The door of the Pimlico apartment opened, and when Hannah, precisely on time as usual, saw Matvei standing there – leather slippers, blue chinos, two-buttons-undone white shirt – she straightaway felt her malign impulses well up, the old dread gather.
Matvei took the white beret and grocery-filled bag Hannah was holding and ushered her into the hallway of his luxury riverside residential cube.
Her nervous system flickered and crackled. Even if others wouldn’t credit her intuitions, she knew they were unfailing harbingers. Tonight, undoubtedly, a bad thing was going to happen.
‘Tell me something true about yourself,’ Matvei said to her a few minutes after her arrival.
‘Something true?’ she said.
That wasn’t part of the deal.
‘Yeah, darling heart, something true. About you. The real you.’
Hannah was sitting on the sofa in the main room now, holding the glass of sparkling water her employer had just poured for her.
‘Just this once.’
‘You know already,’ she said. ‘All you need to know. You. You’re the real… me.’
Matvei – presumably not his real name – smirked. Lounging in his low armchair in front of the big twelfth-floor window, a resplendent view of the Thames in the glinting, coppery beyond, he reached down to the granite-grey carpet where Hannah’s beret was reposing now like a wary pet. He picked it up, fiddled with it, then stuck it on top of his tanned, shiny bald head.
‘Suits you, sir,’ Hannah said.
‘Yeah, babes?’ he replied. ‘You wouldn’t be teasing your poor washed-up old lug of a hubby, would you?’
‘You’re not washed up. You’re… awesome,’ she said, half-smiling. ‘Who’d dare tease you? Whatever your headgear.’
That didn’t sound right at all. She sat up straighter, took a sip of sparkle.
‘Go on,’ Matvei said, a hint of whinge in his voice. ‘Tell me something.’
This man, with his incomprehensible, supposedly Russian backstory and unmistakably London cadences, couldn’t guess at the clamorous inner world, the forest of whispers, that was distracting Hannah from his antics.
She’d been off any meds for months now, clean, and she meant to stay that way, finally. But the shift to a more rapid psychological gear was undeniable. And she knew well that this ‘job’ she’d acquired as a paid companion, or platonic spouse – or ‘prozzie soulmate’, as Matvei once termed it – was not helping her achieve greater serenity.
Cumulatively, Hannah felt, it was almost as demanding to deal with Matvei’s craving for faked affection and affirmation, his need for someone simply to be nice to him in this harsh world, as it might’ve been to deal with a blunter physical claim. She should’ve done a disappearing act when she’d had the chance, but Matvei’s unrefused cash payments had kept on coming, and now, in 2019, pushing fifty-two and otherwise more or less skint, Hannah sensed that extracting herself might be a dangerous manoeuvre.
‘I’m yours,’ she heard herself saying. ‘You know that. I’m here. Look after you. Lovely dinners. Praise you. Multitude of your qualities. Talk about our son – the boxer… Mitch…’
‘Yeah, nice, nice, but just tell me one thing you did since I last saw you that had nothing to do with this, us, like, me . . .’
Hannah thought it over, holding a pose of inscrutable self-containment.
But Matvei could see when she was rattled. ‘I think you did something bad,’ he’d said to her recently. ‘Something you can’t forget. That’s why you want to be a healer.’
‘A healer? What, the Amatsu?’ she’d replied.
Tirelessly alert, that’s what he was, she thought now. Half-closed eyes, tense mouth, the watching without looking.
Hannah was hyper-vigilant too. Her focus, though, was usually different, rarely in the present, residing even now in a clear-windowed capsule of memory, looking out for unnoticed details from the past. Her thoughts drifted, inexorably, on to a familiar pathway, twisting along the fuchsia-lined lane that years ago led to the semi-darkness of the family front room in County Sligo.
She recalled again sitting on the sofa there as a young girl of seven or eight – with Nora too, of course – and staring hard at a tacky religious picture on the wall (of Abraham leering at Isaac while preparing to kill him), testing whether their shared resolve could make it fall to the floor.
‘Fuckin hell, love, where you gone this time?’ Matvei said.
Hannah’s recollection of the picture’s sudden lurch downwards, the crash of it landing on the bare floorboards, the shock of cracking frame and splintering glass – the sensation of power it gave her – remained vividly intact. She could feel the thrill even now. She’d put her hands over her mouth, excited and unnerved by her witchy potency.
