She knows he’s watching her long before she actually sees him.
It’s become a kind of tradition over the years, though she’s not exactly sure how she’s let it get to that. She knows she should have warned him off years ago now but she supposes, sitting there in the hospital café nursing a cup of something that purports to be cappuccino but wouldn't know it if it rode in on a Vespa and said ciao, that he’s from the kind of tradition that doesn’t take well to warnings. He wouldn’t do what he does if he did, after all, though she’s not sure how she can be sure she knows what kind of man he really is. Not for sure, if at all.
Sometimes she thinks she should have moved away. Her mother has family in Manchester and one of her aunts on her father’s side is up in Leeds and it wouldn’t be all that difficult to make the move, even now; she has enough put aside for a deposit and that’s on London prices so if she really felt inclined she could go up there, find a nice little house for her and for Christine in a nice area with decent schools and maybe she’d never have to drive past the Trans-Siberian ever again, maybe she’d never have to pull up her hood and pretend she’s someone else when she sees Kirill stumbling drunk out of the club near the local supermarket, and most of all she’d never have to see him again. She likes to think she doesn't want to.
She knows he’s watching her because it’s all happened before.
The first time was Christine’s first birthday and Anna was at work. She’d requested the day off months in advance but two colleagues had come down with a suspicious flu and called in sick because of it - were she in a particularly uncharitable mood, she might’ve linked it to the ward’s Christmas party the previous night - and so there she was, on duty. It was late and she was tired, wanted nothing more than to get out of her slightly grim scrubs and go home, see Christine in her cot and her mum nodding off in her chair by the Christmas tree and then sleep and sleep and sleep well into Saturday morning when she'd inevitably wake to her mother at her bedroom door with a cop of strong tea. Her feet hurt and her back hurt and although she knew Christine would never remember that she’d not been there for her first birthday, she would know. She was disappointed.
But then there he was, when she stepped out of the lift and walked into the ward, and while she couldn’t say her birthday preoccupations left her exactly, she was suddenly filled with a more immediate concern. He was leaning there casually against the nurses’ station in a crisp dark suit and woollen overcoat, his hair slicked back, looking nearly precisely the same as the first time they’d met and miles away from the last time, back on the bank of the Thames. The nurse he was talking to pointed to her; he turned and he smiled a faint smile in her direction, and then he came toward her. She made herself move to meet him. Their paths met halfway down the corridor.
She remembers how jittery she felt as they stood there together under the harsh ward lights, as if something might happen at any moment though she’s never been quite certain what she expected that something to be. He stepped closer to her in his pristine suit, the weave of it probably meaning it had to be expensive, more than she could afford on a midwife’s salary but she’d always known they were from almost entirely different worlds. And he held out a box to her, a little wooden box tied with a broad white satin ribbon. She took it before she could stop herself and when she frowned and she grimaced and she tried to give it back - she would not be beholden to this man, at least no more than she already was - he held up his hands, stepped back, shook his head.
“Please,” he said. “I give gift for Christine. For birthday.”
Before she could protest, he sidestepped her and he strode away, left her with the box sitting there in her hands and all she could do was watch him go. She thinks sometimes she wanted to run after him, jog down the hall in her worn old trainers, call his name, make him stop. She knows she was right not to.
The second time was a year later, to the day.
It was earlier that time, she remembers, but only by a few hours so it still wasn’t light outside. It was dark and it was raining cats and dogs - she could hear it against the windows, had done all day, and visitors kept on trooping in with umbrellas and coats that dripped all over the floor, making it slippery underfoot in places because the cleaning staff couldn't keep up with mops. She was in the middle of a shift by then, tired and irritable as they’d almost lost a young mother just a couple of hours before and Anna knew the girl was far from out of the woods just yet, though the baby was doing quite well for such a premature birth. She does enjoy her job but she can’t say it isn’t hard sometimes. Somehow it’s always hard around Christmas.
