Outside Pulkovo airport on a fresh, springlike, early summer morning, Alexander wrapped his arms around Elena and positioned an affectionate, slightly moist kiss upon her temple.
“Missed you.” He whispered into her left ear.
“I said I missed you.”
“Really? You sounded and looked fine, during our video-chats.”
Alexander gave Elena a squeeze, pulling her in, ever more closely. “Well, you know, I wore a brave face for you.” Looking up, he acknowledged the presence of a young, grey-suited chauffeur standing on the kerbside, who reacted immediately, collecting together the luggage and dispensing with it into the trunk of the limousine. “Let’s go back to the apartment, breakfast’s ready to go. I have many surprises in store for you.” Remembering Elena’s preference, Alexander opened the front passenger door, ushering her to sit inside. “Did you bring your trading instruments with you?”
“My ‘tools of the trade’, you mean. Yes, they take up most of the space inside my suitcases.” She buckled herself into the seat and adjusted two air-in vents, pointing them towards her. “Have you many jobs waiting for me, Alexander?”
“Yes, my love, I have kept them all for you. I have a very long list, maintained in a strict order of priority.” His expression softened more than it had already, as he stroked the edge of her chin in one swift motion of his finger. With a wink, he slammed the car door shut and climbed into the vehicle via the nearside, passenger rear door, taking up a seat directly behind her.
Their journey from the airport to Palace Square passed in silence. From past experience, Alexander knew only too well of Elena’s susceptibility to travel-sickness, if forced into conversation while in transit. During the ride, Elena noticed Tatiana, the chauffeur, flirting with her. She caught several furtive glances at her smooth legs, exposed below the short hemline of her skirt. Occasionally, a gloved hand rubbed and polished the automatic shift lever, in a manner rather suggestive. She wondered if Tatiana thought her preference to sit in the front merely a ruse, covering a desire to be close to her. Possible, she thought. Certainly, she had some strange, mysterious air about her, which no matter how she tried, Elena could not quite nail down in her mind.
The limousine pulled up outside an eighteenth century, pastel-coloured mansion block. Standing on the kerbside, again Alexander cuddled, this time, playfully groping his British guest. She wriggled and twisted out of his grip, wagging her finger at him, mockingly.
“Not in front of the servants!”
“All right Elena, let’s do it your way! Let’s go inside quickly, I want us to make a start as soon as possible.”
The same concierge she remembered from her last visit, greeted them in the reception. “Ah, Miss Elena welcome once again to St Petersburg!”
“Thank you Boris.” She offered her hand, which he kissed with such courtly grace not even an ardent, dyed-in-the-wool feminist could take offence. “And how is Mrs Karpov?”
“She remains the light of my life, my protector, muse and inspiration for happiness. Thank you for asking.” Bowing his head forward respectfully, he fingered a button located on the reception desk, triggering the elevator hydraulics, and summoning a lift-car from an upper level within the building.
In the minimalist styled fourth floor apartment, Tatiana busied herself with preparing breakfast. The smell of freshly made coffee drifted out to the balcony, where Elena stood, gazing out across the river through the sunny haze, towards the Blagoveshchensky Bridge. Alexander soon joined her, having changed back into his paisley print, silk pyjamas and dark red velvet dressing gown. Approaching from behind, his hand cupped the left cheek of her buttock.
“Isn’t it just paradisiacal?” He said.
“You want me to start straight away?”
“After breakfast, yes.” He retrieved a folded piece of paper from an inside breast pocket, one specially sewn into the dressing gown. “Here,” he said, “take this, this is for you, the list. Get to know the contents.” A voice from inside the apartment summoned their presence.
“Zavtrak is served, Master Alexander, Miss Elena!”
The couple positioned themselves, sitting cross-legged and adjacent each other at a low level, finely veined, white marble table. Tatiana placed wooden bowls of freshly toasted kasha soaked in milk, in front of her patron and guest, along with coffee and orange juice. Tempted by the toasted aroma, Elena quickly spooned in a mouthful of the porridge.
“Tatiana, this tastes sublime.”
“Food for the soul.” Effortlessly, Tatiana opened out a serviette, allowing the two-ply tissue paper to float down and rest upon her complimenter’s cream-coloured thighs. “The small clay pot, to your right, contains a local honey. If you like it… ?”