The first hint of the bad sign or whatever it was.
‘So,’ she said to Matvei. ‘You want to know one real thing I did yesterday?’
‘I do, yes.’
‘All right,’ Hannah said, settling on her story. ‘Last night, I slept with my twin sister’s old boyfriend.’
Matvei took her beret off his head and threw it at her.
‘You can’t tell your husband that!’
‘If my husband asks, how can I lie?’
‘You have a twin? Fuck me, you’re a dark horse, aren’t you?’
He stared at her candidly, with a hint of that menacing glazed thing she wasn’t comfortable with.
‘You asked,’ she said. ‘Why did you want to know?’
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘So obviously he knew you were you? Not her?’
‘No. That’s it. He didn’t.’
‘That’s naughty, that is,’ Matvei said. ‘Worse. Cheeky. You done that before?’
‘Can’t be that similar.’
‘Believe me, we are. Were. Identikids we used to call ourselves. And it’d be thirty years since he last saw her. More.’
‘Old flame, eh? Why’d you do it?’
‘Not sure. Bumped into him. Tube. On the escalator.’
‘Just went on playing along…’
‘You’re good at that.’
‘He kept asking about the past,’ Hannah said. ‘So pleased to see me. As they say. Or see her, I mean.’
Matvei’s lips tightened.
‘Sure he was.’
‘Sad. He obviously, like, loved her, I think.’
‘Didn’t want to disappoint him, no? Such a darling you are. Healer.’
‘Well, you know, he kissed me. Nicely.’
‘Oh. Nicely. I see.’
‘He called me her name.’
A moment’s silence.
‘What is her name?’
‘I’m not telling you.’
‘It’s her business.’
‘Whoa. So you’ll do that with him, but you won’t tell me her name?’
Hannah took a breath.
’My sister is one life,’ she said. ‘One totally different kind of life. Impressive life, looked at one way. Spiritual. Caves, retreats – higher things.’
Hannah rubbed her forehead. ‘She’s good, better than me… And then there’s us. You and me. And our arrangement.’
‘At least I know who’s who. Who you are. Don’t I? Dickhead must be blind. Or maybe he’s smarter than you thought.’
‘You reckon? I didn’t say I didn’t like it.’
‘I couldn’t make a mistake like that.’
‘Well, no, I don’t think you would.’
Matvei joined his hands behind his head.
’You say nice things to him?’
Hannah couldn’t help smiling.
‘I mean it,’ Matvei said, his voice louder. ‘Lovey-dove talk and that shit?’
‘Don’t be silly. That’s only for you.’
‘The sweetypie stuff? All that?’
‘Kick back,’ Matvei said. ‘Cook later.’
‘At my feet here. Where I can see you.’
Hannah lowered herself to the granite-coloured carpet, sat cross-legged, facing away from Matvei. His hand rested lightly, though excruciatingly, on her shoulder.
‘Anything wrong?’ he asked.
‘Happy to be here?’
‘Yes, course I am. ‘
‘My gentle little stranger.’
‘Not at all. I’m pleased. Together again. After your trip.’
‘Back with your dear old man?’
‘Exactly. And did things go… well for you away, darling? Your… business? Whatever it was. You were worried.’
‘How you know that?’
‘Just little stuff only I can recognise.’
‘Distracted. More neat even than usual. Yes? Clothes? And so clean. Clean-smelling. Before you left.’
‘You my guardian angel, yeah?’ Matvei said quietly, almost inaudibly.
‘Let me cook now, sweet one. There’s a… risotto thing…’
The hand on her shoulder tightened its grip slightly, and Hannah’s breathing became more tentative so as not to disturb it.
She noticed that the huge window was horribly gleaming, glaringly rainbowed by a residue of cleaning fluids.
She sat quite still on the floor next to the legs of her moody ‘operative’, as he described himself… It was too late now, but several times, when she and he were having their food at the coffee table, seated alongside each other on the sofa, his thoroughly shaved head sheened and tilted towards her suggestively, she’d wanted to get him, too, to play the truth game. Perhaps inquire about the veracity of his professed name and origins. Or ask whether his claims about his perfectly formed young Bosnian wife – so pert, so smart, so lithe, but so lacking in the warmth or kindness he craved – were just a fiction. Or why it was, really, that he didn’t want sex with her, Hannah. (If he didn’t.) Or what he meant when he talked about living in a shadow world, full of shit most people wouldn’t believe even if they could see it. She’d like to have asked, too, if operative wasn’t simply another term for killer.
