By the time Christine was seven, she'd started to notice him. When she was eleven, she learned not to ask about him, because it made her babushka yell and her mother cry. When she was older, the questions started again in earnest, small pieces fitting together in previously inconceivable ways. By then, however, she knew enough to keep her thoughts to herself.
When thinking back on it, really thinking about it, Christine can't remember a time when he wasn't there in some way. She doesn't know his name, not the whole thing. Doesn't know what he does or why he's there. But she knows his voice, and she knows his face. Older and wiser, she can look back and see his fingerprints upon her life, but for the most part the touch was so light that she missed it completely at the time. It's strange, more to her adult eyes than it was to her childhood self, how he stood just beside the shadows of memory - present, but never accounted for. It took years for her to notice him, longer still for her to realize that the familiar stranger wasn't quite the stranger her mother pretends him to be.
It wasn't any one particular event or meeting that made him stand out to Christine's eye. Nor was it any particular incident that made her mother's forcibly blind eye apparent. For years, Christine just assumed that he belonged to one of her classmates, the way that all adults at children's events must belong to someone; Katya's uncle, perhaps, or Sveta's. A number of her classmates were from Russian families like hers, so the accent she overheard when trying to find her mother in the crowd of parents was not at all out of place. The second year she danced, she saw him talking to one of the older ballerinas, and everything was as it should be - he did belong to someone, after all. That he kept attending recitals after Sonya stopped dancing was one of many details her young mind didn't see as important. That she noted his presence at all was a minor miracle, for they spoke not a dozen words in the first years of her memory. She was four when she began to dance, seven when Sonya stopped, but it was another four years before she became aware of the discrepancies.
She noticed him, really noticed him, at her first football match. She was eleven, and had decided that she wanted to be a tomboy instead of a princess, which meant dancing was no longer an acceptable choice for her after-school lessons. She spent most of that first match on the bench, which gave her a lot of time to watch the crowd. Her mother and babushka were easy to find, and she waved every few minutes so that they knew she could see them. It was just into the second half that it happened, and if she'd been on the field she'd have missed it for sure. But being new to the sport had its advantages, and she saw her mother stand, carefully making her way down the stairs and brushing against a vaguely familiar man just a little too closely as she did so. The man waited a moment, and then followed; Christine could just see him catch up to her mother as they approached the entrance to the gymnasium when the coach pulled her from her observations and sent her out onto the field.
She asked about it that evening, curious if he might be a friend of her mother's from work. Her mother denied meeting anyone, flustered and rough around the edges in a way Christine had seldom seen, and the topic closed as quickly as it had opened. Later that night, Christine woke to her babushka's angry words as they echoed up the stairway. It was not the last time she saw the man at her matches, or saw her mother step away to meet him, but it was the last time Christine mentioned it. A year later, her tomboy kick ended, at which point she begged and pleaded until her mother took her back to Mme Eltsina's and the ballet lessons resumed. She thought nothing else of it, being thirteen and (in reflection) just a bit of a self-centred brat, until she stumbled on the website for the dance studio and saw just how much the lessons cost.
She spent weeks agonizing about the revelation, because she loved the dancing, but while her mother's job was good, it wasn't that good, and Christine was nothing if not good at sums. But the anticipated financial crisis never came, or if it did Christine managed to miss it entirely. Every once in a while she would catch a whisper of conversations between her mother and Mme. Eltsina, words like "talent" and "couldn't possibly" and "old friend, no trouble." Words that lead to far more questions than answers.
As with the stranger who wasn't a stranger, it only took Christine one incident to learn not to question her good fortune. When she told her babushka she wanted to start babysitting to help with the cost of the lessons, she was told not to worry herself about such matters. Later that night, her mother and babushka had one of their "discussions", the kind which involved yelling-without-yelling and a lot of heavy footsteps across the kitchen floor. The following morning, her mother was pale, tone carefully civil when speaking with babushka, but it was clear that whatever the problem had been raised was not settled. It was all Christine could do not to slam the door behind her in an effort to break the tension. Fights were rare in their house, and she hated being the cause even if she had no idea what she'd done wrong.
After that, she stopped asking questions altogether, at least out loud. Even though she started noticing more things in her life that didn't quite make sense. Like the fact that she'd been attending one of the most prestigious public schools in the London area since the age of twelve, but there had never been mention of a scholarship, and if good ballet lessons were a stretch then tuition for an elite day school should have been unthinkable. She watched, noting the quiet phone calls that always preceded her birthday and the not-quite-stranger who followed her from year to year. At times, she wondered if her mother had a boyfriend that she didn't feel comfortable bringing home - God knew, her babushka certainly had strong opinions when it came to Christine's boyfriends, especially if they happened to have a Russian background - but any length of consideration always proved the idea ludicrous. Despite concerted efforts on Christine's part, her mother had always brushed off suggestions that she date with a sad smile, explaining that Christine was more than enough excitement for one lifetime.
The answers to her questions came unexpectedly, a week after her A-Levels came. They'd gone out to celebrate the good news, Christine and her friend Sarah and their parents. Christine hadn't thought anything of the fact that her mother stepped away for a phone call; throughout her childhood, her mother had been getting called into work to cover a shift with minimal notice, it was just the way things worked. Except her mother didn't come back, not in five or even ten minutes. So Christine went after her, just to make sure everything was all right. Her mother was midway down the small side street beside the restaurant, talking to the man who wasn't a stranger. Christine bit her lip, standing near the street corner and debating whether or not to interrupt them. The decision was taken from her when a barely-familiar voice called attention to her presence.
"Has no one told you it is rude to stare?" The accent was Russian, as she remembered it, if perhaps lighter in its intensity.
"I, I'm sorry." Christine startled badly, realizing that he was talking to her, and took a few steps toward them on the mostly deserted street. "I was just looking for Mum." She fidgeted, crossing and uncrossing her arms. The man's stare was unnerving, and her mother's anxiety did nothing to ease her mind. "Um, I can just go back inside. I didn't mean to interrupt anything."
Her mother placed a hand on the stranger's shoulder, holding him in place as she shook her head gently. "No, you don't need to go. It's all right." She took a deep breath, visibly steeling herself, though for what Christine couldn't imagine. The man reached up, and as he removed her mother's hand from his shoulder Christine saw the ink on his fingers and stumbled. She'd heard enough from the girls at Mme. Eltsina's to understand what tattoos meant on a Russian man, and it was never good.
"I won't hurt you, child."
Christine blushed, realizing that he'd caught her staring, and closed the remaining distance to the two adults. "Who are you?"
"He's your father, Christine. Or as close as you've ever had to one."
Three little words, and everything seemed to shift around her. Things made sense, or at least more sense. Why her mother knew him, why he always seemed to be around. The tattoos explained the silence, the careful avoidance and her babushka's anger. Later, much later, she'd realize that she had started to slot him into memories he had no business occupying, as her childhood grew fuzzier with age. She'd remember the startled look on his face at her mother's description, and wonder at the purpose of their meeting that night. But mostly, she'd remember the way he kissed her forehead before sending her back into the restaurant, voice ragged but firm.
She never did learn his name.