“More coffee please, Tatiana.” Alexander requested, replacing an empty cup onto a saucer. As she left the room, he turned to Elena. “You see?” He reached over and placed his hand upon her cheek, his fingers stroking her hair behind her ear. “I am surrounded by beautifully skilled women artisans.”
After breakfast, Tatiana showed Elena to the bedroom where she would stay for the week. Her bags were already open, clothes removed, all neatly folded and laid out on the four-poster bed. Alexander joined them briefly, having changed into his running shorts and vest.
“I’m going for my regular run,” he announced, “if you settle in, Tatiana will take care of your needs while I’m gone.”
“Okay Alexander, I think I’ll freshen up.”
Walking into the ensuite bathroom, decorative mosaic tiles covering the floors and walls, she considered how it equalled the size of her kitchen/diner at home. A large, free-standing bath, sat positioned under a tall, south facing window. Slipping out of her clothes, she paused before a mirror above the vanity unit, held her hair up onto the back of her head and swivelled on tip-toes, observing both side profiles. Satisfied, she stepped into the shower, automatically activating the water supply, and receiving a sudden rush of cold water from overhead. This quickly resolved into an agreeably hot temperature. She washed her hair.
Shortly, movement caught her attention, detected through the condensation on the shower glass. To her surprise, she realised Tatiana had entered the bathroom, dressed in a white bath robe, her auburn hair untied, falling loosely over her shoulders. Elena wiped away the mist as Tatiana approached, wearing a mischievous smile.
“It’s good, right?” She said, pointing at the chrome shower head inside the cubicle.
“Yes, very good,” Elena replied, “much better than mine at home, much more powerful!”
“You know, we have several different functions and settings to this shower.” Tatiana’s hand grasped the handle of the glass door and paused, “I’ll show you, okay?”
“Yes, sure.” Elena watched as the white robe fell around Tatiana’s ankles. “Oh, right, you’re getting inside, okay!” Tatiana reached out for a steadying hand. Elena offered one. The two women stood admiring each other under the water spray for several moments. Suddenly remembering her objective, Tatiana slipped an arm behind her guest. Elena braced herself mentally, anticipating a kiss.
“Here,” said Tatiana, “If I touch this button … ” Water droplets fell like glistening rainfall from numerous, small outlets in the shower’s ceiling.
“Oh, this feels very good!” Elena cried out, sweeping her wet hair back with both her hands. As she turned her face upwards, she felt soft fingertips placed lightly onto her hips.
“You ready for this?” Tatiana asked.
“Ready for what?” Elena felt a thrill of anticipation unfold throughout her body.
Small, powerful jets of water burst out from three sides of the shower cubicle. Elena, taken unawares, hopped forward and instinctively wrapped her arms around her companion. Tatiana returned the favour, drawing their bodies tightly together, eyes closed, cheek to cheek. Together, they laughed, their hips swaying to a gentle rhythm, creating a pulse of pleasure rapidly increasing in intensity. Gentle kisses gave way to passion, tentative touches grew confident, exploring each other’s secrets, On this morning, they sealed their friendship.
Back in the bedroom, dried off, Elena dressed. On the bed, Tatiana observed, out-stretched in her robe, legs pointing towards the headboard, her feet resting on a pillow.
“What time will Alexander return?” Elena asked, taking a towel to her hair, bending forward and rubbing briskly.
“Not long, in the next half hour. He takes his running very seriously. Today he’s on the ten kilometre route, past the Marble Palace Museum, through the parks and revolutionary memorial gardens. He’ll stop for coffee somewhere and then come back running alongside the river.”
“Well,” said Elena, taking a brush to her hair, “I’d better get started on his list. Have you seen it? All sorts of things. He’s noted a leak in his shower. I think I’d better look at this before he gets back.”
“Okay,” said Tatiana, swinging her legs off the bed and sitting up, “good idea, I’ll show you the location of the water tank.”
The two women walked the corridor together, one in an untied, flowing, white robe, and the other in blue dungarees, carrying a metal toolbox. Alexander’s bedroom, larger than the guest bedroom and closer in style to the minimalist theme of the living room, held an equally luxurious bathroom. Tatiana placed a wooden chair underneath a wall panel, as Elena scrutinised the shower head and taps.
