Chapter Two- Five Years Earlier
RUSLAN OPENED his eyes just before sunrise. For a moment, he was disoriented and couldn’t remember where he was, but then he noticed Josep’s gentle breathing. He looked over at his alarm clock and decided to get out of bed before it rang so that his friend could sleep on undisturbed.
He sat up and looked for his running clothes and his watch. He reset the alarm for Josep, picked up his sponge bag, towel and keys and crept out of the room. In the staff bathroom, he splashed cold water onto his face and brushed his hair to make it behave.
He looked in the mirror, so old it was speckled with brown, and chuckled at his own vanity. Ruslan always liked his reflection: tanned, healthy young skin in a face dominated by his deep brown eyes.
He walked and jogged down the stairs into the car park, limbering up all the while. He found a hole in the fence under a tatty and faded poster that proclaimed, ‘Workers of the Soviet Union! Struggle for the completion of the tenth five-year plan!’
Shaking his head at the ridiculousness of the slogan, Ruslan squeezed through to the beach.
The sun had by now risen over the distant peaks of the Caucasian Mountains, and he could feel its gentle warmth on his face. There were mornings when he didn’t want to run and had to drag himself out of his bed, but this wasn’t one of them. He was excited to be in a new place and was ready to go.
He ran on the spot for a moment, and then he was off, running along the hard, wet sand by the sea line.
He had scouted out his route the night before. His run would take in the whole sweep of the bay as far as the fishing jetty and back again. The time wasn’t important. All he cared about was his pulse rate: it had to stay as near as possible to 125 beats per minute. The important thing was to maintain a steady pace and run at or around his anaerobic threshold.
He ran to the jetty and was three quarters of the way back when he first noticed the girl on the beach by his sanatorium. He could see black hair, a white shirt and a dark skirt. She paddled in the water for a few minutes and then sat down on the dry sand, stretching her pale legs in front of her.
As he got closer, Ruslan could see that she was reading a book. She flicked her hair behind her ears and the sun lit up her face. He was mesmerised by her profile: high cheekbones and a strong Anatolian nose.
Hailing as he did from a multi-ethnic region where guessing someone’s nationality came as instinctively as guessing their age, Ruslan decided that such a face couldn’t possibly belong to a Ksord and certainly not a Russian. She might be Greek. He could imagine her profile painted onto a vase or lovingly fitted into a mosaic. But Stalin had purged the Black Sea of its Greeks, so she was more likely to be Armenian. Not a pureblood but one with that dash of Turk that made so many Armenian faces special.
Just before he reached her, he remembered his pace. He was going far too slowly and had been doing so for some time, and it was too late to do anything about it.
He ran past her until he reached the first of the umbrellas that marked the Friendship Sanatorium’s beach. Then he collapsed into the sand and checked his watch. With two fingers on his right hand he felt for his pulse by his Adam’s apple and waited for a beat to coincide with the second hand reaching a recognisable point. When it reached number eight, he counted ten beats, which took a little over five seconds, perhaps five and a quarter. Ruslan knew his conversion tables off by heart. This represented a pulse of about 114 per minute, just a few beats above his aerobic training threshold and nowhere near his anaerobic.
‘Hell and damnation.’
The run had been a complete waste of time.
He stood up and jogged slowly back to the sanatorium.
Back in the bathroom, he took off his clothes and stood naked by the largest basin as it filled with water. He needed to cool down gradually and had decided to rinse his running clothes and shave before entering the shower.
As he was shaving, the thick frame of his roommate Josep stumbled into the bathroom.
‘What happened? Pulse five beats a minute too slow?’
Ruslan didn’t reply.
‘What? More? Let me guess. Ten beats?’
When Ruslan and Josep went downstairs, the restaurant manager greeted them and took them through all the paperwork. ‘We’ll start you off straight away. I’ll get Murad to show you how to do breakfast.’
He led them into the restaurant. The four young waiters at the far side stopped chatting to look at Ruslan and Josep. Two of them were Tatars, a man and a woman, and there were two girls who seemed very young. One looked like a Ksord, but the other was the Armenian girl Ruslan had seen on the beach.
He nudged Josep and whispered, ‘The little one’s mine.’
Another waiter came striding towards them. He was tall and well-built, with a strong, masculine face.
‘Oh hello Vakhtan,’ the manager said. ‘This is Ruslan and this is Josep.’
They shook Vakhtan’s hand.
