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Fiction

Angelus

He was in the bathroom cleaning the taps. I could only see the back of him—an overlong measure of spine, the lean, narrow shoulders hunched forward slightly as he polished the chrome with the yellow duster—but there was no doubt in my mind that it was him. I hadn’t seen him for fifteen years and had received no news of him in all that time. The first thing I thought of was Cambridge, the cleanliness and order he had brought to his shabby basement rooms. He must have sensed me standing there because almost at once he started to straighten up.

“Finished,” he said. “Sorry. We’re running behind today because of the Bank Holiday.”

He was wearing tatty faded jeans and over the top of them some kind of nylon overall. His sleeves were rolled back to the elbow and I could see his stark, bony wrists and the oversized hands that had always reminded me of a labourer’s hands, the hands of someone who might work in one of the dirty wayside garages out on the southside. His fingertips were the colour of ochre and I guessed he had started smoking seriously at some point, although previously he had been always been one of those fortunate people who seem able to enjoy the occasional cigarette without being forced to make a habit of it. The thing that struck me most was his hair, cut close to his head now but unsullied by a single fleck of grey.

I experienced the brief and predictable urge to get out of the room before he turned and saw me but the practical consequences—the unavoidable inconveniences that would arise as the result of such a decision prevented me from acting on it. The room had been booked in advance and it would be impossible to find another. Even if I did, the cost would be ridiculous and unnecessary. The seconds in which I waited for him to turn and look at me formed one of those surprisingly rare spans of time in which one lives entirely in the present. I observed my life as I might an action sequence in a film, something I might later reflect on or form opinions about but for the moment was simply watching to see what happened.

His eyes were the same grey-blue.

“Soren,” he said. “Chess. You’re here for the tournament.”

“I’m adjudicating,” I said. There must have been some previous time in the past before we knew each other properly when he had called me by my first name but I couldn’t remember it. At first he had called me Malevich like everyone else but after that it had always been Chess. He pronounced my Christian name in a strange way, the first vowel long and overemphasised, more like a “u” than an “o.” It was that which made me remember he came from some place in the far east, some back-of-beyond village north from Kubok called Vash or Mirsk that had fallen off the edge of the railway network.

We stood facing each other. I found myself wanting to touch him, to reach out and take one of his knobbly wrists between my thumb and forefinger, as if I needed the feel of his skin and the pulse of blood beating beneath it to convince me that he was real. It flashed across my mind that touching him might reduce him somehow. Not to an illusion or a ghost—although I would most likely have given a great deal at that moment to have believed in such things—but to someone else, the janitor or chamber steward I had expected to see and not Alexei Vilnius after all. He still held the yellow duster in his hand.

“Leck,” I said.

“The luggage,” he said. “Let me take it.” He reached forward and grabbed the handles of my holdall. The holdall was leather, weathered to a mud-coloured sheen. I’d had it for years. He hefted the bag and then lowered it, setting it on the luggage stand as lightly as if it had been a supermarket carrier bag. I stood in the archway between the main room and the small square hallway from which doors led off into the bathroom and the second floor corridor. From where I was standing, I could see one corner of the bed and a polished wooden clock on the mantelpiece. I could hear the clock ticking. I wondered if the sound could be extinguished by flicking a switch on the base or whether it was the real thing, a genuine analogue antique.

“Would you come and have a drink with me?” I said in the end.

“I can’t,” he replied. “I’ve still got five rooms left to do.”

***

It was the feast-day of St. Ludmilla and all the hotels were full. I had left it to the tournament organisers to book my accommodation and they had chosen the Kolokol, part of a five-storey neo-gothic terrace that partially overlooked Lunar Park but was a full fifteen minutes’ walk from the esplanade. Had it been on the Front the tariff would have been astronomical. As it was, the board had been able to make themselves look generous without putting undue strain on their budget. I had refused to play, after all, even in the “veterans” exhibition matches that formed no part of the main competition. They were hardly going to push the boat out unnecessarily.

