gave it to the boys to play with and they punctured it.”

“Oh. I see. Are you going to milk that old goat? What’s her name?”

“Her name is Udashka!”

They both laughed.

“Does she always kick then?”

“Only strangers.”

The joke had taken away Yulia’s fear of her strange uncle. She looked more closely behind the bushy black beard, which had been greased back in typical Russian macho style, and could see the glint of intelligent curiosity in his eyes. His ham-sized hands pressed against two oak pillars of the shed, making her imagine that he could bring the building down like Samson, if he wanted. The thought excited her strangely.

“You are becoming pretty!” her uncle declared.

“Oh. Do you think so?”

“Except your ankles look a little fat. But I can’t tell about your legs under that stupid regulation tunic!”

“Oh.” Yulia felt a little disappointed and wanted to look at her own ankles to see if she agreed with her uncle, but felt too embarrassed, so continued to play the frayed strands of a coiled rope between her fingers. She felt hot in the shed, but the bead of sweat on her forehead still surprised her.

“So are you going to milk her?” her uncle continued, crouching by the tethered goat.

“I don’t usually. But it doesn’t look as if mother has done it, so I could. Wait!”

Yulia cast around for the wooden pale and found it. She lifted the pale, placed it between Udashka’s hind legs and dragged the milking stool over to sit on. Her uncle’s jumper sleeves were rolled up and she could see his enormous biceps bunch and flex as he kept his balance on his heels by gripping his knees. She wondered what his biceps would feel like to touch, but would only have asked, if he had been younger.

Makar crabbed over to crouch beside her as she began squeezing the goat’s udders. After a few squeezes, the first of the creamy milk spattered the pale bottom and spread out to form a shallow pool. He suddenly reached out and pulled her tunic up over her knees, such a sudden movement that she didn’t consider stopping him. They both studied her thigh while she continued to milk.

“Um. Maybe not so fat, but still a little,” Makar remarked.

“Oh. Sorry.”

Yulia quickly brushed down the hem of her tunic. She thought this might have looked to her uncle as if she wanted to hide her shamefully fat thigh, but she felt embarrassed by his stare. However, to her dismay, when she glanced at him again, she saw him brazenly staring at her chest, whereupon she stood up quickly, so that he couldn’t touch her there. Makar became very angry and left, slamming the barn door behind him and racing the engine of his van as he drove away. Her father avoided her for almost a week. She was thirteen.





***





The fetid odour in the shed that day still stuck to Yulia’s memories like ordure. But yes, she knew she would be able to make the young man keep quiet, as long as he sought her out, and Kirill had already found out that the young man would be staying in the Midland Hotel until Saturday. He would come to her before then.

The limousine stopped outside the Hotel and Yulia followed the NKVD General to his Suite, where she asked him to find out the young man’s name and more about his background.

“You think he knows something?” the General asked her.

“I am not sure comrade Bregovsky. It’s best for us to be prepared. Tell Gregori to be prepared for Plan B.”

Kirill Bregovsky levelled his gaze at her and she met it boldly. After a few moments, he broke away to get dressed for dinner, her signal to leave.

The dinner bored Yulia. Once she had decided when and how to smile at the young man, she had nothing left to do, but tolerate Kirill’s touches and smile at the Rolls executives when appropriate. Her smile for Edward went well, although she couldn’t be quite sure that the instant of pure innocence she gave him was false, as it usually was.

Yulia’s only awkward moment came when the young man refused to help Mikoyan with information about the turbines. After this the Russian designer pulled away from her, forcing her to try and touch his hands, something she hadn’t done before. The mock-paternal approach to their relationship that he seemed to prefer required her to feign a certain chaste intimacy with him, but she could tell he felt angry when he rebuffed any further touches. She hoped she had mollified him somewhat and withdrew into herself.

At first, her thoughts circled around the young Englishman, whom she now knew to be called Edward. His dark hair lacked the flamboyant bang or ‘wave’ that wealthy Russian men always sported, something about him that pleased her, but she could see insecurity and deception in his blue eyes, although she felt the deception must be for the other members of the party. She considered herself to be a good judge of men and beneath all the complex layers of emotion reflected in his eyes, she believed she had seen the steady light of honesty.

Yulia still wanted to believe good men existed, but she found it hard to do so. She let her mind wander back to her home village of Porozhek. She missed the endless sweep of green forest and the pretty, wooden chalets. She had met many senior NKVD officers who might have appreciated one as a dacha, but she intended keeping Porozhek a secret until she had earned enough roubles to buy one herself.

