It was on the news. A hard fact now, illustrated by short scenes, brightly lit and frenetically cut together to demonstrate, perhaps, the dynamism of the forthcoming police investigation, the dedication of the reporter bringing you the breaking news live as it happens, or even, perhaps, to reflect the violent horror of the man’s death.
They showed the blue flashing lights of the empty police cars parked at frenzied angles and left running by the canals. And the still serenity of the ambulance that would be in no rush today. Nobody was under any illusions as to where Pavel Ivanchenko would be going this morning. They cut in a statement from a Kremlin official in Moscow denying that the Russian government had any involvement whatsoever in this regrettable incident and dismissing the very suggestion as ludicrous. Now over to the bridge where the reporter’s hair blew across her face as she shouted above the noise. Then some stills of Pavel standing on the terraces of his London football club, Katya next to him, smiling the tight smile of the lavishly imprisoned. And back to the studio.
‘That report from Serene Gosling in St Petersburg. Police spokesmen have confirmed that the body retrieved from the river Neva this morning is that of Russian tycoon, Pavel Ivanchenko, who was reported missing on Thursday by staff when he failed to return from what he had allegedly described as ‘an important meeting’ in central St Petersburg. Ivanchenko, who accused Russian President Vladimir Putin himself of being behind two previous assassination attempts, had been in virtual exile in London for six years and was wanted in Russia on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, though he is thought frequently to have entered the country, unknown to the authorities. ’
Mo breathed out. She wasn’t sure whether the news made it seem more real or less real. Cobwebs seemed to surround her, slowing and tangling her every move, muffling sound and threatening to creep down her throat and stop her breathing. They had been there since she’d woken up on Friday (still, apparently, inhabiting her body but cruelly separated from every physical or emotional sensation). She wriggled her toes now, touching each one to the cork tiles under them and looking out at the magnolia tree, whose huge creamy artichoke globes were getting ready to drop, exhausted, to the grass below them. He was really gone.
The bracelet was heavy on her wrist, a twisted plait of diamonds and pearls, brilliant against her dark skin, the colour, he’d said, of chestnuts from the Siberian forests, shiny, glistening and brown as they burst out of their green cases. This was Pavel in whispering romantic mode, breathing the soul of his vast country into her ears. But really, had it ever been true?
It was strange, she thought, having absorbed the sight of the limp body being hauled, dripping, out of the water, how still death is. When that bestial, raging, choking struggle to live is finally over.
It had been worse than she’d thought. They should have given him the full dose, but Katya had been advised that that would make it detectable. Also it would taste bad. Mo, who knew nothing about poison, was reassured that even half of what they were giving him would kill an ox. Why an ox, she’d wondered, feeling sorry for this huge, gentle creature with a big wet nose who would topple sideways, tongue hanging out, lowing, not knowing why he was attacked or by what. Sorrier, by far, for this imaginary ox with his broad hooves, than she felt for their real victim.
As it turned out, he was stronger than any big-eyed ox. Katya, whose white mink was perhaps unsuitable for the occasion, realised something was wrong and tried to shoot him but she missed and hit a painting above the fireplace, an 18th Century gypsy dancing scene, a kind of War and Peace image of Russia from a time when stirrups gleamed and moustaces bristled and peasants knew their place in the mud. As he ran at her she shot him again and blood spurted on to her coat and into her face but he kept running, knocking her to the ground and falling on top of her, drenching her with blood that was so hot it seemed to steam as it flowed. A bowl of orchids had smashed to the floor. It was this that struck her most when she came into the room, just then, as it fell.
Mo, cold and clear as though she was standing in bright snow, tried to drag him off and plunged a large hunting knife into his back, feeling first the resistance of dense muscle and then the scrape of bone against the blade as she pushed. But he stood up, shouting, swearing in Russian, bellowing, hurling himself about until, unfamiliar, as if he were someone else, crazed with pain, perhaps, he threw himself out of the window, breaking the glass, sharp shards raining down on to the polished parquet inside and crashing into the concrete of the courtyard outside. Mo ran to the window as he lurched out towards the gates, barely human in his agony, garishly illuminated by security flood-lights.
Katya scrambled up and tore down the stairs after him, stumbling in her high heels, groaning and grasping at her bruised throat, the bodyguard standing there, inexplicably motionless. Mo followed now, out into the dark street to see Katya’s coat fly out as she turned the corner towards the river, aware on some level of where he must be going. Both women stopped, fifty yards apart, as Pavel climbed the embankment wall, pulling himself up on a lamppost with a fish tail winding around it, and hurling himself, with a final roar, into the black water.
Katya had turned and raised her white hand, almost smiling. Mo nodded and then both women were still.
Mo took a taxi to the airport and was in London again by dawn. The sky was pale blue at the edges by the time she turned the key in her front door and found that the flat smelt the same as it had when she’d left. Of toast and dust, of the apples that had been too long in the fruit bowl, of the paper record sleeves in the sitting room and the clean sheets she’d put on yesterday. She ran a hot bath with rose oil she’d bought with Pavel that time, and she put her clothes and shoes in a Tesco carrier bag to throw into the rubbish van as it moved, perhaps. She lay in the burning water staring at the cracks in the ceiling and wondering how she should feel, how other people had felt afterwards. She looked with detached interest at static scenes in her mind, flicking through a mental Roladex.
It occurred to her how strange it is that when death happens, scrolling backwards through the life that has ended, it seems so inevitable, its manner and all the particulars. It seems as though that life was constructed in every detail to meet that death and as though time was always hurtling towards it. But, really, she need never have gone on that first trip to Russia. Katya need never have left Kirgask for Moscow. Her life, so swirling and chaotic, had not seemed, at any prior point, to be part of the design of Pavel’s death. But now she and Katya had fulfilled their gruesome purpose and, for Pavel Ivanchenko, at least, time had stopped. Had it, she wondered, also stopped for her? Or had it really stopped when she first saw Katya, smoking a cigarette in the lobby bar of the Ukraina Hotel?
No, she decided. That, of course, was when it had started.