I had played only two tournaments that year. I had achieved the degree of financial security that allowed me to be choosy and I had won both matches but still I felt edgy, unaccountably nervous. More so than in previous years where I might have taken part in ten tournaments but won only seven or eight. I had contracted a virus in January that had laid me low for almost six weeks, leaving my limbs aching and heavy, the inside of my mind sluggish and tired. I put my nervousness down to that, but I knew it wasn’t the whole of it. I missed Zhanna and because I no longer had a real home to return to, I had come to dislike living out of a suitcase. Added to all that, I had an uncomplicated hatred of losing. The higher you climb, the further you have to fall.

Once Vilnius had left the room, I found I was able to behave as if he had never been there. I unpacked my good suit and hung it in the wardrobe. The wardrobe, like the clock, was an antique, a massive polished anachronism with a marquetry trim depicting flowers and satyrs. Some of the veneer was missing. I remembered the marble floor of the lobby, the enormous onyx-framed mirror behind the bar. The well-hidden yet nonetheless ineradicable traces of wear and decay—broken sections of marble replaced by granite, a scatter of age spots on the mirror—suggested that these things were real rather than reproduction. I closed the door of the wardrobe, letting my hand rest for a second on the warm, waxy surface of the wood. I wondered if Leck had polished it himself, whether his oversized mechanic’s hands had sprayed beeswax on one of his yellow dusters and buffed the ancient wood to a rubicund shine. The metal coathangers inside the wardrobe stirred slightly, making a noise like the wind brushing the strings of an out-of-tune harpsichord.

I washed my hands and face, then went outside. There was a funfair in the park and an arcade of fast food stalls. Beneath a painted bandstand, a loudspeaker played orchestral remixes of pop records that had once been hip but had since mutated into vehicles for nostalgia. Children clustered together on the steps of the bandstand, eating khvorost from paper cones or poring over magazines. Adults sat on the benches that lined the grass or strolled along the baking concrete paths. A man in a bubble car circled the dried-up fountain. He held a book on his lap, a squat black volume that could have been a medical textbook or perhaps a dictionary. A young woman walked beside him, her hands encased in the white lace gloves that had once been part of the tradition of saints’ days but were now a year-round fashion statement. At first glance, the man appeared old enough to be her grandfather, but as I drew closer I saw he was a discharged flier. His body lay against the grey upholstery of the chair in a fragile arrangement of right angles. It looked weightless as a corn husk or a sloughed spider skin. It was impossible to know his age, of course, but in real terms he would have been thirty-five or forty, possibly less. If he were to fall from the chair or run into something the impact would crush his shin-bones to powder like the legs of a cockroach. The girl came to a standstill in front of him, stroking her fingers lightly over one of his knees.

She could have been his wife or his daughter or even his granddaughter. It was impossible to tell. I found my way out of the park and headed for the esplanade. The streets closest to the shore were tricked out in bunting and flags. There were images of St. Ludmilla in the windows of many of the shops and most of the cafés: the large shiny posters on cheap photographic paper that would have come free with the morning papers, cardboard icons hand-touched with gold enamel unpacked from cardboard boxes beneath the stairs. In some of the images the saint was idealised, homogenized, tawny impassive features beneath neatly-plucked brows, the child, Wenceslaus, held in the crook of her arm or on her knee. In rarer cases you could see that the picture had been drawn from a photograph of Ludmilla Miliukova. She had been a tall woman, taller than average, with an Asiatic slant to her eyes and the melanin-coloured brand marks running diagonally across her left cheek. In one particular icon she was holding her traditional relics, a magnetic compass and a fountain pen. The pen’s cap had been outlined in gold leaf. Where the sun fell on it, the gilding shone yellow-white, as if it had been recently redone.