Her memory cast back yet further, to the night after seeing the rocket. At first, she couldn’t sleep, but must have drifted off eventually, because she had a dream that seemed real, in which she flew on a witch’s broomstick. Flight seemed effortless, so she soared higher and faster, across all of Russia and then Europe. Whichever way she wanted to go, the broomstick would take her. Everything she saw seemed a darker or lighter shade of black, but also somehow magically beautiful. She felt a cool power and energy course through her, so she flew higher and higher, until Yuri’s voice warned her that she had flown too high. She laughed at his uncharacteristic caution, but then she jolted awake in her bunk.

“You were dreaming Yulia!” her little brother, Demitri, whispered. “I was scared for you.”

She lay awake, wondering about the strange dream. It had been so vivid that she wondered if she were sleeping now.

She snapped back to the Midland Hotel dinner and glanced at Kirill, thinking that he reminded her of Sergei Korolev, the rocket designer, who she had later learned waved at them from the van on the day of the rocket launch.

But the memory of her uncle visiting again in the autumn of that year chased that happy memory from her mind. This time he had brought his own goat and led it out of the grocery van on a leather leash. Yulia laughed at the irony, but her laughter turned to anxiety when she heard them arguing in the parlour. She put her ear to the door and heard Makar’s raised voice say:

“Shut up you foolish woman. This is no concern of yours. Do you want the goat or the money?”

The first icy blasts of the winter had begun, so it would have been dangerous for Yulia to stand outside for long, wearing just her tunic. She pushed the door open and coughed loudly.

All three combatants stopped to stare at her. Her mother’s weatherworn face cracked into a smile, but her uncle whispered something into her father’s ear and together they left the room.

“Go to your room and stay there,” her mother whispered, with a note of warning in her voice.

Yulia did as her mother told her, but then her Uncle came and …

She had to thrust the thought of what he did to her down to the very bottom of her soul, and jerked in her seat with the effort. Kirill snapped his face around to stare at her, so she grinned artlessly, as if she had just been falling asleep.

She wanted to be held, but had to settle for stroking the cool surface of a silver spoon.





***





Edward followed the Russians when they left the restaurant and saw the woman enter Suite 36 with the dour NKVD agent. Edward’s Suite, 31, was on the same floor. He sat on the edge of his bed, wondering what to do. He hadn’t even unpacked his suitcase.

‘I have to confront her,’ he thought. ‘I have to talk to her and give her a chance to confess. I’m the only one who can … .’

He strode to the door before completing the sentence, walked the short distance to her Suite and pressed his ear to the white-painted panel, but could hear nothing from within. His heart seemed to be trying to pound its way out of his chest, but shaking his head at his own indecision, he tapped his knuckles on the door.

“Da?”

“Hello. It’s Edward Torrens … . From Rolls Royce. I’m so sorry to disturb you … .”

He expected an angry NKVD agent to wrench the door open and glare at him, but the sweet face of the Russian woman confronted him:

“Oh, hello. Come in!”

“Thank you. Am I … disturbing anything?” he said, casting a long sweeping glance around the reception room for Russian men.

“No. But you caught me unprepared,” Yulia lied. “Wait a moment!”

Wearing only a white bath robe and with her blonde tresses piled on top of her head, she cleared a space amid copies of Vogue and Bazaar on the sofa.

“Sit down please,” she said in impeccable English.

“I would rather stand … .”

“Alright. Do you want a drink?”

“No thank you. I have come to ask you something.”

Edward tried to feel comfortable, but found his weight balanced well neither on one foot nor the other. He suddenly felt like a Roman gladiator in a vast arena.

“There’s something I want to ask you … ,” he began. “No tell you … . I’m sure I will be listened to, if I’m correct.”

Yulia passed him, seeming not to hear, so Edward touched her arm to stop her. She smiled thinly and obediently perched on the edge of a lavishly upholstered lounge chair.

“Sorry. You have my complete attention,” she replied, lifting her gaze to stare directly into his eyes. “I like men who wear glasses. They are thinkers! I prefer men who can think to those with big muscles and no brains! And you have such lovely blue eyes!”

Edward blurted:

“I saw you, on the mat at the entrance to Rolls. Two slivers of metal by your shoes. This is not normal! There were two or three more on the carpet in the car! Do I make myself clear?”

