Yet none of that mattered, and if it had, Tamara would have given it very short shrift. In the New Russia, people often found different ways of coping with a multifaceted world in which the only certainty was that money was scarce. Only now the soothing voice of communism no longer told people that it was alright to be poor, because they were building a better tomorrow for their children. Now, that reassuring voice had gone, and the lie was a naked one. Tamara’s parents had seen that happen when she was just a few years old, playing with toy guns and ballerinas under the Christmas tree.
In the sweaty hurried frenzy of the dressing room, Nadia Seledova leant over, as she so often did, with a smile of livid delight on her broad, Slavic face. “He’s here for you again, Tamara!” she giggled in that infuriating way she had and Tamara, as was her habit, flicked her fingers in Nadia’s face, as if to ask for something not worth her attention. Nadia duly placed the slip of paper in her fingers with another, particularly loud giggle.
“Girls! 5 minutes!”
Tamara tucked the paper carelessly inside her leotard, causing further hilarity. “Toilet”, she said casually in explanation, without turning round.
Inside the stained and peeling toilet cubicle, tutu brushing the sides, she unfolded the paper.
Thursday night. About 10. He will be coming out of the Soiuz bar on Razumovsky Prospekt. The usual.
A grim smile passed over her classic features as she replaced the paper in her leotard over her right breast.
* * * *
“I’ve never met a girl like you before.”
Tamara groaned inwardly and reached for her brandy and advocaat – unlike so many Russian girls she hated Vodka and drank Napoleon’s drink, usually neat, usually double, but sometimes with the sickly Dutch aperitif stirred liberally into it.
“Really?” She met his eyes with what she hoped was her most intriguing look. God above, for a Westerner he was particularly bad at this. She guessed it might well be his first time, and took pity on him…momentarily.
“Look, you don’t have to chat me up. I’m a….”
Sure thing, suggested the subtitle from Pretty Woman in her head. Next, she would be saying she had “the condom of champions” in her bag and would be saying that nothing got through this sucker. Sucker… ho ho.
Amazingly, he didn’t get the allusion. It was getting like that – Russians today knew more Western culture than Westerners did. Tamara took another pull at her brandy and advocaat, and tried her most engaging smile. Weakly, he smiled back. She took another sip. God, this was going to be a long night – and she had other work to do.
Some two hours later, Tamara caught herself wishing – serious wad of Western money or no serious wad of Western money – she hadn’t bothered. He smelt stalely of sweat, cigar smoke and fried food, and despite an average, perfectly acceptable body – and the ability to respond in the most obvious manner to her smooth, well-oiled and superbly fit physique laying naked in front of him, she sensed his preoccupation – Family? Wife? Girlfriend? Children? Mother-in-law? Work? Tomorrow’s meeting agenda? Whatever it was, she sensed it and began to surreptitiously check her watch over his shoulder. Hmmm. She felt she was earning this one. In order to inject something into the proceedings she began, very gently, to fake an oncoming orgasm. She was good at this - she had done it on many occasions without being detected, as far as she knew.
It worked. He began to groan, softly, and not much later his convulsive movements quickened inexorably and then the telltale deep sigh escaped him as he collapsed onto her back. She prepared herself mentally, almost mechanically, for all the possible reactions she had experienced so far. Regret? Anger? Embarrassment? Fear? Guilt? Offer of marriage?
Surprisingly, none of these. Unexpectedly, he kissed the top of her head and then reached around to kiss her mouth. She responded, and felt him wrap his arms around her, sliding them beneath her stomach. She stiffened, resenting the warm couple-like intimacy of the act; she considered sex to be sex, and anything that did not directly lead to that was off-limits. True, it was being paid for – but, as a rule, she refused to do anything that could let her heart be involved, and steeled herself against it. She did so now, clenching her mind against the invasion in a way she never did against any invasion of her body, but then he did something else unexpected. She felt the crisp dollars put into her hand, and mentally counted the money without turning her head, still pressed into the pillow, to look at it. There was something else with the money, something made of card.
He did one more thing she had never known before as he left; he kissed her spine from neck to buttocks, and murmured as he finished, ‘Do Svidanya, Tamara’. No Westerner had ever spoken to her in Russian before.
She still lay there, prone, inert, face in the pillows, a whore. Only when the door had clicked shut did she remember to look at what she held in her hand. And then, for a moment, she could not quite believe it. She jumped up.