But it was best she hadn’t. She understood about shadow worlds too, in her way.
Instead of truth talk, the more usual way of things between them was to chat at length about Mitch, the non-existent son Matvei had invented. Mitch’s European title prospects, his nutritional regime, his training plan – Matvei loved Hannah’s ignorance on these topics, his opportunity to lecture her.
She’d nod and smile, asking herself how it could be that she was still making her crust in this mad, random way.
‘Sex is a different matter,’ Matvei had said to her after his initial Amatsu appointment in her Holloway Road workplace, rented by the hour, when he’d first suggested his unusual proposition. ‘I’d never pay for intimacy of that kind. Besides, I have a wife who happens to be a dynamo of animal spirits…’
‘She know you talk about her that way?’
‘To be honest, Hannah, she wouldn’t give a flying fuck. She’s not the sensitive type. I get the impression I’m a lucky man – the looks she gets, we get… But I’ve surprised myself… At this stage of my life, I’ve developed what I’d call a lust for gentleness. Niceness. Flattery.’
‘Flattery? But that won’t reassure really, will it? If it’s fake?’
‘Who cares about fake or true? If you’re sweet, and good with words and hold yourself the right way.’
‘That’s what you want?’
‘I never had none of that, a soulmate-type thing or, y’know, proper shared existence. Just struggle. And pleasure. But I’ve grown more thoughtful, I admit it. Softer.’
His appointment had nominally been for a wrenched shoulder, caused, he said, by ‘hyper-exertion’. His nails, she’d noticed, were almost indelicately clean, perfectly filed and shaped, his hands smooth and hairless. He had a discreet tattoo of a bird of prey, wings spread, on one side of his neck.
Hannah was aware all the time of his physical encroachment, a precise calculation of distance and control.
‘It requires a lot of travelling,’ he’d told her about his work, when asked about possible causes of stress. ‘A high degree of focus and alertness. Given my age, I won’t be able to continue much longer as an actual… operative or whatever. But I’ll have plenty of bits to do. Keep me occupied.’
By the time he and Hannah had parted that afternoon, he’d made his offer. He would pay her – ‘amply’, he said – to spend time with him, acting as – they couldn’t agree on a term –a companion, an asexual support who would console, counsel and cook for him at what he said was a crisis point in his pressurised existence.
Hannah had easily persuaded herself to go with the flow. Selling her sensitivity, or an imitation of it, was something she thought might suit her temperament. Having become, through fear of her own power, such a solitary being – one who, these days, was impelled towards social contact mainly by financial necessity – she reasoned that being paid to be involved, just doing the job she’d been asked to do, might somehow absolve her of responsibility for any harm that resulted.
That first meeting with Matvei was more than two years ago now. Their routine was to meet three evenings and one afternoon a week, usually at this plush riverside place – it showed no signs of being lived in at any other time – where she’d tend to him, listening, bolstering, feeding. Once in a while – the easiest times – they’d go out, have a meal, see a film or even a gig (usually some ageing ponytail rock act), but then he’d still want her to see him back to the flat and comfort him with affectionate words or a neck massage before finally being allowed to make her escape.
Recently, however, Matvei had grown increasingly intense, asking the wrong questions with an obviously fake lightness in his tone: ‘Would you miss me if I died, sweetie?’;‘Do you believe, my lovely, in divine retribution?’; ‘Have you ever said a prayer for this sinning old reprobate?’
He’d started speaking, too, of his disdain for his adoptive country, the peevishness and privilege of its people. ‘It’s shit here,’ he’d insist. ‘The arrogance, complaints, the whining about the glorious past. No idea what we endured, most of us, me, where I come from… The fortitude… Beautiful, even when it’s terrible, ugly, the fortitude. We’ve kept on going, brave, still alive in our deepest souls… You understand? Perhaps a bit, you being Irish…’
Once, unnervingly, he’d wept for several long minutes. Between spasms, pawing at tears, he’d told her: ‘I dream of the different ways I could die. Sometimes they… eat me alive…’
‘Who? Who, darling?’