I noticed posters here and there advertising the tournament. Some already had graffiti scrawled across them, the names of rock bands and the taglines of what must have been local gangs, but the names meant nothing to me. The heat down by the water was stifling and the crowds on the esplanade served only to intensify it. I was thinking of retracing my steps to the hotel and perhaps making another attempt to call Zhanna when I caught sight of Leck Vilnius. He formed part of the mass of people on the jetty overlooking the water, but the set of his shoulders—inward turning and slightly hunched, like the stone wings of a gargoyle or a tomb angel—and his fixed, straight-ahead gaze made it apparent he wasn’t with anyone. I felt an exaggerated relief that he was no longer wearing the nylon overall he’d had on in the hotel. The work uniform had seemed to redefine him in some way that was absolute and irrevocable. The sight of him in it had increased my sense of guilt. That was something I only realised now it was gone.

I took him by the shoulder. “Let’s go for a beer,” I said. I think I realised even then that the idea of us having a conversation, let alone a drink together, was made possible not by any show of courage on my side—there was none—but by his inability to nurture hatred or bear a grudge. I say inability because it was simply that: a characteristic rather than a virtue. Some might even have labelled it a weakness, precisely that crucial failure of nerve that had led to his annihilation in the first place.

We found a couple of empty seats at one of the covered tables. The canvas awning did little if anything to diminish the heat, but at least it provided shelter from the sun. I left Leck to save our seats and went to stand in line at the counter. The kvas I eventually returned with was gassy and warm.

“Is it always this hot in September?” I asked.

“People come here for the heat,” he said. “It’s a resort.”

“The fliers, you mean?”

“The fliers stay all the year round.”

I had heard that invalided fliers could apply for a sizeable relocation package as well as the usual discharge annuity. Fliers couldn’t tolerate cold or damp. The doctors advised them to move south because things tended to go wrong with them otherwise, things that once in progress could not be cured. The doctors suggested a lot of things, but what it came down to was that they didn’t understand the physiology they had helped to create, or at least not properly.

“I saw one of them in the park,” I said. “He looked a hundred years old.”

“They’re everywhere here,” said Leck. “You soon get used to it.”

***

It was Leck that introduced me to chess. I had played before, naturally—it would have been impossible to pass a childhood in Radosth and not at least become acquainted with the game—but I played in a perfunctory, almost dutiful fashion, the game meaning as little to me as football or draughts. The thing that mattered to me was poetry, not just my own work but the oeuvres of the great twentieth-century Symbolists, Yesenin and Gumilev and Blok, whom I revered as my masters. It wasn’t until my year in Cambridge, where after so much hopeful anticipation I found myself an alien and an outsider, that I found comfort in the pursuit of a game that by its very familiarity had previously seemed irrelevant and even hackneyed.

Leck played chess like a professional but it was just an amusement for him. Like so many of his talents, he enjoyed it without granting it any particular importance. He taught me everything I knew and I suppose in the end I was able to augment that knowledge and improve on it because I gave the subject my whole attention. I became obsessed because it was in my nature to become obsessed. But of all my victories, I would say that my first victory over Leck Vilnius is the one that still means the most to me. Leck Vilnius was the yardstick by which I measured my progress.

He laughed with delight when I won. I feel certain that if he had put his mind to it he could have gained the upper hand again and easily but he wouldn’t put in the hours to improve his game.

His gift was a natural instinct, while mine was a hard won skill. In the end I stopped playing him. He made a joke of it, claiming I’d grown too high and mighty to waste my time with an amateur, but in truth I was afraid to. No matter how many tournaments I won or how many foreign masters I competed against, there was always the fear at the back of my mind that one day I’d go up against Leck Vilnius and discover that he’d finally got round to doing some serious practise.

I’d been awarded a scholarship to write a paper on Catherine Lovesey, but Leck, of course, was in Cambridge to study under Roland Eyre. Leck’s supervisor at MGU was Valery Kushnev. Kushnev had known Eyre for thirty years. It was even said that Eyre had collaborated with Kushnev on some elements of the Aurora project. In view of what happened later, Eyre had distanced himself from such speculation, although he never denied that he and Kushnev were friends. I met Eyre on several occasions and to me he exemplified everything I hated about Cambridge. He dressed carefully and ate well. His smooth hands were always clean. He seemed knowledgeable on every subject but passionate about none—indeed he seemed to mock the very concept of passion. He could have been anything or nothing, the opposite of Kushnev, who was buried so deep in his particular enthusiasms he might almost have been described as a madman.