Edward turned around to see her clasping her knees with her hands. She didn’t reply. He looked around, as if expecting Russians to burst through the door.

“Perhaps I should go,” he said.

“No, wait!” she replied, jumping up. “Let me fix you a drink!” Her robe parted slightly, revealing more of her cleavage. “The Hotel gave us a complimentary bottle of vodka, which isn’t too bad.”

“Thanks, Miss … ?”

“Call me Yulia. My last name is Panedolia, if you want to know it.”

“It sounds Greek, but pretty. Yulia sounds pretty.”

“I was warned about charming Englishmen.”

“Ha!” Edward took the glass from her hand and tasted the clear spirit, before grimacing. “Do you have lemon juice or water?”

“I don’t have lemon. Can I use English tap water? I mean; is it safe here?”

“I think so. We’re certainly told so.”

“Oh. Alright then. Wait.”

Yulia took his glass and topped up the vodka with water from the bathroom sink tap.

Edward took a sip and rolled the cold liquid around on his tongue. He heard a train whistle and thought he heard the slow, deep ‘chuff, chuff’ of a train moving. Yulia heard something different and went to the door. Confused, Edward wondered if he could have heard a steam engine’s exhaust blast. Ignoring Yulia, he looked to one of the sash windows and for the first time, noticed that it was open.

“Da!” he heard Yulia say, with the door held open a crack. She followed this with a torrent of Russian, to which a deep voice that Edward recognised as Mikoyan’s, occasionally replied, before she closed the door. “Is it good?” she said, returning to her chair.

“Sorry, I didn’t notice.” Edward sipped again. “Yes, I can confirm that it is good. Unusual … . I don’t think I have had vodka before. What’s it made from?”

“Potato skins, usually.”

“Oh, I see.”

“You were saying?”

“Um. Yes. As I was saying … . Um … .”

“Shall I tell you how I came to work for Kirill?” Yulia interjected.

“Kirill?”

“General Kirill Bregovky. I am not so naïve as to think that you don’t know he is an NKVD agent.”

Edward’s hesitant nod was all she needed. “It all started when I saw my first rocket launch, in 1938. I come from a little village, not far from Leningrad … . You know where that is?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Northern Russia, but not far from Poland and Moscow. My village is very small and nothing ever happens there. Well, not much anyway … . One day my friend Yuri – he was, is, two years younger than me – and I went for a ride on my father’s old bicycle. There is a field where we liked to roll and play. All little children do this, even English children, yes?”

“In summer, yes.”

“Da! I mean; good! England is not so boring then! Ha! We were running, actually, no, Yuri had just been running, but now we were walking when we saw a silver – it was no more than a flash of silver in the sky. It was hard for us to follow with our eyes, but Yuri became very excited. He jumped up and down and ran after it. But do you know what I felt?”

“No.”

“I wanted to know how the rocket worked and whether it could reach the stars! Ha! I am such a dreamer! Anyway, we saw two men and followed them to a truck. A man waved at us. On the side of the van, it said ‘RNII.’ Later, when I went to Leningrad, I found that this meant the ‘Jet Propulsion Research Institute.’ Sergei Korolev was the name of its head and I found a photograph of him. He is the one who waved at me. He became my hero from that day! The Institute had government backing, so I knew that getting into the Army might allow me to meet Korolev. When Leningrad agents came to our village searching for engineering students two years later, Yuri signed up! Much later I wrote to him and he sent for me. It was Yuri who helped me to join the Army.” Yulia frowned. “Korolev was the first to achieve a launch of a liquid-fuelled rocket. I always wanted to be an engineer, since I was a little girl. Then I wanted to be a rocket designer.”

Edward had been surprised by Yulia’s use of the phrase ‘liquid-fuelled,’ but put it down to her absorption of Soviet propaganda, shrugged and replied:

“Oh. I’m not keen on rockets … .”

Edward left the comment to hang, which only intrigued Yulia more, but she decided to tuck the detail away for later.

“It doesn’t matter,” she continued. “Russia is very different to Great Britain! Tell me about your childhood.”

Edward wasn’t keen to be deflected from his interrogation, even less to talk about his childhood, but they both sensed the presence of a determined adversary and both were as keen as the other to explore the other’s strengths and weaknesses, so he nodded. He knew himself to be an introvert, but he could think of several events during his childhood that made him look like an indestructible extrovert and given him a confidence that had made him into a good leader. He decided to serve one of these up to her on a plate.