‘It didn’t go as I planned,’ he said now, his hand on her shoulder. ‘The past few days.’
‘I thought I’d get it sorted. But that’s not the way it went. I’m fucked.’
Hannah didn’t look at him or speak.
‘I’m not asking for your help,’ he said.
‘Just, being practical, I want you to know that whatever happens to me, whenever, however soon – maybe very soon – we never knew each other. I’ve kicked over the traces.’
‘It’s complicated. But I’ve made sure you’re not involved. Implicated.’
‘Doomed to be apart, are we?’
Her false tone of sadness chimed too jauntily.
‘Just make us that bite to eat, eh,’ he said abruptly.
‘Yeah, baby heart. I’m peckish.’
‘That’s right. Baby heart. Problem with that?’
‘No. It’s nice.’
‘Wait. One more thing. Don’t angst it. But… so much of our time has been so… so class… Yeah? So, hypothetically, would you say, was there ever a chance you might… be… charmed… by me?’
‘Charmed? Sure, I’m already… charmed.’
‘I’m asking you in a real way now, not business. I mean, like, might you be properly… truly charmed? Finding physical expression even? Sincere feeling?’
‘Yes. The last sweet piece in this picture we’ve made.’
‘Is that what you’ve been looking for?’
‘Not to start with. But now, the way we are… You’ve given me hope.’
Hannah stood up. ‘Hey now, don’t give me too much to think about.’
‘Something pure about it,’ Matvei muttered.
Hannah looked down into his eyes, took his head between her hands, pushed his face flat into her stomach, held him there.
‘Don’t complicate. I’m with you, right? Mother of your son?’
Matvei nodded his head against her cream top.
‘Don’t be upset. I’m here, big man.’
They stayed like that for several minutes, Hannah massaging Matvei’s bare scalp. Then she raised her palms slightly, hovering.
‘OK, risotto now,’ she said.
‘Music on first, will you?’
Hannah found Carmen, Matvei’s favourite, and put it on at a good volume. Then she left him sitting in the chair with his eyes closed while she went into the hallway between main room and kitchen.
Quietly, she retracted the two new deadbolts on the inside of the apartment’s front door and let it ease open. She peered through the crack out on to the landing. No one around.
She stepped back, left the door ajar.
‘You base creature,’ she muttered to herself.
She went on into the kitchen and started going through the motions of preparing a risotto, moving around among the pristine kitchen’s shiny surfaces and dutiful utensils. She’d been told not to leave the apartment until exactly nine-thirty.
There’d been the old flame Jools last night, then two Amatsu clients that morning, before the shock of the message from the unknown number, unequivocal in its threats. After that, it was back to her flat again and then out to buy food for Matvei and head down to Pimlico.
As she cooked, she found herself thinking about the simplicity of the previous night, the ardent grey-haired Jools purring and sighing, moving her arms and legs around, rampantly passionate like a teenager, while Hannah observed herself playing her role, compliant in his memories of the woman he thought she was.
‘Nora!’ he’d said to her. ‘You’re still you! Nora!’
In Matvei’s kitchen, Hannah opened a bottle of red wine, using the decorative lizard corkscrew, and poured herself a glass. An aria was building up, blasting out of the speakers in the other room.
Alone among the grinning silver blades, chopping and stirring, Hannah tried to follow the recipe and blank out everything else.
At one point the night before, she’d pulled up Jools’s shirt and kissed his stomach and chest. His slightly mildewed smell reminded her of the front room in Sligo, of the old sofa she used to lounge around on.
Did she like him, or was it all just anger at her sister?
As she cooked now, she recalled the intense joy of those first months in Ireland as a child, of running long distances – Nora with her – over fields, along beaches, under the ever-changing sky, always rousing herself to sprint at the end, trying hard to win.
And later, when things had gone wrong, standing near the end of the fuchsia lane, there was that sensation of Nora’s hands closing over her ears as she, Hannah, made a dramatic face, a silent shriek, looking at the family house and putting her cold tongue out.
Their Daddy’s face at the window, nasty, looking out, not seeing.