I wondered about Eyre, what he had been like as a child or how he might react to being hit. His expression was one of habitual bland irony that, whenever I encountered it, made me tight in the chest with rage.

I first saw Angelica Eyre in the fiction department of Heffers bookshop on a Friday afternoon in the third week of November. The surname was unusual but not unprecedented. It was scarcely credible that she was his daughter. I still doubt the fact to this day.

***

There was a particular type of moth that used to frequent the stand of scrawny oaks behind the house I grew up in on the outskirts of Radosth. It wasn’t a large insect—an inch across at most—but it struck me as having a modest beauty, a quality of grace that had to do with the flicker and purr of its flight between the branches and the soft, somehow decorous brown of its triangular wings. It was called the Spring Usher. I could never decide if it was so called due to its likeness, in its quietude of demeanour, to an attendant in a church or funeral parlour or whether its name was a reference to its appearance at the head of the season, but I loved the name anyway, the juxtaposition of a word that was mostly brightness with one that suggested the dark. Angelica Eyre had that same quality of fragile fortitude, the same shaded light, as well as a personal modesty that had nothing to do with subservience or repressed emotion but was by way of being a secure yet non-combative sense of self.

I would see the moths outlined against the dusk, brittle, ephemeral puffs of powder and ash. It seemed to me a gesture of almost naïve bravery that, defenceless as they were, they should face the night so openly. I liked Angelica on sight, although I had no reason to believe I would see her again. When I came out of Heffers, it had started to drizzle. I made for one of the dingy teashops just off the High Street where the cakes were often stale and the tea weak and milky but it at least provided an escape from the rain. The place was crowded and although I would not normally have done so, I was forced to sit down at a table that was already occupied. In an effort to preserve my solitude I took out the book I had just bought, an edition of the late poems of Catherine Lovesey annotated by her sister Millicent Wray. It was only when the waitress brought the tea that I looked up for a moment and discovered that the girl from the bookshop was facing me across the table. She caught my eye and apologised for taking up so much room. For a moment I misunderstood her, thinking she was referring to the space she herself occupied as a physical being. The thought creased my brow—she was tiny—but then I saw how she was busying herself with her tea things, sliding them around in an effort to restrict them to her half of the table. There was a small teapot, I noticed, a sugar bowl, a china cup and saucer and a plate of the same curiously anodyne sliced white bread that had so repelled me when I first arrived in England. I grew used to it in time but I never saw the point in it, unless as the preferred English method for absorbing the milky tea. As I watched the girl buttered a slice and then sprinkled it with sugar from the bowl.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s fine.”

She looked up from her plate. Sugar crystals glimmered at the corners of her lips.

“Where are you from?” she said. The idea that my foreign accent—something I could scarcely hope to conceal—marked me out so immediately, so obtrusively as a stranger made me feel defensive but all the same I liked her directness. Many of the people I had so far met in Cambridge seemed committed to promulgating the national conviction that to ask real questions—personal questions—was some indecent breach of required etiquette, contenting themselves instead with the stylised gavotte of phrasebook pleasantries and humorous small talk. Angelica asked questions for the same reason a child asks questions: She wanted to know the answers.

“A place called Radosth,” I said. “It’s in Ukraine.” I found I couldn’t stop staring at the food she was eating, the slice of sugary white bread with the bite taken out of it. She laughed.

“I can’t do this at home,” she said, waving the bread. “My father thinks it’s vile.” That was before I knew who her father was, of course, but it struck me even then as curious that anyone might object to a pleasure that was so harmless. Even stranger was the fact that the girl still paid attention to him. She looked at least eighteen.

