The motor car careered out of the wintry night and mounted the pavement, heading straight for the doors of a crumbling warehouse overlooking the Thames. For Anya Kalashnikova – her long nails snapping as she gripped the leather rear seat – time seemed to slow. The spilled glare of the rusting London streetlamp was like a spotlight through the window, the engine’s roar swelling like a crowd’s applause.
Just forty minutes ago Anya had been playing Giselle on stage with the youth troupe of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. How the other girls envied her dancing such a difficult part, and at only thirteen years of age. ‘Your grace is outstanding, your musicality flawless,’ Madame Radek had said proudly, back in Paris. ‘One day you shall be prima ballerina for the finest companies and dance all across the world . . . Prima Ballerina Assoluta!’
The warehouse doors exploded as the Streamline powered through them into darkness. Anya was thrown sideways against hard, cold leather. ‘Papa!’ she shrieked.
There was no reply; her father was hunched silently over the wheel like an old woman spinning thread. He’d looked pale upon leaving the theatre – sweating, almost feverish. She knew he worked so hard, such long hours, and yet he’d insisted on waiting behind and driving her home.
‘Things will be different next year,’ he’d assured her. ‘In 1933, life will change for us.’
It was good to hear Papa sound so positive. They’d moved to London for the sake of Anya’s ballet career, and although
He’d soon found work at an architectural firm, he didn’t seem to enjoy it. Papa had grown thin and forlorn – a winter branch whose leaves had dropped. Oh, he put on a good front for his bosses, she’d seen that for herself, but his unhappiness at home had grown and grown. Sometimes Anya felt guilty. He insisted on driving her everywhere himself, but tonight he’d seemed so distracted. He’d taken so many wrong turns, and now—
Darkness swallowed the Streamline as it ploughed inside the warehouse, a single glowing headlight the only dim resistance. With a lurch, the car lifted into the air as it mounted some unseen obstacle. It hit the ground, and the cocktail cabinet inside the rear passenger door crashed open. Bottles, glasses and decanters flew out, and something heavy struck Anya’s temple. She screamed, a discordant counterpoint to the screeching brakes as the car spun in a wide, protesting arc.
A cobwebbed concrete pillar loomed suddenly from tangled shadows.
Anya screwed up her eyes, and then the side- on collision punched all sense from her world. The door beside her buckled inwards and windows exploded into shards. She was thrown forward through the hail of glass, striking her head on the seat in front. The car was still in motion, gears grinding as it slewed on through the warehouse. Anya screamed again. In the cavernous space, every noise was amplified and flung back through the darkness. She clutched her ears, stomach turning.
Finally the automobile rolled to a stop that was almost tender, a short distance from a whitewashed wall. The single headlamp’s light pooled over the cracked concrete, the unearthly glow reflected back inside the Streamline. The two litre engine chuntered and muttered as if pleased with itself.
Then the noise choked and died away.
Slowly Anya opened her eyes. The way she used to as a young child in the night, afraid of the Nordmann fir’s needles tapping at her window in the wind, willing the darkness to make way for morning and the kindly smile of her governess.
There was wetness on her face. Tears? she thought, touching gingerly. Or something from the decanter?
She wiped at her mouth and her hand came away sticky and dark. Blood.
Shock held back the pain, but not her fear. What do I look like? Don’t let it scar. Don’t let me be ugly. ‘Papa?’ She was afraid to speak too loudly in the sudden hush, as if she might somehow start the car moving again. The only sound was the ticking of the cooling engine and the slow shake of her breathing.
‘Papa . . . please . . . ?’
Anya jumped at the clunk and creak of the door as it opened. The headlight went out; she couldn’t see anything now, but smelled Papa’s dry sandalwood cologne, and something else. A sweet, chemical scent.
A handkerchief pressed down over her nose and mouth.
Papa’s wiping the blood away. Anya suddenly felt safer. This was better than waking to her governess. Papa was here. He would make things better.
Her skin grew cold and stung. An antiseptic, of course. She was feeling so sleepy. She felt like Giselle at the end of the ballet, placed on a bed of flowers and lowered slowly into the earth. Each night she descended breathless into the warm paraffin light of the under- stage, to the smell of Parma violets and wood shavings, waiting for the wave of applause to break in the auditorium above. But now she felt herself floating into a stronger, deeper darkness, beyond the audience; beyond anything.
Ivan Kalashnikov took the chloroform pad from his daughter’s bloody face and wiped tears from his eyes. The cut on Anya’s temple looked deep, but it would heal. Otherwise she seemed unhurt.
They had survived the crash, but the real ordeal was yet to begin.
Kalashnikov turned in the pitch- stinking darkness, pulled his fish- eye torch out of his pocket and played the beam around the warehouse. He’d failed to stop the car in the position he’d rehearsed. Well, small surprise: he was an architect, not a racing driver.
Outside he could hear the distant chug of a tug on the Thames, and the quarrelling of drunks. Sweating, panting for breath, he set his shoulder to the driver’s doorframe and pushed the Streamline slowly forwards, leaving it to rest beside a towering stack of scaffolding poles. He felt sick; the poles were leaning precariously against a mouldering concrete pillar, just as he’d left them.
Everything was prepared.
Kalashnikov opened the rear door and shone his torch on Anya, lying curled up on the back seat. Poor child, she looked so peaceful. Carefully he manoeuvred her sleeping body until her right foot was almost brushing the filthy floor, as if she were about to rise and step out of the car and embrace him, bubbling as usual with the excitement and glamour of her night.
‘It is as Grandfather liked to tell us,’ Kalashnikov murmured.
‘We are born under a clear blue sky . . . but die in a dark forest.’
Slowly, deliberately, he pushed the car door half- closed against his daughter’s protruding leg. Then he walked towards the heavy scaffolding poles. He stood, frozen still in the darkness for many minutes. His breathing grew huskier.
He shook his head, hopeless. Helpless.
Finally, shaking and sobbing, he slammed his palms into the stack of scaffolding poles. With a torturous twist and the scrape of metal on concrete they toppled slowly, then smashed against the automobile with an unholy clamour. The door was thrown closed onto Anya’s calf. The noise, thick and hard, scared the gulls from the ruins of the rafters, sent them laughing into the night high above the charcoal shadow of the Thames.
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