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  • David Savill

Work in Progress: All of Russia's Children

Updated: Jul 3


Chapter One


It began with a call from the court-reporter of The Bexleyheath Courier, and ended on the border of Belarus.

“You said she wants to talk about a Viktor Leniskov?” John Solomon asked, “L-E-N-I-S-K-O-V?”

As he walked along High Holborn in the morning rush-hour, John etched the name with a useless biro on a paper coffee cup. Leniskov: a Russian name almost as common as the English Smith.

“Correct. Mean anything to you? I read your memoir, by the way,” the reporter said, “Fantastic stuff. Actually, I’m pretty psyched to be talking with you at all. But when it comes to Russia, and Russians, who knows more?”

Your name?”

“Jack Willis.”

Willis’s recent work was the first story to appear on his phone search.


Accidental Death: Verdict in Case of Local Russian Man.


Viktor Leniskov

. ...car accident…


coroner’s inquest…


“And you’re calling me because?”

“I thought we might be able to help each other.”

Willis’s tinny, south London accent cut through the violent hush of traffic. “I want to talk to the girlfriend, this Michaela Brennan, but I’ve got a problem.”

“Oh, yes?”

“She’s says she’ll only talk to you.”



*


After the requisite internet searches in a run-down Patisserie Valerie, John navigated two hours of school traffic to park a vape stinking Zipcar on the verge of a dead-end road within smelling distance of the Thames estuary. His brogue boots, bought in Moscow some twenty years ago, picked over a pavement cracked with tall weeds. A truck dipped through potholes as it passed, pulling a shipping container printed with a nonsense name the Chinese owners must have hoped sounded English. It meant nothing to John, he’d been living in different countries for so long letters barely belonged to the words of any particular language.

On the phone, Michaela had given him the address of her workplace, and asked if they could meet at the end of her shift. The place marked on his phone was called Crayford Materials Recovery Facility. Seagulls picked over hills of recycling. Behind linked fencing, a complex of offices and hangars.

At the reception, John acquired a visitor’s badge and a hard-hat from a rosaceous man who led him through trucks vomiting rubbish onto trash-mountains, to the first digger. Like an air-traffic controller, the man waved up at the cab with both hands, and the digger’s arm came to a halt.

The operator looked down from behind the filthy window of the cab. When the door opened, she took off her yellow hard-hat, shaking out shoulder-length black hair with a Halloween-green stripe.

Apparently, this was Michaela Brennan.



*


At 6’5, and not exactly slim, John had hoped to find a car with some head clearance, but the nearest one to High Holborn had been a Korean tin can that made his Moscow Lada feel like a bus.

As they drove from the recycling centre, the young woman sitting next to him held the seatbelt over her chest as if she were ready to make a quick getaway. She pointed at the left-turn ahead and he noted a snaking Om tattoo on the inside of her wrist.

“How is it? Working there?” He asked.

“It’s money. Although, apparently, we’re making the world greener, so - there’s that.”

She smelled of perfumed sweat, and her overalls were unbuttoned to a Slipknot T-shirt. He sensed nerves. She was a woman in a car with a strange man. What sort of woman wanted to put herself in that position? Was she nervous about something she was about to do?

“Why me?” John had asked on the phone.

“It’s hard to explain,” she had said evasively. “But there’s something I need to show you.”

The usual checks on her online identity had revealed Michaela’s Facebook and Instagram, dating back several years. He’d followed the trail of her friends. Michaela’s life didn’t seem to have bloomed much beyond this corner of Kent, a horse-rescue stable on the flats of the estuary, and nightclub, (singular), of Dartford. If her social media profile had been constructed in the bedroom of Siberian teenagers with cash from the Kremlin, they’d earned every untaxed, untraceable dollar.

The roads of little council houses with their stippled white paint were multiplying. Where were they anyway? It wasn’t quite Crayford, not Bexley, and only close to Slade Green.

“Just Maidan Road, isn’t it?” said Michaela, when John asked, “arse-end of nowhere.”