‘Shall I show them what to do?’
‘I was thinking of asking Murad.’
‘I’ll do it.’
‘Oh, okay. As you wish.’
With that, the manager disappeared.
‘So you’re both Ksords, right?’ Vakhtan asked.
‘That’s good. There’s two more Ksordian lads. They’re still upstairs, but you’ll meet them in a bit. Apart from that we’re stuck with those bloody Tatars over there. Those other two girls are both Rebels, and in case you get any ideas, that fit one’s a right stuck-up little slut, so don’t bother.’
Ruslan looked at her and she looked back at him. So she was Akhtarian, or a ‘Rebel’ in the everyday parlance of the Ksords. She did look like an Armenian, though.
The other two Ksordian waiters ambled in. They greeted Vakhtan with two kisses on each cheek and Ruslan and Josep introduced themselves.
‘We outnumber the enemy now,’ Vakhtan said with a grin.
Ruslan glanced at Josep, who gave a little shrug.
‘I’ll tell you how it works,’ Vakhtan said to Ruslan and Josep. ‘Basically, we let the Tatars and the Rebels do all the work, and us Ksords sit back and have a laugh.’
His companions nodded.
‘Sounds like you’ve got this place sewn up,’ Ruslan said.
‘Fair enough. We’ll just go and say hello to the enemy, if that’s okay.’
With that, he and Josep turned their backs on Vakhtan and walked towards the other waiters.
‘What a half dick,’ Ruslan whispered.
‘You’re telling me.’
They reached the others, and Ruslan addressed the young man in Tatar, ‘Hello, are you Murad?’
‘You speak Tatar?’
‘A bit. I think the manager wanted you to show us what to do. I’m Ruslan, by the way.’
Murad smiled and shook him and Josep by the hand. ‘Nice to meet you.’ Speaking near-perfect Ksord-Akhtarian, he introduced the three girls: Fatima the Tatar and Tamara and Lana, the two Akhtarians.
Ruslan thought Tamara looked even better close up, what with her dramatic cheekbones and her blue-green eyes that looked as if they could swallow him. She was gorgeous.
‘So you’re the mysterious girl on the beach,’ he said as he shook her hand.
‘And you’re the mysterious runner who checks his pulse and swears.’
‘I tell you what,’ Murad said, ‘I’ll show Josep what to do over here, and you two mysterious people can take those tables over there by the windows.’
This arrangement suited Ruslan very well.
‘The guests are mostly Russians and Ukrainians,’ Tamara said as she led Ruslan to their station. ‘But they’re really nice. Most of them are on holiday with their workmates. They’re usually pretty hung over at breakfast, so you’ll need to give them plenty of coffee.’
‘Just because something’s on the menu, it doesn’t mean we’ve got it. There’s never any strawberry romanov, so if they order that, tell them and save yourself a walk. Apparently there’s no salmon today. Usually we run out of buckwheat blinis after the first half hour, so keep your eye on that. By eight-thirty, there’s only teacakes or rye bread.’
‘Why don’t you tell them what there is before they order it?’ Ruslan asked.
‘Yes, might be an idea. Now when they give their order, write it down, write the table number and take it to the kitchen. Stick it on the counter and say it out loud. Then if there’s an order for a different table ready, bring it out, and always serve it from the guest’s left-hand side. Me and you will just take orders from these tables, but when we bring food out, the whole lot of us work together as a team.’
‘Apart from Vakhtan and his friends.’
‘So how come they don’t do any work?’
‘The managers are scared of Mingrelsky.’
‘Vakhtan: his name’s Vakhtan Mingrelsky.’
‘What? Is he related to Aleksander Mingrelsky?’
‘Yes, he’s his son.’
‘Ah, that explains a lot.’
Aleksander Mingrelsky was a big fish in the Party. A very big fish indeed.
‘So what’s your accent?’ Ruslan asked Tamara. ‘Are you from Zeda’Anta?’
‘Yes. What about you?’
‘I’m from near Timashevsk, but me and Josep are at university in Ronkoni.’
‘Ronkoni? Are you Ksords then?’
‘And you and Lana must be Akhtarians.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Are you students?’
‘Yes, at secondary polytechnic. We’ve got a year to go.’
Ruslan guessed she must be sixteen or seventeen. A bit young perhaps. Pity. ‘Are you planning to go to university?’
‘Medical institute. I’m hoping to become a doctor.’
