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On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night's journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I. A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the eastern sky. Like the old saying, he realized--red sky at morning, sailor take warning. But, a private smile for that. So many ways, he thought, to drown in autumn. The Svistov creaked and groaned, spray burst over the bow as she fought the sea. With cupped hands, Serebin lit a Sobranie cigarette, then watched the dark water churning past the hull until the wind drove him back to the cabin.
As he pulled the door shut, a soft shape stirred beneath the blanket. "Ah, mon ours," she said. My bear. A muffled voice, tender, half asleep. "Are we there?"
"No, not for a long time."
"Well then..." One side of the blanket rose in the air.
Serebin took off his shirt and trousers, then his glasses, slid in beside her and ran an idle finger down the length of her back, over the curve, and beyond. Smooth as silk, he thought, sleek as a seal. Bad poetry in bed, maybe, but she was, she was.
Marie-Galante. A fancy name. Nobility? It wouldn't shock him if she were. Or not. A slumflower, perhaps. No matter, she was stunning, glamorous. Exceptionally plucked, buffed and smoothed. She had come to his cabin, sable coat and bare feet, as she'd promised at dinner. A glance, a low purr of a voice in lovely French, just enough, as her husband, a Vichy diplomat, worked at conversation with the Bulgarian captain and his first officer. So, no surprise, a few minutes after midnight: three taps, pearlescent fingernail on iron door and, when it opened, an eloquent Bonsoir.
Serebin stared when the coat came off. The cabin had only a kerosene lantern, hung on a hook in one corner, but the tiny flame was enough. Hair the color of almonds, skin a tone lighter, eyes a shade darker--caramel. She acknowledged the stare with a smile--yes, I am--turned slowly once around for him, then, for a moment, posed. Serebin was a man who had love affairs, one followed another. It was his fate, he believed, that life smacked him in the head every chance it got, then paid him back in women. Even so, he couldn't stop looking at her. "It is," she'd said gently, "a little cold for this."
The engines hammered and strained, the overloaded steamship--Ukrainian manganese for Turkish mills--was slow as a snail. A good idea, they thought, lying on their sides, front to back, his hand on her breast, the sea rising and falling beneath them.
Serebin had boarded the Svistov at the Roumanian port of Constanta, where it called briefly to take on freight--a few crates of agricultural machinery cranked slowly up the rusty side of the ship--and a single passenger. The docks were almost deserted, Serebin stood alone, a small valise at his side, waiting patiently in the soft, southern dusk as the gangway was lowered.
Earlier that day there'd been fighting on the waterfront, a band of fascist Iron Guards pursued by an army unit loyal to Antonescu. So said the barman at the dockside tavern. Intense volleys of small arms fire, a few hand grenades, machine guns, then silence. Serebin listened carefully, calculated the distance, ordered a glass of beer, stayed where he was. Safe enough. Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring.
Later, on his way to the pier, he'd come upon a telegraph office with its windows shattered, a man in uniform flung dead across the threshold of the open door, which bumped against his boot as the evening wind tried to blow it shut. Roumania had just signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, political assassinations were daily events, civil war on the way, one poor soul had simply got an early start.
Dinner, in the freighter's wardroom, had gone on forever. The diplomat, Labonniere, a dry man with a fair mustache, labored away in university Russian--the weather, quite changeable in fall. Or the tasty Black Sea carp, often baked, but sometimes broiled. The Bulgarian captain did not make life easy for him. Yes, very tasty.
It had been left to Serebin to converse with Madame. Was this on purpose? He wondered. The wife was amusing, had that particular ability, found in Parisian women, to make table talk out of thin air. Serebin listened, spoke when he had to, picked at a plate of boiled food. Still, what could any of them say? Half of France was occupied by Germany, Poland enslaved, London in flames. So, all that aside, the carp. Madame Labonniere wore a cameo on a velvet ribbon at her throat, from time to time she touched it with her fingers.
On a shelf in the wardroom was a green steel radio with a wire mesh speaker at the center shaped like a daisy. It produced the transmissions of a dozen stations, which wandered on and off the air like restless cats. Sometimes a few minutes of news on Soviet dairy production, now and then a string quartet, from somewhere on the continent. Once a shouting politician, in Serbo-Croatian, who disappeared into crackling static, then a station in Turkey, whining string instruments and a throbbing drum. To Serebin, a pleasant anarchy. Nobody owned the air above the sea. Suddenly, the Turkish music vanished, replaced by an American swing band with a woman singer. For a long moment, nobody at the dinner table spoke, then, ghostlike, it faded away into the night.