She’d just come out of the break room, just splashed her face with water and drunk a too-hot coffee that had burned all the way down and there he was again, leaning against the wall just outside the door, waiting for her. He had a little wooden box in one hand down by his side, tied with a white satin ribbon, and when he turned and held it out to her, she took it. For a moment then he pressed his hands over the top of hers, warm and firm. She flinched, her eyes on the tattoos there on his fingers between knuckles; he let go not quite quickly and when she looked up, he gave her a wry smile and a tilt of his head as he stepped back. He pulled on a pair of black leather gloves and tucked his hands into his trouser pockets, pushing back the sides of his rain-dampened overcoat.
“Spasibo,” she said, surprising herself as she held the little box in her hands.
“Pojalusta,” he replied, with a shrug of his shoulders. “Is for Christine. For birthday.”
She nodded, because it was obvious they both knew what the gift was for. He turned and he walked away and for the second time, for the second year, she watched him go, listened to the sound of his wet shoes squeaking against the floor on his way to the lift. The doors slid open. Before he stepped inside, before he left, he looked back at her. She wanted to tell him to stay; she smiled a small, awkward smile, but she let him go.
The third time, she was expecting it.
She was there again, on Christine’s third birthday, at the hospital, at work. Her mum was supportive, still is, loves having Christine around, but Anna’s felt worse and worse over the years for missing her birthday. No matter what she’s planned, she’s never managed to be there.
It was past 11pm the third time and the café hatches were all closed but that didn’t mean the tables with their static plastic chairs all fixed in place on metal frames weren’t available for use so she’d taken ten minutes to go down, grab a terrible coffee from the vending machine that barely ever worked and take a seat in her scrubs and semi-comfortable shoes that after such a long, long day were beginning to feel a bit too much like stilettos after an arduous night out. Not that she'd had more than a handful of nights out in three years by then. She had her head in her hands when she heard the click of something being set down on the coffee-stained tabletop, felt the jolt of it through her elbows. She looked up. He sat down. There was a box on the table between them.
“You have hard day,” he said, spreading his fingers, his palms pressed down on the tabletop. She supposes he did it to show her he meant no harm. She supposes he’s come to the hospital instead of her home for all these years for that same reason, or out of some kind of odd sense respect. It's clearly not about boundaries.
“Yes,” she replied, pushing back her hair with both hands. She sighed. “Yes, I’ve had a hard day.” She didn’t ask about his, though she wondered about it as she looked at him over the table. There were specks of something on his white shirt, something that might have been blood and might have been wine and might have been borscht, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know which it was. She isn't actually sure which she'd have preferred it to be.
“I bring present, for Christine.” He motioned to the box then put his hand back down flat on the table.
“That’s very kind.”
“Is least I can do.”
She knew he was watching her. She knew he’d been watching her; she’d seen him in the corridor, out of place in a new overcoat that was still so very much like the old one except in the fine details. She’d seen him outside, smoking a cigarette amongst the usual gaggle of staff and patients. She wondered whether he’d watched her the first two times, too, before he'd let her find him.
She stood then and she took the box and he looked up at her from his uncomfortable seat. She’s still not sure what the expression on his face really meant, since he’d always seemed so carefully neutral or at least carefully indifferent, but she likes to think she was the one who started it, that it was her idea and not his when she shuffled closer to the table, holding the box in one hand, pressed against her hip so one corner pressed in painfully, on purpose. She likes to think it was her idea when she took a breath to steady herself and she brushed an imaginary stray hair from his forehead. She likes to think it was all her idea, especially when she leaned in and she brushed her lips against his. And then she backed away.
“Thank you,” she said. He frowned, so she held out the box to make it clear. “For the present.”
He chuckled, nodded. “No problem,” he said. And that time, she was the one who walked away.
The fourth year, he wasn’t there. He didn’t come.
She didn’t see him at all from the moment she arrived till the moment she left. It wasn’t until the evening that she admitted to herself that she was looking for him, that she was expecting to find him around every corner she turned, that she was hoping he’d be there. She hasn’t been waiting for him all these years, no, has seen a few men from time to time though it’s generally gone nowhere, something about the combination of her job and her daughter that gets in the way though she can’t say she minds that very much at all. She’s wondered about him, of course, remembered the tattoos she’s seen on his skin, wondered if there are others she hasn’t and there must be, she thinks, in places she's not looked. Before he left, her uncle Stepan told her tattoos like that are the story of a man’s life. She wonders about the story of Nikolai Luzhin’s life. She wonders what the tattoos would say.