Two Ballet tickets? For Sleeping Beauty?? At the Petrovskii theatre, tomorrow night??!!
And suddenly, she began to laugh, and cry at the same time. And found that she could not stop.
* * * *
He rose, and pulled the chair out for her.
“I’m glad you could make it. You look wonderful, by the way.”
Tamara dismissed this as male conversational veneer, but then he had had her body, so what had he to gain? Once again, Pretty Woman went through her mind, but there was something else here. Something that did not fit.
Tamara’s black silk dress rustled softly as she arranged its folds. She was still unsure why she was here. She should, by rights, be ninety feet away, dancing on stage, but was here with this strange man who had seemed so ordinary, so workaday, so – Western¬- yet was not. Something was different, and in spite of herself she was intrigued. She still believed he must want a full-time mistress- or possibly a wife – but she was prepared to believe he might well just want an escort for social occasions. But he had no idea, had he?
“I thought it would be good to have one of the ballerinas up here beside me rather than down there on the stage.”
Her jaw dropped, and for a few seconds so did her poise.
“I do read Russian, and I do read theatre programmes. Your name is in very small print, but it’s legible.”
“But I only told you I was called Tamara, how did you…”
“Those legs. And, for that matter, those feet.”
How many other men would have even noticed her feet? Even the foot fetishists didn’t usually notice feet. Tamara re-assessed him hurriedly. She was doing that rather a lot, she noticed.
“Alright. So you got a ballerina into bed, and out of the production for one night. For which I might be in trouble you can’t imagine if Egon … er, I mean., Mr Vlasov sees me.”
“Is he that wormy little man standing by the door as we came in? The one who looked like a pimp?”
Tamara’s uncontrolled burst of laughter turned heads down below in the seats. The man’s face softened. Tamara guessed that he liked her laugh.
“Oh yes,” she said, eyes sparkling. “That’s the one. In fact I often wonder what he’s doing here. He’d be far happier trawling the back streets for whores.”
“Are you sure that he doesn’t?!”
Tamara giggled and turned her attention to the curtain as the ferocious music of the overture to Sleeping Beauty flared into life. She knew this music so well – once again she felt that unfamiliar guilty lurch. What was she doing up here?
As the rest of her ballet company invaded the stage, Tamara could see and name each one of them – Nadia was there, who would have given her eye teeth to get Tamara into trouble with the manager, but she would not look up here – she would be too busy trying to stay upright and remember all her moves. Tamara felt a supreme indifference coupled with a contempt. She loved ballet – it was half of her world, and although she was aware the other girls led very different lives from hers, she considered them all, even Nadia Seledov, to be nothing less than competent.
Tonight, however, she sensed the Westerner’s own tastes beside her and it was as if she saw and judged the performance below her through his eyes.
She saw the inadequate lighting, fairly simplistic staging and the sometimes sloppy choreography; saw the impatience with the more pacey Russian timing and the weirdly blaring brass instruments which, Tamara knew, are played in a different fashion in Russian orchestras to anywhere else in the world. She sensed his craving for more fashionable, avant-garde staging and production; more daring costumes.
Most of all, she felt his gaze stripping the girls as well as the men, baring their bodies, comparing them with others he had seen. And in particular, to her own, which he had studied in such detailed close-up last night.
As if to confirm this, the Westerner’s hand moved almost unconsciously to her left leg – but before she could brush it off, he had removed it. He was still looking at Nadia. “Her legs aren’t as good as yours.” She smiled.
* * * *
She rubbed her fingers along the pistol’s cold barrel. Drops of moisture clung to it from the damp night air. She had done this before many times too, and it paid as well as whoring… better. But the risks were correspondingly higher and she knew that unlike whoring, which she could leave and resume as it suited her, this was a profession whose vortex-like pull she was finding it harder and harder to resist. People were in this line of work who wanted you to work for them. Very badly. And to continue to work for them, more and more and more. Whoring, she thought, was selling your body and a little piece of your heart – and both of them were resilient enough to recover. This was different: this was selling your soul. And it was strictly a one-way exchange.
2am, and still drunken revellers charged, stumbled or strode out of the club in different directions, some to taxis, others to walk home – or wherever they were going. A businessman, tie loose, flushed with drink and escorting an impossibly slim girl with flowing blonde hair and a dress of gold lame that looked as if it had been sprayed onto her. Swaying a little against him she appeared to be laughing hysterically at everything he had to say. Probably understanding very little of it, thought Tamara wryly. Her own English – as almost every Westerner she had bedded had said, was perfect, her father having taught her in summer holidays at the family’s dacha in the Caucasus mountains. But many other girls only knew enough to grease the exchange of sex for money, a smattering of swearwords and some useful expressions.