“Consistent dripping.” She said, thoughtfully, half to herself. On the chair, she unscrewed the panel, exposing the header tank. “Well, the ballcock looks fine, it’s floating. It’s likely the rubber washer in the valve has eroded. I’ll have a spare one in my toolbox.”
Soon after Tatiana had returned with two, cold glasses of kefir, Elena had disassembled the valve, replaced the washers, tested the taps successfully and reinstated the wall panel. “What’s next on the list?” She asked, taking a gulp of her drink.
“Toilet in entrance hall, seat very loose.”
“Okay, doesn’t sound too difficult, what’s after that?”
“Hold on,” Tatiana scanned the list held in her hands, “number three … kitchen steps, creaking noise …” She looked up, nonplussed.
Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, Elena, with Tatiana assisting, worked her way down the list. Alexander arrived back, listened avidly to a progress report, before disappearing to try out his newly fixed shower.
The next task, a door. “Door to study sticks on floor when opened beyond ninety degrees … do you understand what he means?” Tatiana asked Elena.
“Yes,” Elena blew her cheeks out, “a door adjustment, tricky, I’ll have to take it off.”
“You know, it’s why Alexander is so crazy about you.” Tatiana said, picking up the toolbox and guiding her friend through the lounge, towards the interconnecting door to the study. “You’re gifted, intelligent and practical. Russian men, by and large, do not possess either attribute. When they stumble upon a woman with such qualities, it’s … how you say … like bees to the honey.”
“You’re saying Russian men aren’t very clever?” Having wedged the door, Elena began unscrewing the hinges from the door frame.
“Helpless children and functioning alcoholics consuming heroic quantities of vodka, most of them, to a greater or lesser extent.”
“Really?” A hint of scepticism came through Elena’s question.
“Don’t you believe me? Look, how can it not be true?” On cue, Tatiana helped lower the door onto the floor. “Not so long ago, you know we lost an unimaginably large number of experienced and highly knowledgeable people to war and political purges. Theorists, strategists, teachers, doctors, scientists, economists, artists, musicians. You must understand, it takes a long time for recovery, suffering such a great subtraction from society’s gene pool”.
“It’s not just the numbers, it’s about the wide range of skills lost.” Elena said, running her smoothing plane over the bottom edge of the door.
“Of course. Eliminated, gone, kaput, effectively forever, certainly as far as my lifetime’s concerned.”
“It’s how the country got so messed-up and why Alexander loves you madly. He couldn’t trust a local tradesman with the work you did today. Some of the jobs you’ve completed, corrected defective work done by others.” Leaning forward, Tatiana tucked a loose strand of hair back behind Elena’s ear. “Would you like my advice?”
“O … kay.” Elena blew sawdust off the underside of the door.
“I understand you like him, but you will tire of his company soon. Meanwhile, take all the tokens of love he gives to you. Accept the clothes and jewellery, the car.”
“Car?” Elena froze, mid-turn of a screwdriver.
“Yes, he has already chosen a car for you, top-of-the-range electric powered. Take it, keep it. He has probably set up a bank account for you this morning, filling it with funds enough for a comfortable few years ahead. Also, expect to receive notification regarding a portfolio of shares purchased on your behalf. Accept them and keep them all. End the relationship with him in a month or two. He’ll be heartbroken, for a week. Then he’ll move on, forget, won’t give a second thought to all he has given to you. Do not worry about returning anything, he won’t ask for anything back. Okay?”
“You’ve seen this happen before?” Elena asked.
“Mhm … something similar. Sometimes, the women make a fuss or get greedy. Such instances never end well. My advice, take what he gives, you’ll find it plenty enough.”
“I’ll have to think about this.” Elena said, opening the adjusted door, checking the bottom edge cleared the floor adequately. Tatiana crouched low, examined closely, raised her hand, fingers shaped into the ‘perfection’ gesture.
“The concept doesn’t warrant too much time spent in meditative contemplation. In Russia we have a saying, all genius is simple.”
“What’s next on the list?” Elena asked, brushing herself down.
“Okay, look, we stop for some food, you deserve a break. Alexander has a business meeting this evening, you restart then. The list, it says about kitchen units coming apart, lots of hammering needed, noisy work, only begin after he has left.”
“Okay,” Elena said, closing her toolbox, “let’s eat.”
©Brinkinfield 2020 All Rights Reserved Part of the Ekphrasis Project (story inspired by picture) With special thanks to the Covid-19 Lockdown