He wasn’t there. He didn’t come. And when she left, when her shift was finished and she got into her sensible car with the kids’ seat in the back of it instead of onto the bike that had never seemed to want to run in winter anyway, she almost thought she might drive past the Trans-Siberian on her way home. She remembers sitting there in the car park wondering if there’d be lights in the windows, if there’d be people inside, what would happen if she rang the doorbell and asked for him. She remembers wondering if Kirill would answer the door, if he’d be drunk with vodka on his breath and what he’d say or what he’d do if he saw her there on the doorstep. She wonders if he’s ever really understood why his father asked him to take a baby girl from a hospital and end her life. Perhaps he’s been fooling himself all this time, or perhaps he's not a fool at all.
She didn’t go to the restaurant. Of course she didn’t, and not just because she wasn’t sure what Kirill might do if he saw her again, for the first time after that night by the river. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know why he hadn’t come because perhaps it meant he was dead or perhaps it meant he was tired of the game and there’d be no more wooden boxes tied with white satin ribbon. But, most of all, she didn’t go because she knew then that she hadn’t even tried to get the day off work that day, Christine's fourth birthday. She’d hoped he’d come. She was ashamed of that.
The next year, the fifth year, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
She told herself to expect nothing, to put her head down and do her job, but all day as she checked on the newborns, as she wandered the corridors, drank a coffee with a colleague, filled in endless reams of paperwork, she was thinking about wooden boxes and tattooed hands and a scar that ran down from nose into lip where she'd pressed her mouth once. She was thinking about a man who saved her uncle’s life, who saved a child’s life, and claimed it was all because he wanted to take a higher place on the organisational ladder. He could’ve done that without helping anyone but himself, she thinks. He could have killed them all, or at least let someone else do it.
He didn’t come. She’d checked the papers the year before, told herself she wasn’t doing it because she was concerned that he was dead, told herself it was because she hadn’t had time for the news and was sadly lacking in current affairs beyond what was happening on Strictly Come Dancing and who'd won the match at the weekend. Of course, the deaths of Russian mobsters probably weren’t published in the local paper, and so she’d probably never know. It wasn't as if she could find out easily, either - the closest things she had to friends in high places were pharmaceutical reps.
It was past ten when she left and it was raining outside as she jogged toward the car park. But there he was, walking the other way, didn’t notice her there with her hood pulled up against the pouring rain as he strode in through the entrance, sweeping down his huge umbrella was he went. She stopped. She stopped in the middle of a puddle by the ambulance bays and she knew she should just keep going, her car keys were already in her hand and she was already two hours late. She hadn’t stayed to find out if he’d come, she told herself. She’s allowed herself to admit exactly how much crap that was since then.
She turned and she jogged back inside and he was disappearing into the lift, the doors sliding shut behind him, as she arrived there in reception. She took the stairs instead of waiting, ran up them, dripping and almost slipping as she went, and as the doors opened she came out into the ward. She saw him just as he saw her and she went to him, trainers squelching around her feet as she moved, took a handful of the front of his rainswept overcoat and she pulled him aside, pulled him along, dragged him down the corridor and around the corner and he went with her what she knows know was willingly and into the first door that it required a key to open: a storeroom full of blankets and sheets and towels and uniforms all stacked on metal shelving in little neatly-folded piles.
“Bastard,” she said, quietly, but from the expression on his face she supposed he got the message. “I thought you were dead.”
He smiled faintly. “You would miss me?”
She smacked him in the chest with both hands, her handbag dropping to the floor, and for a moment he let her do it. Then he slipped the two little wooden boxes he was holding in his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and he caught her wrists.
“Anna,” he said. “Stop, Anna.”
His hands went from her wrists to her cheeks, callused thumbs brushing away what Anna still isn’t sure was just raindrops. She shivered. Then she kissed him.