***





Edward’s memory of the event remained particularly vivid.

“I don’t know why, but you made me think of something that happened with my brother – my younger brother, Sam,” he began.

“Go on … .”

“We used to stay in the country, when I was about eleven. There was a river, with an island. I always wanted to explore it, but we didn’t have a boat and dad said it was too dangerous to swim in the river, because it was fast-flowing. Anyway, there was a tall tree, an elm, I think, on our bank and its branches reached right over the river to touch the branches of another tree – I can’t remember what type of tree – on the island. Sam and I used to climb this elm tree, because it was so old that some of its branches hung down, almost to the ground. I was the best climber in school. Sorry, I’m boasting, but everyone said I was. Maybe I got overconfident, because this day – it was a hot one; I know that because I only had my t-shirt on – I didn’t just want to climb to the top, but I climbed out on one of the thicker branches, about two-thirds of the way up. ‘What are you doing?’ Sam yelled. I didn’t reply, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I seemed to be in some kind of dream and felt I couldn’t stop and shouldn’t. I don’t know, it was strange … . Sam kept shouting that I should stop and come down, but I kept on going. Soon I was on the thinnest branches, which were dipping and waving around. I don’t know how I stayed on! They should have snapped, but they didn’t. It was like a dream. And I held my breath and then I was on the branches of the other tree and before I knew it, I had climbed down onto the island.”

“Wow! How did you feel?”

“Well, at first, I didn’t feel that different. But then I knew my heart had been pounding like crazy and I hadn’t even noticed. Sam was staring at me like I was a ghost and then I looked up at the branches and I couldn’t see how I did it! I could never have done it again. Something happened to me that day. Sam still talks about it.”

“How did you get back?”

“Well that’s the funny thing. On the opposite side of the island was an old bridge, which led to a path. I followed this and came to the main road. It took me an hour to find the way back to our lodge. Sam and I didn’t tell my parents, so they never knew. My dad would have killed me!”

“He was strict?”

“Well, my mother was an Angel, but my dad was – well, how do I describe him? He is full of himself and full of fantasies. He made some money as a beer salesman – even went to America just before the War – so we had a nice house in Dorking … . Put it this way, when he was drunk he liked to be called Major Torrens. You know why?”

“No …”

“He served in World War One, but only achieved the rank of Corporal. But after the War, he signed up for the Volunteer Reserve. They met every so often and he eventually got promoted to Captain. But it wasn’t a real rank; I think they just gave it to him for longevity. Anyway, just before the last war, they said they would promote him to Major, if he volunteered for full-time service, but he never did. So now he tells everyone he’s a Major. That’s what he’s like. He stretches every truth until it becomes a lie … in my opinion.”

“But he is good at selling.”

“Yes.”

“And your mother loves him.”

“Yes. She did. But she loved all creatures great and small! Ha!”

“Was she very nice?”

“She was adorable. She never shouted or lost her temper with me – I heard her shout at dad a few times … .”

“And your brother?”

“I have a sister too, Susan. She is the youngest and she’s so cute. She really makes me laugh, but I don’t see enough of her. Sam? He’s always been my best mate. There was another … incident … like the tree one that tells you what Sam’s like. He hasn’t a hint of ego. He never thinks much about himself. He’s happiest helping others, including Susan. He really takes care of her! Anyway, he had really put on weight by the time of this second adventure. Again, it involved a river, on a waste ground near a factory in Dorking. We were bored, so I suggested we build a raft. We made it from pallets and old oil-drums, which we bound together with twine … .”

“Twine?”

“String.”

“Alright. Go on.”

“So we put this thing in the water – it was only a stream about twenty feet wide – and the thing floated nicely. I went first and I had a paddle made from a plank of wood. I must say; the raft sank underwater at one corner and it was tricky to steer, but I reached the other side without getting wet and Sam pulled it back with a rope that he tossed over. Remember, he was fatter and heavier than me at this time. He climbed on and … well … he started to sink straight away! But he wasn’t angry. He just laughed and went completely in! We just laughed all the way home. He was so funny. Mum laughed too, but dad wasn’t so amused … . I don’t know why, but I find you very easy to talk to. I should really be asking you about something else. But I don’t want to.”

“Oh. Maybe we will talk about that soon. Tell me a bit more. Please?”

“You know, I’m not sure you’re not trying to side-track me!”