In fact she was nineteen, and already on her way to a doctorate. She was preparing an annotated edition of Melanie Schleif’s prison letters. At some point—I think it was shortly after we first slept together—I asked her if her thesis was a way of getting back at her father, but she just sighed and said it wasn’t like that.

I busied myself with my own tea and I couldn’t help noticing how beautiful the cup was, the translucency of the china, the delicate design of pale blue forget-me-nots. It never ceased to mystify me, the trouble such places took with their accoutrements, the lack of respect they showed towards their tea. I poured out the teapot, adding milk to the cup beforehand in the English manner. The drink was as bland as always, the colour of dishwater, but the heated porcelain brought warmth to my hands and an obscure kind of comfort.

“What were you buying?” said the girl. “In there?” She made a head-gesture towards the street and in the vague direction of Heffers. I handed over the Lovesey and watched as she leafed through it. I noticed that she turned first to the title page, scanning it as if she already had some idea what she was looking for. That surprised me. Catherine Lovesey had a following but she was never what you’d call popular.

“There’s this one,” the girl said, resting her finger half way down the page. I leaned over and saw she was pointing to St. Margaret, one of the longer poems in the Rosary sequence and the one many would claim to be its centrepiece. “Melanie Schleif always carried that poem with her. She had it with her when she died, did you know that?”

I could see at once there was no pretence about her, no arrogant need to display her knowledge, just a desire to talk about the things she found interesting or important. I had heard of Schleif, though barely. Later on, I asked Leck Vilnius about her and he told me she had been one of the less-well-known casualties of the Polarity, a mathematician, not a pilot, but she had still been executed for heresy like all the others. Lovesey’s Rosary poems made free reference to the saints of both canons, the Catholic and the Modern Orthodox, so St. Margaret was both the Christian martyr from Antioch who was burned, boiled, and then beheaded by a thwarted suitor, and Margrit Palister, the Aeronautics engineer who had died on the Fidel Castro. The familiar of both Margarets was still a dragon, although many of the more modern representations showed her without it.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Angelica,” she said. “If I wrote anything myself, it would be stories rather than poems.” She showed me her own book, the one she had been looking at in Heffers when I edged my way past her into the poetry section. It was Hilary Morris’s The Hurricane, a book I had read as a boy but not touched since. The stories in it were all about people preparing for an alien invasion, but I had found it disappointing as the invasion itself, the hurricane of the title, never took place.

“I know this,” I said, turning the volume over in my hands. It was a new edition, a hardback with a black-and-white aerial photograph of a caravan park on the front. “Why do you like it?”

“I’ve always loved it,” she said. “I’ve read it so many times I know it by heart.”

“That still doesn’t tell me why you like it.”

“When I was younger, I just used to find it so exciting.” She poured more tea into her cup. It was the dregs of the pot and I could see tealeaves in it. “I used to lie in bed and try to imagine what I’d do if I were in that situation. Perhaps you only discover who you really are when you’re in danger of losing everything. It forces you to make up your mind about what you want.”

“But you could argue that danger is crippling, like hunger or fear.”

“You could,” she said. “But so is lassitude.”

***

“He’ll never let me marry you,” she said. “He hates foreigners.”

Her words shook me to the depths but not for any of the reasons you might have thought. I hadn’t a clue that was what she’d been thinking—marriage hadn’t entered my head. The truth was that, although I admired her intellect, I found it difficult to connect with her on an emotional level. I wouldn’t say she was cold, although when we were in bed together she was always passive. Perhaps it was the difference in our ages, although that was only five years. But when I lay beside her in the dark she sometimes seemed a world away, and the world that she came from seemed so small.

I liked her very much but I had avoided thinking about what might happen when my time in Cambridge was over. In fact, once the novelty of sleeping with her had worn off, I never really thought about Angelica unless I was actually with her.

I had a few seconds to take in what she was saying and a couple more to focus on what it meant. I realised she was talking about her father and for the first time I saw him as an ally rather than an adversary.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Virtually everyone in his department is a foreigner. He shares an office with Omar Hussain.”