It was far from a peck on the cheek, from a brush of her lips against his. Her fingers went into his wet hair and she pushed up on tiptoe and she pressed against him, pressed to him until the only choices she left him were to push her away or kiss her back. His arms went around her, hands slipping up under her wet leather jacket, pressing to the small of her back as the tip of his tongue teased her bottom lip and she took a sharp breath as he backed her up against the wall. She thinks perhaps that was what she’d been scared would happen that first time, or maybe she’d hoped for it; maybe she wanted his hands on her the way they were then, tugging at the hem of her top to get underneath, warm palms on her damp, chilly skin.
It should have all stopped there. If she’d been thinking straight then perhaps it would have, but she was cold from the rain and exhausted from an overlong shift and there’d been something there between them for longer than she particularly cared to admit by that point. She pushed at his overcoat till he pulled back with a low little chuckle to pull it off and hang it up on the convenient hook on the back of the door and it should have stopped there, in that moment when she had the time to think about what they were doing, what she was doing, what she’d thought in the heat of the moment that it was a good idea to do. But he stepped back in and in the dim light she just didn’t care if it was a good idea or a bad idea or the worst idea she’d ever had. Her fingers fumbled at the buckle of his belt and he kissed her, unzipped her jacket and tried to untangle her long scarf until she was laughing breathlessly and turning on the spot until it was all unravelled and pulled away. Then he cupped her cheeks in his hands and she rested her palms against his chest, under his jacket but over his shirt, and he kissed her again, slow and deep and warm, until her cheeks burned with it.
If he’d said we should stop, if he’d given any indication that he wasn’t sure, perhaps it would have been different, but he didn’t. He let her unbuckle his belt as he slipped her jacket from her shoulders and then he gathered the hem of her top, pulled up, let his palms skim her sides as she lifted her arms and let him pull the flimsy thing, hardly appropriate for winter at all, up and off and away. She remembers how he looked at her, his hair out of place, his tie half unknotted, his belt hanging open, how he slid one hand up over her bare stomach and between her breasts, his palm skimming her sternum, up to tilt up her chin. He put his mouth there, at the side of her neck, kissed her hotly as he slipped one rough hand inside one cup of her bra, squeezed, made her gasp with it. His stubble rasped against her skin as she rested her head back against the wall, as her hands fumbled with the fly of his trousers, the button at his waist.
It was the worst place for it. It was the worst time and the worst place and she knew it was a mistake even then, even before she pushed his trousers down over his hips, before she toyed with the waist of his underwear and tried so hard to ignore his erection, before his fingers curled beneath the waist of her jogging bottoms. She felt sort of slovenly in comparison with him, him in his suit and her in her baggy old joggers with waterlogged trainers and a worn leather jacket that had so many scuffs it probably belonged in the nearest skip or the furnace with the medical waste; he didn’t seem to care, just went down on his knees there in the laundry cupboard, dragging her trousers and her embarrassingly grannyish knickers down with him. It felt oddly like a missing scene from Bridget Jones but he didn’t seem to care about that, either, as he looked up at her from his knees, as his hands stroked her bare thighs, as his fingers strayed between them.
It was the worst place for it but she shifted her knees a little farther apart anyway, though she knew it was the worst place. He nuzzled her hip, stubble brushing against her as his fingers stroked her lightly, slowly, as he teased the place where her labia met with the tip of one finger. He parted her lips and he glanced up at her just for the briefest of moments before he leaned in closer, before he pressed his mouth there between her thighs, before the tip of his tongue traced a circle around her clit. She remembers how she gasped when he did it and how he chuckled against her and the next thing she knew he’d eased his thumb inside her and she was pushing down against it, squeezing tight around it though that wasn't voluntary at all. She could hear the faint sound of him stroking himself as he was down there on his knees, as his tongue teased her, as her fingers went into his hair and twisted tight.
She remembers that they came like that, both of them, her against his mouth and him over his own hand, still tucked into his underwear. He rested his forehead against her hip as he pulled back his hands and she stroked back his hair from his forehead, ran her fingers through it, mussed it, messed it up as if somehow that made more sense of the whole affair, made him more like the man who’d saved her daughter’s life and less like that other man, the one in the suit who told lies and made threats he barely bothered to veil. He looked up and he smiled and she handed him a towel from the shelf; he stood and he wiped himself off, tried to make himself presentable as she rearranged her clothes as best she could.