‘It’s their souls I’m talking about!’ he was shouting at Mummy. ‘Immortal souls! Will you ever understand?’
‘Fuck your religion. Your cult!’ Mummy was yelling back. ‘I don’t believe any of it anymore. You didn’t bring us here to save or convert anyone! You’re just here for the slavish Rosaleen, who, unlike me, worships the ground you float over in your stupid kaftan or whatever it is…’
Later, by the sycamores, having run away from the house, Hannah had thrown herself on the ground, eyes closed, nose to earth, pushing her face into grass. And then, when she looked up, there was the dead crow that fell through all the branches of one of the trees and landed, gaping, between her and Nora.
It was humid. They’d gone up to the well for water, next to the widow Rosaleen’s house. There were snails and worms around the well’s opening.
Passing through Rosaleen’s backyard on the way back, there were noises from her kitchen, noises like a frog croaking. Erk erk. Erk.
Waiting, holding on to Nora, edging forward. The back door open a crack.
‘Oh lord lord.’
Erk erk erk erk.
Feeling of fear.
‘Oh Victor. Aaah…’
Eyes peering through crack. Daddy’s hand stroking Rosaleen’s hair and turned-away face, him pressing himself on her as she lay back on the creaky table – erk erk erk. Hannah watching, side-on, as Rosaleen let out deep sounds, her sprawled blouse bunched up, one breast showing, her long solid legs bare around Daddy’s back. And his standing-up body beating against her, kaftan hitched up and pulled away, white hairy stomach showing…
‘Oh god, Rosaleen…’
Him going faster. Her grasping at her own grey skirt, already up around her hips, pulling it further up to show more flesh…
And the two of them then almost shouting at each other, shouting about fuck and fucking and don’t stop…
Then, not long after, Hannah – and Nora with her – racing towards the headland on the path through the gorse. A clench of disgust, not knowing how to name the feeling or the thing that’s caused it. Putting hand over mouth, freshly shocked…
And later again, Daddy visible in distance, alone, kneeling by cliff edge, praying out loud. Hannah moving towards him, slowly, crawling, like an ambush, listening to his muttering self-importance, him in his windy kaftan…
Just sea way below.
’Lord!’ Hannah’s father saying again. Arms splayed, as if he’s about to address a crowd, facing the ocean and tilting his head upwards to take in the blast of light piercing through god’s window between the clouds.
Hannah smiling. Is he going to slip, Nora? No no, he’s not, course not…
But too late. The thought’s out of its cage, circling.
Father standing, taking one reckless step forward, shouting about sins and flesh…
‘Fuck.’ Hannah shouting too, louder than she meant, the word he and Rosaleen had used. ‘Fuck fuck fuck.’
Daddy stumbling, as if struck on the back of his legs, knees buckling…
Over the edge.
Hannah running back down path, eyes half-closed, focusing just on ground beneath, and then outside the family house, Nora’s voice, the betrayer, shouting to their horrified mother: ‘It was her fault. She made him! She did it on purpose so he’d fall!’
And their mother’s scary cold blue eyes coming up then from their turbulent inner lake and fixing Hannah in their glare, her snarling mouth making the word ‘wickedness’…
The exile within her own family that went on for so many years after that.
Now, in Pimlico, the music was turned up further.
The unnecessary food was ready. Hannah sampled a mouthful. Gorgeous. And another. She checked her mobile for the time, waited seven more minutes.
She took a big breath, opened the door of the kitchen.
Matvei was lying on his back in the doorway between hall and main room, entirely still, his head twisted towards her, eyes unblinkingly open. He looked like something that had always been dead.
Hannah stepped over him, turned down the volume on the sound system.
Matvei had a wound near his temple that had sprayed blood down one cheek and on to his tattooed neck and the grey carpet. There was no gun visible.
Hannah retrieved her white beret from the floor, returned to the kitchen to get her bag.
As instructed, she left the block via the stairs.
Outside she moved fast, on and on along the Embankment, until there were enough trees to hide herself under. She threw her beret on the ground, pulledat her own hair, dragging her head downwards.
She sat on a bench, breathing rapidly, looked at the river.
Once again, there was no escape route, nothing she could’ve done. It wasn’t her fault. But the trees were saying something and the whisperers in her head were dismayed.