"Now where did that come from?" Marie-Galante said to Serebin.
He had no idea.
"London? Is it possible?"
"A mystery," Serebin said.
"In Odessa, one never hears such things."
"In Odessa, one plays records. Do you live there?"
"For the moment, at the French consulate. And you, monsieur? Where do you live?"
"In Paris, since '38."
"Quelle chance." What luck. For him? Them? "And before that?"
"I am Russian by birth. From Odessa, as it happens."
"Really!" She was delighted. "Then you must know its secrets."
"A few, maybe. Nobody knows them all."
She laughed, in a way that meant she liked him. "Now tell me," she said, leaning forward, confidential. "Do you find your present hosts, congenial?"
What was this? Serebin shrugged. "An occupied city." He left the rest to her.
7:20. Serebin lay on his back, Marie-Galante dozed beside him. The world winked at the cinq-a-sept amour, the twilight love affair, but there was another five-to-seven, the ante meridiem version, which Serebin found equally to his taste. In this life, he thought, there is only one thing worth waking up for in the morning, and it isn't getting out of bed and facing the world.
From Marie-Galante a sigh, then a stretch. Fragrant as melon, warm as toast. She rolled over, slid a leg across his waist, then sat up, shook her hair back, and wriggled to get comfortable. For a time she gazed down at him, put a hand under his chin, tilted his head one way, then the other. "You are quite pretty, you know."
He laughed, made a face.
"No, it's true. What are you?"
"Oh? Spaniel and hound, perhaps. Is that it?"
"Half Russian aristocrat, half Bolshevik Jew. A dog of our times, apparently. And you?"
"Burgundian, mon ours, dark and passionate. We love money and cook everything in butter." She leaned down and kissed him softly on the forehead, then got out of bed. "And go home in the morning."
She gathered up her coat, put it on, held the front closed. "Are you staying in the city?"
"A week. Maybe ten days. At the Beyoglu, on Istiklal Caddesi."
She rested her hand on the doorknob. "Au revoir, then," she said. Said it beautifully, sweet, and a little melancholy.
Istanbul. Three-thirty in the afternoon, the violet hour. Serebin stared out the window of a taxi as it rattled along the wharves of the Golden Horn. The Castle of Indolence. He'd always thought of it that way--melon rinds with clouds of flies, a thousand cats, rust stains on porphyry columns, strange light, strange shadows in a haze of smoke and dust, a street where blind men sold nightingales.
The Svistov had docked an hour earlier, the three passengers stood at the gate of the customs shed and said good-bye. For Serebin, a firm handshake and warm farewell from Labonniere. Sometime in the night he'd asked Marie-Galante if her husband cared what she did. "An arrangement," she'd told him. "We are seen everywhere together, but our private lives are our own affair." So the world.
So the world--two bulky men in suits lounging against a wall on the pier. Emniyet, he supposed, Turkish secret police. A welcoming committee, of a sort, for the diplomat and his wife, for the Bulgarian captain, and likely for him as well. The Surete no doubt having bade him good-bye at the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the SD--Sicherheitsdienst--and the NKVD, the Hungarian VK-VI, and the Roumanian Siguranza observing his progress as he worked his way to the Black Sea.
He was, after all, I. A. Serebin, formerly a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Second Class, currently the executive secretary of the International Russian Union, a Paris-based organization for emigres. The IRU offered meetings, and resolutions--mostly to do with its own bylaws--as much charity as it could manage, a club near the Russian cathedral on the rue Daru, with newspapers on wooden dowels, a chess tournament and a Christmas play, and a small literary magazine, The Harvest. In the political spectrum of emigres societies, as mild as anything Russian could ever be. Czarist officers of the White armies had their own organizations, nostalgic Bolsheviks had theirs, the IRU held tight to the mythical center, an ideology of Tolstoy, compassion, and memories of sunsets, and accepted the dues of the inevitable police informers with a sigh and a shrug. Foreigners! God only knew what they might be up to. But it could not, apparently, be only God who knew.
From the Hardcover edition.