“Who are you, Nikolai?” she asked, as he took the two little wooden boxes from his pockets, both wrapped in white satin ribbon.
“One for this year,” he said, holding one box out to her in one hand as he ignored her question. “One for last year.”
She frowned and she took them and she shook her head, wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. She saw him put on his coat out of the corner of her eye. Then he came back in close and he tilted up her chin with his fingertips, looked at her, kissed her, rested his forehead down against hers.
“I’m FSB,” he said, and he said it the Russian way, made her want to tell him she’d been learning for years now, made her want to tell him Tatiana’s daughter - her daughter - would grow up knowing everything she could teach her. “You understand?” He pulled back; she nodded; he nodded in return. Then he pressed one finger to his lips and then to hers. “A secret, Anna. You keep it for me.”
“I will,” she said, and she meant it because she did understand and it made her chest tighten. He left, but she could see he knew she meant it.
Tonight is the sixth time, the sixth year. She’s taken that same seat in the café, alone with a cup in front of her on the tabletop that she doesn’t feel much like drinking from but her hands are cold and the coffee’s hot. He doesn’t speak as he sits down opposite but he looks at her and she looks at him and he smiles, not quite hesitant but she understands the sentiment.
Under the fluorescent lights she can see every line in his face, every grey hair, every faint hint of a scar. In the light he looks every year of his age, like the day they met plus six. He’s older now but so it she. Her mum wouldn’t approve. She loves her mum but sometimes she’s wrong; she thinks there comes a day when all children realise their parents aren’t infallible.
“I’ve seen the papers,” she says. “What they’re saying about the vory v zakone, that was you, wasn’t it.”
He nods. His hair’s not slicked back now. It’s longer, almost in his eyes, makes him look older somehow but also more carefree and she realises that’s because he is. He’s not wearing a suit, either, is sitting there in jeans and a chunky-knit Christmas jumper covered in snowflakes and the pricey woollen overcoat is nowhere to be seen; he looks different now but when he takes off his gloves he rubs at the tattoos on his hands and he smiles a rueful smile at them and then at her. She knows he’s finished what he came to do, but she also knows the vory v zakone will always be a part of him. It's inked into his skin.
“Will you go back to Russia?” she asks.
“I can never go back,” he replies. She can understand that, with what he's done.
“Will you stay in London?” she asks. But he can’t, of course, because they know his face too well.
He rests his hands over hers as she cups her mug of coffee and he laces his fingers through hers. He can’t stay in London because the last remaining men from the vory v zakone would kill him if they knew he was the one who betrayed them, who closed down their trade, who had their brothers arrested. He can’t return to Russia for the self-same reason. He’s burned so many bridges to keep girls like Tatiana from ending the way she did, six years ago. He’s a hero and no one but her can ever know it. She doesn't even know if she can ever tell Christine.
He sits back, takes back his hands, but it’s only to put a little wooden box onto the tabletop, tied with a white satin ribbon. She smiles as she slides it over to her side, as she unties the ribbon, as she unlatches the little brass latch. Inside, in a nest of ruched white satin is a little wooden doll, the last one, the baby doll that completes the set that’s sitting there on a shelf in Christine’s room, a set of painted matryoshka that he’s been giving them for years. It was a countdown, she thinks. It was a plan. But she can plan, too.
She ties the ribbon back into place and she stands, the box in her hands. “My aunt lives in Leeds,” she says. “I might buy a house there.” And she turns to leave, takes five steps, six, before she glances back at him over her shoulder.
She smiles. “Are you coming?” she says. "I thought you might like to give this to Christine yourself.”
Six seconds later, he’s by her side. When he kisses her, she knows he’ll never leave it.
Six years ago, he saved a newborn's life and maybe saved hers, too. When she kisses him, she hopes he knows she'll save him back. Maybe that's what she's been waiting for.