“None of that matters. Deep down he still sees them as inferior. He thinks he’s doing them a favour just by talking to them. I think he’d pay to get rid of you rather than accept you as a son-in-law.”

I felt suddenly furious, not at the man’s racism—that was exactly the kind of thing I had come to expect from Cambridge—but at his daughter’s unwitting presumption in envisaging a role for me I hadn’t the slightest intention to fulfil. And again there was something else I couldn’t make sense of, the girl’s continuing adherence to her father’s wishes. I didn’t understand the hold he had over her. I couldn’t believe that she loved him. I couldn’t imagine that anyone could care about Roland Eyre.

“He’s bound to change his mind,” I said. “At least once you’re older.”

She gave me a strange smile then, as if I had said something funny. I could only think that it meant she’d guessed my true feelings on the matter and I felt a deep relief that I hadn’t had to speak of them aloud.

The first I knew of what came later was when I arrived back from a lecture one morning and found Angelica in the kitchen arguing with Leck. Until that day I had never heard Leck raise his voice and even then he wasn’t shouting at Angelica, not really, just turning up the volume a little.

“You mustn’t do this,” he was saying. “I need you to promise me.” He was leaning towards her, his shoulders stooped and his big hands spread wide like crows’ wings. Leck Vilnius had never shown any interest in Angelica Eyre, at least not in my presence. He came and went from his basement on his way to the labs. In the evenings, he would sit at the table with us sometimes and smoke a cigarette. If Angelica wasn’t there we might play chess. Mostly he lived for his work. You could have said his head was in the stars.

“What’s going on?” I said. I supposed Angelica had come to meet me and arrived a little early. The way she was behaving with Vilnius surprised me, though. She seemed more animated than usual, speaking forcefully, as if she knew him better than I realised.

He turned instantly at the sound of my voice, his blue-grey eyes fixing on mine. I checked them for guilt but found none. “She’s planning on running away,” he said. “She wants to become a flier.”

I almost laughed. I couldn’t remember ever having heard anything more implausible.

“They won’t take just anyone,” I said. “You’re a humanities student.”

“They want all kinds of people now,” she said. “People from all disciplines. If you’re young and fit, they can use you. I’ve already filled in the forms.” She looked relieved to see me. Perhaps she thought I might back her up against Vilnius, or perhaps she just wanted there to be someone else in the room besides the two of them. In any case, she turned her back on him. The idea that she might be going away made me feel strangely elated. All at once I felt homesick for Radosth and the leagues of barren scrubland that surrounded it. The burnt-out factories that loomed on the horizon like the battlements of ruined castles. I felt a longing that was almost painful, a nostalgia for someone not yet met.

“That isn’t the point,” said Vilnius. “It’s not something you do on a whim, that’s all. There’s no way back from a decision like that. It’s tantamount to signing your own death warrant.”

Angelica and I both went quiet. I felt shocked at hearing Leck speak about his work in that way and I supposed Angelica felt the same, but it was she who broke the silence.

“If I stay around here much longer, I’ll end up as just another faculty wife.”

“You’re nineteen years old,” he said. “You don’t know anything.” He threw his hands in the air and then let them fall palms down on the table. They rested there, fingers apart, and thinking about it now I recall they were nicotine-stained even then. I turned to leave, forgetting I had only just come in. After a second’s hesitation Angelica followed me. We walked along the Backs for a bit—it was late spring, there were people on the river—and then down to the market to browse the second hand bookstalls. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do know that neither of us mentioned what had just happened. We went to a pub and had lunch. At around three o’clock she told me she had an essay to finish. I said goodbye and returned to my rooms.