‘What about you? What are you studying?’
‘Oh God, I hate history.’ She looked at him and laughed. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?’
‘I’m not offended.’
‘So are you going to be a history teacher and torture kids like me?’
Ruslan grinned. ‘Not a teacher, no. I’m going to be a brilliant historian. Or maybe a brilliant athlete. I haven’t decided yet.’
‘What kind of athlete?’
‘A marathon runner.’
‘And whatever you decide, you have to be brilliant?’
‘You bet. You don’t want to be a crap doctor, do you?’
‘Well, there you go. You’ve got to set out to be brilliant.’
Tamara laughed. ‘Well, let’s see if you turn out to be a brilliant waiter.’
The first guests had just come in and Ruslan went to take their order. He started by telling them which items on the menu were unavailable, and then he and Tamara headed for the kitchen.
Vakhtan Mingrelsky blocked Ruslan’s path. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’
‘What does it look like? I’m working.’
‘I told you: leave that to the Tatars and the Rebels.’
‘My papa wasn’t important like yours, so I have to work for a living.’
Ruslan pushed past Mingrelsky.
‘You want to be careful with him,’ Tamara said.
Ruslan shook his head. ‘Him? He’s just a spoilt brat.’
‘A very scary spoilt brat.’
The next morning, Tamara was on the beach again, in the same place. She gave a cheery wave as Ruslan approached. He waved back but he was concentrating on his pace.
Again he stopped by the first Friendship umbrella and took his pulse. Ten beats in about 4.8 seconds or 125 beats per minute. At 80% of his maximum heart rate, that was exactly what he was looking for.
It was Tamara.
‘Yes,’ he panted. ‘Spot on.’
She sat down on the sand next to him and waited until he had got his breath back.
‘Are you serious about being a marathon runner?’
‘Yes, I decided when I was about seven or eight, the first time I saw marathon runners at a Spartakiad.’
‘Very young for a life-changing decision.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘So why did you swear when you took your pulse yesterday?’
Ruslan told her more than she ever wanted to know about aerobic and anaerobic thresholds and maximal oxygen uptake. Worried that he might be boring her, he asked about the book she was reading.
’It’s an old Russian story, Ideal.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘It’s about a girl who falls in love with this guy. She thinks he’s absolutely perfect, but then slowly she starts to realise that he’s a total cockroach.’
‘What’s his name?’
Tamara laughed. ‘No. Anatoly has one or two redeeming features.’
‘Not our man, then.’
They sat and watched the sea for a few minutes, until Ruslan looked at his watch and said, ‘I’d better go in.’
‘I’ll stay here for a bit.’
‘Okay, see you inside.’
The two of them saw quite a lot of each other over the next few days, both at work and in their free time. Every morning, she would sit on the beach and wait for him at the end of his run, and they would have a little chat before he went in. Ruslan found her very easy to talk to, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on his pulse rate. He was more concerned about whether she would be there.
He couldn’t stop thinking about her, nor could he keep his eyes off her. Some of the sanatorium guests teased him about it: ‘You should concentrate on your work,’ one woman told him. ‘It’s as if you care about that girl more than you care about us.’
‘Oh no, when I close my eyes at night, it’s always my guests I think about.’
He was more forthright with Josep and Murad: ‘I think I’m falling in love.’
‘Are you Ksords all bloody cradle snatchers?’ Murad asked. ‘She’s only sixteen.’
‘That’s just three years younger than me.’
That Friday, Tamara and Lana had the evening off. They arranged to go to a bar near the town centre with some other sanatorium staff. Ruslan and the others would join them later.
Tamara spent some time deciding what to wear and eventually chose her tightest Maltese jeans and a red top that showed off a little of her shoulders. She and Lana went to the bar and joined their friends. It was a beautiful evening, with a cool breeze coming off the sea to chase away the heat of the day. Tamara ordered neat vodka and downed half her glass quickly to get herself in the mood. By the time Ruslan and the others came, she was on her third glass.
Ruslan’s arrival instantly transformed the evening. Until then, the group had been divided into three, with people chatting quietly with those on their table. Ruslan changed all that: he grabbed a stool, squeezed in next to Tamara and began to tease some of the lads on another table. All three tables united into a single group with noisy laughter and stories of dropped plates, angry chefs, stains on beds and lazy and incompetent managers.
Ruslan ordered more vodka for Tamara, plus a beer for himself.
