Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Podsnezhniki by Anita Davie

Oleg Antonyevich makes a detour through Kensington Gardens to pay homage to Princess Diana before he gets on the tube. He feels conspicuous in his grey Macintosh because there is no sign of rain. It is one of those rare, sunny March mornings celebrated by the English Romantics whose volumes of poetry he once kept hidden under his bed.

At Kensington Palace, Oleg meanders past beds of flowering bulbs listing their names in his head: Shelley’s hyacinths, Wordsworth’s daffodils, Coleridge’s snowdrops. Snowdrops. He shudders despite his coat and the unseasonably warm day. Podsnezhniki: it’s the name Russians give to the corpses of the homeless, alcoholics and political dissenters that emerge when the snow finally thaws in spring.

Oleg checks his old Raketa wristwatch - he always leaves his iPhone in the office when he goes out on one of his jaunts - and heads for Bayswater station, even though Notting Hill is closer. It’s a thirty-minute journey to his destination but it will take him the best part of two hours.

An hour later, Oleg has completed a loop of the Circle Line and is back where he started. It’s getting on for lunchtime and standing room only on the District Line. The train lurches as it leaves the station, jolting the passengers packed inside. Oleg grabs the overhead handrail to stop himself from slamming into the woman in the seat below.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ she says to the friend squashed in beside her. ‘Look at this, Liz.’ She nods in Oleg’s direction.

‘Ignore the dirty bastard, Janie.’

Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre: English roses transposed into poison ivy.

Oleg looks down. His coat has fallen open. The woman has spotted the bulge in his trousers and gotten the wrong end of the stick. He could explain - he wouldn’t be arrested, unlike at home - but instead he decides to get out at St James’s Park and walk the rest of the way.

In Parliament Square, police hold back protesters brandishing EU flags as a silver Jag sweeps through the gates in time for Prime Minister’s Questions. Oleg carries on to Westminster Bridge. Half way across, propped against the wall, a bunch of wilting lilies, wrapped in soggy cellophane, marks the spot where a terrorist ploughed his van into a group of tourists two years ago.

Poor old Brits, no wonder they’ve started harking back to the past like his countrymen; it’s natural when one feels under threat. Oleg scans the sea of strangers surging towards him for bulging burkas and unkempt beards knowing that just because he doesn’t spot any, it doesn’t mean that ISIS isn’t here.

His gaze drifts towards the Eye as he heads onto Westminster Bridge Road. It had been disconcerting returning to London after thirty-five years living in other European capitals and at home: the skyline had changed but so had the people.

A princess still resided at Kensington Palace and a woman PM at Number Ten but he’d met Kate Middleton and Teresa May and they were nothing like Diana or Margaret: the powerful combination of tradition and progressive thinking that had seduced him in the eighties had ebbed away; the thawed waters of the Cold War frozen back over.

Oleg walks through Lambeth’s streets, bandy legged from his swollen groin. Outside the Old Vic he spots two policemen and crosses the road. Having swapped their tunics and pointy hats for stab vests and flat caps, the Met’s bobbies look as menacing as Moscow’s Omonovtsy.

Oleg zigzags through stationary traffic back to the sunny side of the street. The chafing between his legs is no longer a discomfort but a reminder that there’s no need for his pessimistic mood: what he has in his underpants will make the world a better place.

He arrives at his destination.

It is typical of young Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely - Oleg loves a British military joke - to pick a location within easy walking distance of his office. The millennials are lazy, unlike the public schoolboys of yesteryear; or perhaps it’s just that the Brits no longer rate his work. Well, soon they will both have a chance to show their metal.

The door to the Premier Inn slides opens. Oleg saunters past the self-service check-in machines to the toilets at the back of the hotel restaurant whose name has changed since he was last here, from Blighty’s to Babushka’s. He is staggered - and impressed - that London’s chefs have managed to transform the watery borscht and greasy pirozhki of his spartan Soviet youth into trendy, mouth-watering dishes.

Oleg locks the far cubicle door, climbs onto the toilet seat and drops his trousers. He lifts the loose polystyrene ceiling tile above his head with one hand, takes the padded envelope from his underpants with the other and slides it into the roof space. He gets the sort of buzz he hasn’t had in decades, knowing this is big.

On his way out, Oleg ignores the young man, whose cardigan actually does fit rather nicely, washing his hands in the sink.

Outside, the weather has changed. It’s cool and cloudy, and Oleg is starving. He passes Starbucks and goes into the greasy spoon he likes on the corner of the street. As he tucks into his egg and bacon banjo - more military slang overheard in the corridors of the MOD - Oleg imagines Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely back at his desk in Vauxhall Cross, taking the memory stick from the envelope, inserting it into his computer. Calmly observing a scene of debauchery that would make most people flinch.

He looks around the café. Grey faces, hunched shoulders; the proletariat looks glum. Oleg drains his mug of tea, brewed until bitter, pushes back his chair and strides towards the counter, searching his pockets for his wallet.

‘Evryfink okay vif your meal?’

The accent sets Oleg’s heart racing but he retains his composure as he finds his wallet and looks up. The waitress is tall, slim, a brunette. She has the look of a supermodel and her nametag reads Melania. He hasn’t seen her before: she must be new.

Oleg pulls out a ten-pound note, changes his mind and gives the girl a twenty. Tells her to keep the change. Tells himself there’s no need to feel guilty. Collateral damage – like Melania, like the bystanders in Salisbury - is inevitable. His staff in the rezidentura will despise the betrayal but they understand the rules. Just as he understands what comes next: a false identity; a new address; a life looking over his shoulder waiting for the stab of an umbrella, the odd tasting cup of tea.

On the pavement, Oleg checks the Raketa passed on to him by his father the day he followed in his footsteps and joined the KGB. Cardigan-Fitznicely should be on the phone by now, making the arrangements. Oleg tightens the belt on his coat. Dark clouds have eclipsed the tip of the Shard and the temperature must have plummeted because he’s shivering.

He’s light-headed, wheezing too, by the time he reaches the rendezvous point at the wobbly lamppost on Westminster Bridge, but elation takes over as he spots the motor boat with a green Harrods bag tied to its mast powering down the Thames. The extraction plan has been reviewed many times over the past few years. He never dreamed it might actually be put into practice.

Oleg takes his off his coat - with relief because now he’s hot and sweaty - and climbs onto the parapet. A faraway voice shouts ‘no, don’t do it’ and he giggles. The whole of London would be singing God Save the Queen at the top of their voices if they knew what he was really up to.

The boat slows down. Psychedelic circles swirl before Oleg’s eyes. His heart pounds and his ears are ringing. His organs are shutting down. He might not even make it to the safe house where Katya will be waiting with the girls. The boat bobs on the water below. The captain looks up and salutes, signalling that he’s a hero and that it’s time to go.

Oleg dangles one foot over the edge. The sky is black with snow clouds. Soon, he too will be a podsnezhnika lying on the boat’s padded-out deck. He has no regrets. He’s sad about his family but glad about the rest. He trusts the Brits to use his kompromat to expose the world’s biggest threat to democracy: Russia’s greatest agent, Donald J Trump.

Oleg Antonyevich steps off the bridge.

© Anita Davie

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