***

What happened was that Roland Eyre blamed Leck Vilnius for everything and as a result destroyed him. He did him no bodily harm—resorting to physical violence wasn’t his style. But he accused Leck of plagiarism and withdrew his references for the Herzog-White bursary. I think he also exerted his influence on Valery Kushnev. Kushnev thought of Leck like a son, but he needed Eyre more. Their association was Kushnev’s passport back to international reputability. In any case, the fellowship that should have been waiting for Leck back at MGU never materialised. Leck kept quiet about it all, but there were plenty of people who didn’t. The thing that mystified me most was how Eyre came to believe it was Leck who’d corrupted his daughter. I asked someone about it—a political scientist in the third year who I knew a little, enough to chat to in the JCR anyway—and he said that Eyre had gone through Leck’s stuff one day at the labs and found a photograph of Angelica in the zip compartment of his wallet. It seemed everything followed on that.

I pretended not to know what had happened. I went around sullen and silent, letting people believe I was depressed because Angelica had left me. As soon as my viva was over I flew home. I was granted my Masters in absentia, but by then Catherine Lovesey seemed part of another lifetime. I’d managed to pull a top-flight sponsor and was beginning to attract some notice on the national circuit. My agent booked me to play a tournament in New York.

***

“Only one person in fifty who enrols on the program actually completes it,” said Vilnius. “Did you realise that?”

I shook my head. I remembered the nightmares I had endured for a while. Angelica’s body had been slight, almost emaciated in any case. In my dreams, it had become hollow and weightless, her pubic hair sparse and greyish as thistledown, the hair of her head breaking off at the roots at the slightest touch. Even two years after she’d gone, I was still having those dreams. In the end, I as good as forgot what she had really looked like.

Vilnius drank his beer, taking it in small, slow sips as if anxious to make it last. He looked tired. I wondered how much they paid him at the hotel. Then he leaned forward over his glass and told me how he had tried to find Angelica, but failed.

“She wasn’t at Maastricht,” he said. “But that’s just the registration centre, so I didn’t really think she would be. I tried a couple of the bases, but nobody had heard of her. It’s like a closed shop, though, no one will tell you anything. I had to give up in the end.”

I took him to mean that he had run out of money. I had passed the base at Orel on the train coming south. The field generated by the protective fences meant that nothing could live or grow for fifty yards on either side. The buildings beyond—a huddled square mile of hangars, labs, and low-rise residential complexes—had no windows, at least not on the elevations that faced the world. There was no sign of movement and it pleased me to imagine the place had been abandoned even though I knew that wasn’t the case.

“I told her she’d find all the freedom she needed just by moving out, by getting her own place in London or something, but she wouldn’t listen,” he said. “She said her father wouldn’t stand for it, that unless she got away completely he’d always find a way to interfere. She didn’t know how to stand up to him. I suppose she was too young.”

I’m still not sure exactly how well he knew her. Most people would say I’m being naïve in not facing the facts, but I’m certain that’s not the case. Not because friends don’t betray each other every day, but because if Angelica had been having an affair with Leck Vilnius she would have owned up to it immediately. That’s the kind of person she was. Vilnius, too.

Perhaps I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so. In any event, it doesn’t seem to matter any more.

I asked Leck if he wanted another beer. He hesitated for a moment and then said no. “I’d better be getting back,” he said. I offered to walk with him. I wanted to see how he lived.

Dusk was falling and the bells had started to ring for St. Ludmilla. I thought of Ludmilla Miliukova, the girl from Tashkent who had been one of the cosmonauts on the second Mars mission and later imprisoned by the Uzbek government for crimes against the state. Her face had been scarred by a heat gun when they brought her down. I have always hated September, because its still-long, grass-scented days make it possible to deceive yourself that summer might go on forever. In that town, in that heat, where the children ran back and forth along the jetty and the golden evening sunlight turned the seawater the colour of amethyst, it seemed more possible still.

We went inland away from the esplanade, turning not in the direction of Lunar Park and the Kolokol Hotel, but west, towards the scarified industrial estates and the old railway depot. The houses there were shabby but not derelict, a mixture of newer concrete low-rise and underpinned brick terraces reinforced to comply with building regulations in the earthquake zone. Leck had a flat in one of the newer blocks. The magnetic security lock looked as if it had been smashed with a hammer but the entrance hall was clean nonetheless.