Yulia furrowed her eyebrows and stared at the ceiling. “I was warned about double-negatives. English speech can be so indirect. Too polite to understand. Let me think about that. And what is ‘side-track?’”

“Sorry. To divert.”

“Alright. Hm. Well, I wasn’t trying to do that. I just like listening. We never get to meet people from England normally. Russia is beautiful and I love it, but it has deficiencies.”

“Hm. Well, what would you like to know?”

“Holidays! Tell me about one. We never have them. Only the rich have them.”

“I’m sure you’re just teasing me! Oh, well. Let me think. Sidmouth, 1933! Sidmouth is a holiday town, on the coast. The beach doesn’t have sand, but pebbles. That’s not very comfortable, but at least the sand doesn’t get into your sandwiches! We had been going there almost every year since I was three. Dad liked it, because one of the Royal Family stayed there, so it was quite up-market. Enough for his tastes anyway. The weather had been changeable just before we went; I remember my parents arguing in the kitchen whether we should go. Mum didn’t want to go because she thought it would rain. Anyway, it was the summer holidays and I was bored of playing at home, so I wanted to go. Do you have summer holidays?”

“At school? Yes, it varies, but in a farming community like ours, it is more than two months. The children are needed for the harvest.”

“Oh, of course! Well, it’s hard for me to describe how idyllic Sidmouth could be. I’m no poet! We stayed in a lovely old hotel, set back from the sea-front, called Green Gables. It looked like an old Empire pavilion and had sweeping lawns and a grass bank, down which Sam, Susan and I would frequently roll, making our clothes green! I don’t know what date we arrived that particular year, but I remember thunderstorms on the first night and then it got really hot. The days just seemed to roll on forever; playing in the foaming waves on the beach, idly window-shopping, walking on the cliff-tops, fishing and just lying on the grass at the hotel, reading a book! Oh, and they used to play gramophone records at breakfast and evening meals; Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, last movement.” Edward hummed the tune. “Da-da, de da-da, de da, de da, de da … . Do you know it?”

“Ha! Ha! Yes, it is famous in Russia too. But what is ‘window-shopping?’ Shopping for windows?”

“Ha! Ha! No, looking at things in shops without actually buying anything. Do you do that?”

“In Porozhek? That’s my village. No! We don’t have any shops! The nearest are in Tosno, but they often don’t have windows and the storekeepers don’t like you doing that. Anyway, who wants to look at vegetables, or tins of food?”

“You don’t have dress shops?”

“There may be, but my family is poor. I have shopped in Moscva – Moscow. As you saw at dinner, Mikoyan buys me nice dresses!”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, your childhood sounds idyllic, like a dream. Just as you said! Where are Sam and Susan now?”

“Well, Sam has joined the RAF – he’s studying at Cranwell. Susan is training to be a nurse.”

“And were there any girls in … Sidmouth?”

“You are clever. I was going to tell you about her, but I thought not to.”

“Don’t be shy. Why should you leave out somebody who made you happy?”

Edward blushed deep red and coughed once before answering:

“Could I have just one more vodka please?”

“Of course.”

This interlude gave him more time to measure out how much he would reveal in his story. He knew that the time had come to steer the subject back to the reason for his visit, so he worked out how to link back. Yulia put as little water in the vodka as she thought she could get away with.

“So?” she said, handing him his drink and tucking her legs under herself on the chair.

“Well, it was one of those days. You know? I was lying on the lawn, looking up at the sky and, well, just drifting. I don’t remember any distinct thoughts. The sun just does that to you, sings you into a dream.”

“Ha! You have a lovely way of using words. You should be a writer!”

“Oh no. I would be hopeless! I don’t have the patience and I’m not very poetic!”

“Hm.”

“Anyway, I thought I saw movement and rolled over to look. This girl – she looked like Susan – wearing a white summer frock, came toward me. But it wasn’t Susan. And this girl had a halo of gold hair, like yours, but the sun shone straight through it when she stood over me. I don’t remember what she said, but we became friends. Her name was Amanda, or Sandy, or something simple like that.”

“Friends? Did you kiss her?”

“Well, yes. I think I did. My first kiss. I don’t remember much; sitting on the bed, talking about school and boys, the sun streaming in and both of us being relaxed … . I think I touched her hand and she smiled at me, so I kissed her, without thinking. But listen, great as these memories are, it’s not what I came to talk to you about. It’s getting late and I need an answer!”





Chapter Two





“What answer do you need?” Yulia asked.