Tamara could debate politics, art and music with any Westerner, but had little opportunity to do so. Oddly enough, it had been an IT salesman who had spent more than half their night together discussing everything from the changes in Russia, to taxation in England and the revolutionary history of France. And it had been a university professor of Literature who had steadfastly refused to discuss anything at all, had told her to shut up and get on with it, and had asked her to do some of the most degrading things she had ever been asked to do in the course of two hours. She had done them, charged him extra, and as he was leaving she had thrown a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment unerringly at the back of his head, and told him to grow a brain. The professor had lost his temper and attempted to slap her, but Tamara was more than a match for the flabby, balding little man and five seconds later he was clutching his shins in agony and calling her names that, she thought, university professors simply should not know. She had literally kicked him across the threshold and slammed the door in his face.
The memory made her smile, but her smile faded as she realised that her mark was late. Very late. He should have been here hours ago. What was he doing? She contemplated abandoning the vigil, but she knew that the people she did this for did not like excuses. If she stayed there all night, and brought proof to show she was there at that ungodly hour, she would most likely get away with it. If not, she might not live to explain it away. She tightened her fingers on the cold barrel of the pistol and swore.
Half asleep, she jerked awake at the sound of footsteps. Yes, there he was. He was dressed as she had been told, and, also as she had been told, he was having a conversation with a wizened little man who attempted to be trying to sell him something he did not much want. Repeatedly, the little man waved the hand-carved chess board and pieces in his face, offering this or that for so many hundred dollars. Tamara could not hear but could tell the man was refusing from his expressions and gestures. And as she watched him, a horrible sliding feeling crept up into her stomach and flooded her bowels, like a snake settling there.
She abandoned her lounging, badass-girl-against-the-wall pose, and walked around the corner and took a few tentative steps towards him.
He turned, still clearly annoyed, and saw her. And gasped. The shock of recognition was in her eyes too, and their wide eyes held each other for all of two seconds.
The first bullet went wide, and the man yelled. The sound of the shot was appallingly loud. The wizened little chess board seller was nowhere to be seen.
Tamara squeezed the trigger again in blind fury and panic. The second caught him high in the left leg, and his cry of agony echoed eerily down the deserted street. Blood, black in the lamplight, trickled down his trouser leg, but started suddenly to spurt and as it did so the man howled and screeched in pain.
She aimed again, this time for the right eye. But the pistol failed her and she was forced to watch as the man crumpled to his knees and his face, wildly searching, fastened on her as his eyes widened in shock and disbelief. His mouth gaped and choking, stuttering noises came from his throat. He was attempting to say something, but nothing intelligible was coming out. Tamara stood, frozen, as time stretched to breaking point and the man began to bleed to death in front of her.
She walked unsteadily towards him, smelling his fear, his blood and pain. For a second she stood over him, then dropped to her knees and put the pistol to his temple, pulling the trigger uselessly again and again in a frenzy of grief. Dazed, he looked at her, fixated, like a rabbit in headlights. Still the weapon was jammed. She made a small sound of frustration and anger and gripped his head in her hands.
She kissed him, drawing the breath from him, savouring it, blowing her own back into him in futility. She ran her fingers through his hair, and held his head back. Then, with a sob, she gave a savage heave and snapped his neck. His limp body fell from her fingers and hit the tarmac with a sickening crunch. She felt woozy, light-headed, unreal.
The numbing cold invaded her brain, and the distant wail of sirens brought her to her senses. The grimy street swam back into focus. She pocketed the pistol and ran, darting down so many side streets no-one would be able to follow her. Dodging and jinking like a hare she ran, heart in her mouth. She hurtled down a narrow alley and emerged, panting, on the deserted broad stretch of Alexandrov Street. Only then did she dare to pause, catch her breath and look about her.
Slicking back her hair, and taking deep breaths, she walked calmly and steadily in the direction of the Chernaya suburb. The Angliskaya would be open, still serving drinks, still blasting out cheap plastic technorock. Tamara Balakovsky shouldered her burdens and quickened her steps in the direction of the centre of town. There would be men there. One of them would want a fuck, and just for once she wasn’t bothered if they paid.
ELP/Diane Paige 2009 Return to Diane's Page