For a moment I envied him his existence, the defined confinement of his lodging place, the secure and secluded quietude of this tastefully festive seaside town. Then in a flash I saw the horror of it, the procession of identical days, the inevitable daily comparison of what he had with what ought to have been. I wondered if he had married after all, or at least found a friend to lodge with, but when we entered the apartment it was obvious almost at once that he lived there alone.

“What do you do here?” I asked. It was a relief to have the question out in the open because it was a real question, a question I wanted to know the answer to. In addition to that, I felt the mere act of asking it seemed to some extent to restore relations between us. It was the sort of direct question you could only think of putting to a friend.

“I wait,” he said.

I was silent, until I realised what he was talking about. He meant to stay in this place and wait for Angelica.

“I know it’s not the only place she might come to,” he said. “But it’s the most likely. Most discharged fliers end up here eventually. They come to be with their own kind.”

“But it could be—decades,” I said. “It could be never.” I wanted to tell him that he didn’t even know if she was alive, but I supposed he must know that already. She could have died in training or as a result of the drain. She had probably decided against entering the program at all—it was far more likely she had ended up as ground staff or admin in one of the high-rise air-conditioned office blocks in Maastricht.

It would have been a good life in a foreign city, hundreds of miles away from Roland Eyre.

When fliers come back, they’re damaged, and I’m not just talking about their ruined bodies. Most have been away so long in real terms that everyone they knew before is already dead. Those who still have family or friends find it difficult to connect with them. I’ve read stuff like that in the memoirs written by war veterans—how their lives and their outlook were so altered by war that they lost the thread that bound them to civilian life.

I think now of Angelica and find it impossible to believe that such a small, slight creature could have survived such ordeals. And yet she was brave. Braver perhaps than Leck Vilnius. Braver than me, certainly.

“I watched her once in the library,” said Leck. “She was drawing the constellations,” He was heating the samovar and I knew the tea he made would be dark, almost black, bitter and rich as loam. “She had a piece of paper spread out, and a row of sharpened pencils in about twenty different colours. The way she was doing it made it seem as if there was a logical pattern to everything, an order that could be calculated and utilized if you only thought about it hard enough.” He shrugged, drawing his shoulders together in that crow-like, gargoylish way he’d always had. “It made me suddenly wonder whether Eyre might not have got his figures mixed up somehow, that I’d been wrong to go along with him. I’ve had a lot of new ideas, Chess. I would have liked to discuss them with Valya Kushnev, but I heard that he died.”

The apartment was one room with kitchen equipment in an alcove and a toilet in a cupboard leading off. There was a low couch covered with a blanket that obviously doubled as his bed. Like the basement in Cambridge, it was spotlessly clean. In one corner stood a trestle table with an ancient laptop on it amidst stacks of books and papers. I saw diagrams on some of the papers, segments of coloured ink and dotted lines. They looked more like abstract paintings than maps of the stars.

On the wall between the table and the couch there hung a photograph of a girl in profile, her dark hair drawn back from her face. The longish nose had a slight kink at its midpoint, the mouth was sensuously curved but rather wide. You may not have called her pretty but you might well have said she was distinctive. It took me a couple of seconds to realise who she was.

Vilnius had those old-style tea glasses, the polished silver holders with troikas engraved on them.

“Do you fancy a game of chess?” he said.

“All right,” I replied. “Why not?”

© 2008 by Nina Allan.
Originally published in Albedo
One.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Nina Allan

Nina Allan

Nina Allan’s stories have featured in the anthologies Best Horror of the Year #2, Year’s Best SF #28, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012.  Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published in 2011 and was named as one of that year’s Top Ten book choices by the editors of the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal Vector.  Her most recent book of stories, Stardust, will be available in 2013 from PS Publishing. Nina lives and works by the sea in Hastings, East Sussex.