“Listen; I’m very loyal to Rolls Royce and I have not just me to think about, but my family. This could go very badly for us if I just … let this go!”

Edward paced up and down in front of Yulia, but she only smiled. Her smile reminded him of someone’s. She ventured:

“Listen, there is no point in getting angry. I am sure we can come to an agreement. Is your sister beautiful?”

“What?”

Yulia’s conciliatory tone, combined with the incongruous question, forced Edward to sit down. Now he felt caught between the hope of a solution and a veiled threat.

“I mean; is she more beautiful than me?”

“I don’t think that’s relevant!”

“Just be patient. Is she?”

“Well, she’s pretty, but not so pretty as you!”

“You think I am pretty?”

Edward swirled the last of his vodka around the bottom of the glass and fixed his gaze on the patterns it made.

“Let me fix you one more,” Yulia offered.

Edward felt tempted to tell her about Viktoria, but remained silent. Yulia emptied the bottle of vodka on the shelf and handed him a glass of almost neat spirit.

“Let me turn the light down. It’s been a long day!” she whispered.

She stood and walked to a sideboard where she switched on a table lamp. Her bathrobe had become so loose that Edward could see almost to the top of her alabaster thigh when she passed him. She walked to the door and switched off the main light, leaving the room bathed in warm mid-tones of brown, reflections from the furniture and wallpaper.

Sitting on the arm of the chair, she crossed her legs and balanced her arms on her knees, clasping her hands together. He had expected her to lounge languorously on the chair in order to seduce him, but instead she seemed to focus all her attention on Edward.

“So, am I pretty?” she asked again.

Edward tried to stare at his drink and replied:

“Eh hm! If I were to find out one of the delegation has been trying to steal information about the alloy we use in the form of metal shavings … . With these shavings, your engineers could reverse engineer our rotors and build an engine, even a better engine for themselves. I would have to report it!”

“Of course! I would expect that! Is my English good? I am very attracted to Englishmen. When do you leave the Hotel?”

“Saturday.”

“We can spend some time together before then?”

Edward’s fingers involuntarily relaxed around his drink, so that he had to catch the falling glass with his other hand, spilling some of clear spirit in his effort. He licked his finger-tips and told her:

“I’m married. Her name’s Viktoria.”

“Oh. But … .” Yulia pointed to his hand.

“No wedding ring? No. I stopped wearing it. Bravado really.”

“Sorry? I don’t understand.”

“It’s nothing. Listen, I can’t answer your questions. I’m interested in only one. You keep offering me just enough to make me stay, but not enough to make me go away! Which do you want?”

“I don’t want you to go away … .”

“Okay, maybe I worded that badly. I mean I’m getting tired of being teased. I will have to report you, if you don’t reassure me you know nothing about what I have told you! And I’m beginning to think you do!”

Yulia did her best to look as if she were about to cry. She replied, using a voice full of cracked emotion:

“If I helped you, could we spend some time together?”

“Well … if I can see the red shoes first.”

“It’s a deal!”

Yulia stepped into the bedroom and returned with the pair of red shoes. She placed them into Edward’s nervous hands and sat down, facing him, while he looked them over.

“Seems like the same pair,” he observed. “But maybe you had two?”

Edward held the shoes tentatively, as if they were somewhere between a pair of nuclear bombs and fine Rembrandts. He could smell a faint odour of salty sweat, mixed with a delicate floral fragrance, new leather and something else, which he couldn’t place. Edward turned the red shoes over and stared at the soles, but he could only see faint indents where metal shavings might have been embedded. Shaking his head slowly, he declared:

“These soles look very thick … .”

“Oh.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know. These are the latest fashion in Leningrad.”

She snatched away the shoes.

Edward replied, “I think I have to tell my superiors,” and stood up.

“Okay. But I know nothing about any theft from the factory Edward. I swear it! And Bregovsky, I mean Kirill, gave these shoes to me. He asked me to wear them. I should have been suspicious! They are hardly the ideal shoes for walking around an engineering workshop!”

“Good bye Miss Pana … .”

“Pan-e-dolia. Good bye Edward. It’s been lovely meeting you.”

After Edward had gone, Yulia stared into space, mulling over her own thoughts for a few precious moments while waiting for the inevitable. It came when Kirill burst into the room and shouted:

“What did he say? Does he know anything? He was here for a long time!”

“He doesn’t know. He just suspects,” she snapped back.