Which meant cheap, post-war bricks, two bedrooms, one reception room, a little patch of grass out front - repeat. John might be in Orgreave kicking up a thirteen-year-old’s fuss with his mates, some speed, and a little light theft. The shock of return, a colleague leaving Moscow had once named the experience of coming back to England. John had been a foster kid, several times over, and home had never been the place where he belonged.

Michaela said he could block the driveway next door. The neighbours had a skip on theirs and were busy gentrifying. For-bloody-ever, she muttered as she turned the key in a PVC door, and walked in.

He felt huge in the narrow hallway, and found himself bending over to pat the dog’s bouncing, basketball head.

“Who’s this fella?”

Michaela was trying to hang the key on a hook in a rococo key-box pinned by a tiny cherub. “Raspberry,” she said half ashamed, “don’t ask.”

She directed him to sit down on a white, leatherette Chesterfield, and stood at the door of the room, pulling her hair back into a coil to reveal a dye-line tide on her forehead, and a face cuter than the overalls and hard-hat allowed. The maiden doll inside the Matryoshka.

“Tea?”

“Two sugars,” John confirmed. He heard the kettle under the tap in the kitchen, stood up, took a step to the fireplace, and peered into the framed pictures on the mantelpiece. An old couple wearing raincoats on a wooden tourist boat, and a lake he recognized as Windermere. In the next picture, pastel t-shirts on a Mediterranean beach. In the final picture, the same couple stood on the deck of a cruise ship.

“It’s my grandmother’s house. She’s Italian. Father’s side of the family is Irish.”

Michaela had appeared behind him, a laptop underneath her arm. She gave him tea in a Millwall FC mug, and they sat on the sofa. John put the mug down and left it untouched.

He watched her open the laptop on the coffee table, and patted Raspberry’s head where the dog lay on the carpet, tail thumping from side to side like a metronome.

“He likes you,” she said.

“We had dogs growing up,” John told her. Six different families, six different dogs. The most memorable an Australian sheepdog who nearly cut his childhood short with a bite to the neck. His hand involuntarily drifted to the old scar.

“And you’re saying you never met Viktor?” Michaela turned the screen towards him, but kept her hands with their plum-black, lacquered nails, on the keyboard, ready to open the column of yellow folders at his command.



*



The first folder had been titled ‘Finances-Personal’. But inside this, a column of three more folders.

Finances – 2018-2019

John Solomon

It was like being shown a picture of himself in a place he had never been. The third folder had been labelled with one of the only names that had the power to squeeze John’s heart:

Grace Leonidze

In the beginning, it had always been like this: John and Grace’s names together in the by-lines of their stories. Other people had photograph albums. John had Moscow, Grace, and the stories they had worked together, the cars they had slept in, the hopes, and the fears, shared.

Michaela clicked on the ‘John Solomon’ folder. It opened on the most difficult ten years of his life.

13-9-1999 – Grace Leonidze - British Journalist Goes Missing

15-9-1999 – Foreign Office calls for investigation into Disappearance of British Journalist.

18-9-1999 – Ruslan Leonidze: British Journalist’s Father calls for action over missing daughter….

She clicked on a JPEG icon at the end of the filed articles. The first thing he noticed was the unflattering shape of a man’s stomach hanging out, and over, the belt of his jeans. Like something from another decade, the man had a fat roll of newspapers tucked under one arm. He was standing on a pavement outside a Dockland’s terrace, next to a bus-stop. From beneath an unwashed fringe of silver-grey hair, his eyes stared - not quite in the direction of the photographer, but unnervingly close. John tried to meet the man’s eyes, but the eyes were lost in a deep forest of silver birches. He knew they were silver birches, because the man was him. He looked even more of a shit-show than he felt. He was smoking a fag outside the house of the non-smoking, South American colleague, who had given him a sofa to crash on after his expulsion from Russia. Which meant he had been under surveillance for at least a month.

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