‘Drinking beer?’ she said. ‘I thought you were a health freak.’
‘Aren’t I allowed one night off?’
‘No run tomorrow then?’
‘I never miss my morning run.’
At ten thirty, they all went off to the promenade, the highlight of a Ksord-Akhtarian summer evening, when families, couples and young singles walk up and down the main street of town to see and be seen. Ksords and Akhtarians thought that only they knew how to promenade properly: Georgians tended to swagger too much, Armenians were too obviously out to get laid, Russians and Ukrainians were usually too drunk, and Tatars just couldn’t understand what it was all about.
Ruslan made sure he walked next to Tamara, but he was unable to get her to himself. Instead, they spent most of the promenade with Josep and Lana. It was all very pleasant but he felt a little frustrated.
As they approached the main square, Tamara tugged Ruslan’s arm. ‘Can we go somewhere else?’
‘Look who’s there.’
Mingrelsky and several of his friends were ahead of them.
‘Just ignore him.’
‘You’re with me. You’ll be okay.’
He swapped sides so that he would come between Mingrelsky and Tamara as they passed him.
Mingrelsky stepped forward. ‘Hello. Look who it is: it’s our Tatar- and Rebel-loving friends.’
‘Hello Comrade Mingrelsky,’ said Ruslan. ‘Brought your important papa with you?’
‘Go fuck a donkey, half dick.’
‘Takes one to know one.’
They all walked on, past Mingrelsky’s taunts.
‘God, I’d just love to hit him,’ said Josep.
‘You’d better not,’ said Tamara.
‘How come you’re so frightened of him?’ Ruslan asked.
‘How come you’re not?’
‘He’s just an idiot.’
‘He’s a complete thug, and he’s had it in for me ever since I refused to go out with him.’
‘What? Did he ask you out?’
‘Yes, just after I got here.’
‘I never knew that.’
‘That’s when all this stuff about the Ksordian waiters not working started.’
‘So you mean it’s just a way of getting your attention?’
‘Getting at me more like.’
‘He’s so pathetic.’
‘You just have to show him that he doesn’t scare you.’
‘But he does scare me.’
Ruslan wanted to put a protective arm round her shoulder, but he was worried she might find it inappropriate. He just gave her arm a little squeeze. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.’
When they reached the beach, they sat and chatted about other things, and Murad and Fatima sang songs by The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Shortly before midnight, Ruslan said to Tamara, ‘I hate to spoil the party, but I should go back now. I’ll be up early again for my run tomorrow.’
‘Actually, I’m tired too. Shall we go back together?’
They took their leave of the others to the accompaniment of knowing looks and whistles and headed towards the Friendship Sanatorium. They walked side by side in silence for a few minutes.
Tamara was the first to speak. ‘Fatima and Murad are a lovely couple, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, they’re really nice. And hasn’t Fatima got a great voice?’
‘Out of this world. It’s madness to waste her talent serving in the restaurant. She should be in the cabaret.’
They walked on a little farther.
‘How long have you known Josep?’
‘Two years. Since I started at university.’
‘He’s a nice lad.’
‘Yes, he’s a great bloke.’
‘Has he got a girlfriend?’
‘I hope you’re not after him.’
Tamara pinched Ruslan’s arm. ‘Well, has he?’
Ruslan laughed. ‘Josep has many fine qualities, but an ability to get it together with girls isn’t one of them.’
‘And what about you?’
‘I haven’t got a girlfriend, no.’
Tamara asked no more questions. Ruslan thought of asking if she had a boyfriend back in Zeda’Anta, but then it occurred to him that he didn’t really care. There was clearly only one candidate for her affections here in Bogmaperdi.
Because the next day was Saturday, all the kitchen staff would have lunch off. Ruslan, Tamara and their friends had arranged to spend the day on the beach.
‘Look, I won’t be horrible to you if you say no,’ said Ruslan. ‘But do you fancy getting the bus up to the north cliff tomorrow, just me and you? I’m told there’s a really good view of the bay.’
‘What about the others?’
‘They’ll survive without us.’
Tamara smiled. ‘Yes, okay. Why not?’
They walked behind the sanatorium and stopped near the staircase that led to female staff accommodation. Ruslan was still wondering whether to kiss her on the cheeks or the lips, when she put her hands up behind his head, pulled him towards her and kissed him on the mouth.
For a second, he tasted the vodka on her tongue.
And with that, she was gone, leaving him to catch his breath.