“What about?”

“The shoes. I showed him.”

“What? You crazy bitch!”

“There was nothing there. Where are the filings now?”

“You don’t need to know that! Hm. Artyom and his men are analysing them. But they’re useless without the engines! We must keep them off the trail until Saturday.”

“Find out more about him; more about his family and friends. Something I can use.”

“Alright. But where has he gone now?”

“I don’t know. He was unhappy, but I think he won’t do anything tonight.”

“Damn! You stupid bitch! I will get Gregori to watch his rooms. Wait here!”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Yulia whispered after the disappearing Russian. Moments later he returned to continue questioning her:

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing! Of course! Give me time comrade. I know this type of man. I can control him. He won’t talk.”

“I hope you are right Yulia. Things will go badly for you, and me, if he does! Don’t forget why you are here. I am thinking you are already fond of this young Englishman, and England!”

Yulia wanted to tell Kirill that he was too suspicious, but he would never have taken criticism from her. Whereas he called her Yulia, she could only call him comrade, privately and in public.

‘Like most Russian men,” she reflected. “And it’s not just paranoia!’

Kirill saw the empty vodka bottle and held it up, glaring at Yulia.

“Drunk too!” he accused. “Let me smell your breath.”

He surged toward her and she thought he would hit her, but at that moment they both heard soft raps on the door.

“Come!” Kirill replied, stepping back and straightening his tie.

One of the two lower-ranked NKVD agents entered the room, nodding deferentially. Stocky and short, his face looked bland and would have seen vaguely familiar to anybody. He glanced at Yulia, but she looked away.

“Yes Gregori?” Kirill asked.

“Torrens has left his rooms and gone to the bar.”

“Alright Yulia. Get dressed! You’re going down there and I don’t want you coming back without being sure, or without him; one of the two! We have to succeed. Comrade Stalin is counting on us. Who would ever have thought a low-ranking engineer would be the one to catch our scent. It’s a disaster!”

Gregori’s jaw muscles knotted and unknotted.





***





Alone in his Suite, Edward imagined Bregovsky killing Yulia, if she told him anything, or if the Russian even suspected anything. For this reason, he decided he couldn’t tell The Vapour yet.

“This is stupid! Now I’m worrying about her! But maybe she likes me? Maybe she could even love me? I could probably love her, but I have a wife. Oh! These ideas are not worthy of a mature adult.”

He sat on the edge his bed for a moment, but jumped up, saying to himself:

“I can’t sleep right now. I need to think. And this room’s depressing.”

He went downstairs, intending to go out for a walk, but the bar was still open, even though midnight had passed. The barman quietly wiped washed glasses clean while Edward sipped a glass of gin and tonic.

Staring deep into his glass of spirit, he looked up with astonishment when the kaleidoscope of barroom images in the cut glass became a distorted version of Yulia’s pretty face.

“May I join you?” her soft soprano voice asked. “Kirill said he will come down in a minute. I … . I couldn’t sleep.”

Edward wondered if this could be a lie:

‘Why would she come down for what … ?’ He glanced at the clock behind the bar; thirty-one minutes after midnight. ‘Can only be one drink at the most?’ He nodded, before lifting his face to smile at her.

“Am I too late to order drinks?” she asked the barman. A smooth smile slipped away from the corners of his mouth underneath a brown moustache, which added to Edward’s impression that the man came from somewhere near the Mediterranean.

“For you pretty lady, I think a glass of white wine would not upset the management too much!”

“Make it two; my boss will be down in a few minutes.”

The barman turned to pour the drinks.

“You see?” she said, turning to Edward. “My skills in Moscow bars work here too! Ha! Ha!” She paused. “You don’t know what to say! It’s like a little cave in here, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so.”

“Have you been thinking about me?”

“Actually, yes.”

“Good!” Yulia sipped from her glass of wine and grimaced. “Oo! Sweet!”

The light from a chandelier cut out for a moment and a heavy figure slouched over the bar stool next to Yulia, bellowing:

“Bar tender! Gimme a whiskey!”

“Sorry sir. The bar’s closed.”

Edward twisted his head and leaned back to get a better look at the intruder:

‘Oh no!’ he thought. ‘A drunk executive! That’s all we need!’

“Hello … lady! You’re the Russian bit, aren’t you?”

“I am sorry. I don’t understand what ‘bit’ means,” Yulia replied.

Edward nervously played with his glass.

“I mean; you’re part of the deal, aren’t you?”

“You must be mistaken. I am the secretary of one of the officials in the party and he is coming down in a few minutes, so you should behave yourself and act like the English gentlemen we hear so much about!”

The barman shot a sly smile at Yulia. Edward leaned close to her ear and whispered:

“Well played!”

But the Rolls Royce executive wasn’t going to be deterred so easily. He swung to face her and engaged her in meaningless conversation about her visit to London, but when, after five minutes, Bregovsky hadn’t arrived, he grabbed the second glass of wine.

“I presume this is his, but he isn’t coming, is he? Mind if I have it?”

Yulia relented with a sigh and turned away from the intruder, but the heavy man grabbed her shoulder and swung her back to face him.

Edward knew the man far outranked him, but his missing tie and jacket, unbuttoned shirt and stench of whiskey seemed to even the odds. He stood up and told the executive firmly:

“Leave her alone!”

“Oh yeah? Who says? She your woman?” the man leered.

“It’s okay,” Yulia interjected. “It was I who was rude.” While she spoke to the drunk, she sought Edward’s hand with the one that she concealed behind her back. Their fingers touched only briefly, but it was the touch of allies. Edward sat down and sipped his drink while Yulia patiently fielded the man’s advances.

It wasn’t long before the executive announced he was visiting the, “Little Boy’s Room!”

“Let’s go! Quick!” Yulia announced, giggling and grabbing Edward’s arm. Before he could stand, she had vanished down the corridor, so he ran after her, laughing.

“You handled him like a pro, you cheeky, little nymph!” he blurted, when he caught her.

“What is a nymph?” she said, staring into his eyes.

“Doesn’t matter.”

They crept quietly to the stairs while the barman made the most of the opportunity, whisking away the half-empty glasses and rolling down the bar’s shutters.

“We made it!” Edward joked as they tumbled onto her sofa.

“Do you want another drink?” Yulia asked. “Oh wait! I don’t have any! Ha! Ha!”

Edward laughed too. “I don’t want any more; I’ve had enough anyway.”

“Let me just change into something … else!”

They both laughed at this too.

“I’m so tired!” she said, disappearing into the bedroom.

Minutes later she emerged wearing loose-fitting, cloth trousers and a primrose blouse that had seen better days.

“Wow! Women never wear stuff like that here, unless they work in the garden!” Edward declared.

Yulia scowled. “I am from a farm. What do you expect?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean … .”

But Yulia had switched on an ancient Ultra radio and become preoccupied with tuning in to some music.

“Can I help?” he asked, kneeling down beside her. While she struggled with the tuning knob, he lifted her hand from her knee and kissed the back of it softly.

When he opened his eyes, she turned to smile at him and murmured:

“You know what this means?”

Yulia led him to the bedroom while Debussy’s Clair de Lune crackled out of the tiny speaker. She waited until Edward lay beside her on the bed and cupped his elbow delicately. The gesture almost seemed to impart a magical energy, propelling his hand to alight on her shoulder. He saw acceptance in her brown eyes and drew in a deep, primeval breath, before sliding his hand down to the shallow valley of her waist, soon forgetting the faint whisper of music.

“I can’t believe I am touching you,” he whispered.

“Why?”

“Ask me the question again; the one you asked earlier.”

“What? Am I beautiful?”

“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”





***





“Are you really married?” Yulia asked, in answer to Edward’s compliment.

“I told you, yes!”

“But in Russia men often take off their ring to seduce women. Is it the same here?”

“Yes! I suppose so!” He laughed. “But not me! I’m wearing mine. Look!”

“Men are the same everywhere! And women, I suppose. Did you have many girlfriends when you were young?”

Yulia wriggled closer to Edward and placed her soft lips against his. He eagerly kissed her and felt a great attractive energy rising from his loin, pulling him toward her body. He eased his hips against hers and wrapped his arms around her. Yulia giggled and pulled away, exclaiming:

“Do women kiss like this in England? It seems very … bold and yet gentle!”

“Oh, sorry.”

“No. It’s fine. Don’t be embarrassed. I am sorry. It just surprised me. Men don’t kiss like this in Russia; at least no men kissed me like that.”

She rolled onto her back, so Edward lay down and placed his hands on his stomach. It seemed as if they had eternity to themselves.

“What was your question again?” Edward asked.

“I can’t remember. Something about your childhood. Tell me more. I like to hear about it.”





* * *

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