The Carlson Imperative
Book 1: Svetlana Curuvija
© 2010 J.W.Brown
Chapter 7: Recoup & Recover
When I woke, the shadows were starting to lengthen and the sunshine threatened to leave the room altogether. I was cocooned from behind in the warmth of her body, a lovely slim arm wrapped around me and her hand caressed my chest. I felt soft kisses on my neck, interposed with her gentle voice singing her Slavic lullaby in almost a whisper. I lay there without moving, glorying in her close presence, but she must have sensed I had woken. Her head moved up and she nibbled my ear.
“You enjoy Serbian baby song?”
“I did.” I said turning over carefully to face her.
Her lovely short curls fell partly over her face. Her blue-green eyes danced with life, and she grinned, revealing her neat white teeth.
“I notice you gone. Zee says you are resting, so I wait. Then I come downstairs and freshen in room, and find beautiful brush. This I use and brush my hair. I tip on toes to you, and cuddle. Not mind?”
I laughed “Of course not. I feel rested, and I enjoyed your song and cuddle.”
She smiled “I am pleased you happy, for I love you.”
She kissed me gently.
“And I love you Svetlana.”
“We have a busy day, no?”
I sighed. “Yes, very. You need a break, after all your hard work upstairs with the girls.”
“Plis?” she said
I repeated my words in Serbian.
“Oh!” she laughed “No work – only fun. Everyone happy.”
She paused “But Joe?”
“Yes?” I nodded.
“I’m sorry. No paper left. We use all.”
I laughed out loud and kissed her on the nose.
I said in her own tongue “Never apologise for having fun. We will get more paper tomorrow. Yes?”
“Yes plis.” she grinned.
We lay quietly in each other’s arms, then I remembered her prescription.
I got up and retrieved the large tube of cream, and asked her to lie on her tummy and gently massaged the cream into her bruised back. She moaned softly with pleasure at my touch and her body quivered under my hands. I screwed the top back on the cream tube and asked “Are you hungry?”
She turned over and looked at me smiling. “Yes plis, but something special for me first?”
I smiled “Yes my love?”
She sat up and kissed me, then taking my head in her hands, held me to her left breast.
“Kiss me Joe.”
I took her nipple and some of her lovely breast into my mouth, sucking hard and running my tongue over and around the encaptured nipple. She gasped, then moaned. I continued, whilst I caressed the other breast in my hand. Her hands ran feverishly through my hair, holding, pulling my head hard against her as she orgasmed, over and over, shouting my name loudly between screams.
She lay down and pulled me close to her, breathing heavily. Eventually she spoke.
“I make sure it is real and not dream. You mind?”
I smiled gently at her “Of course not, that was lovely.”
We lay in each other’s arms for a while, but her recent starvation got the better of us. She laughed as her stomach rumbled, and she sat up and put my hand on her flat stomach.
“Empty!” she said.
I got up. “C’mon, slip on a bathrobe and I’ll make us an omelette”
I beat four eggs, chopped up tomatoes and chives and made us a Spanish omelette, while she set the table.
I went to my small cellar cupboard and brought back a bottle of Rioja, and we ate in easy silence, Svetlana once again obviously very hungry.
When we finished, we left the table uncleared, I got out an LP of Bix Beiderbech and loaded it onto the turntable, and we cuddled up on the sofa with our glasses.
“Are you OK to talk a little about your captivity?” I asked gently
She turned to me and kissed my nose. “Of course.”
I got up and went to my PC desk, returning with a notepad, and copies of the men she had drawn.
“Can you name the girls who were kept prisoner with you?”
I watched her face work as she recalled each name in turn. It struck me that a mental picture of each girl in turn was brought into her consciousness, and the name retrieved. Most girls she had both Christian name and surname for, a handful she knew only by their 1st names. I wrote as she spoke, then handed the list to her, and she corrected some of my spellings, then smiled and handed the list back. There were 13 names. Adding Katrina, 14 girls condemned to a living hell.
“Good. Thank you. Now a little more?”
She nodded smiling. I handed her the pictures of the two men that Dearby had been unable to identify. “Do you know their names?”
She took the pencil I offered and wrote a Christian name under each picture. “Sorry Joe. Only 1st names ever spoken.”
“Svetlana, that’s good enough.”
I paused. She said gently “Anything more?”
“Yes” I said. “You have been very patient with all of us, whilst I know you feel desperately afraid for your sister. Tomorrow afternoon, I would like to sit down with you, Jane and Zee and try to establish the address where you met this man.” I held up the picture of Piotr Vasilov.
She nodded gravely. “I am ready Joe.”
“Good.” I said “I am confident that you will be able to show us enough for to find where he lives, and I intend to rescue Katrina near the middle of the week, and bring her back safe to you.”
A tear ran down her cheek, and she gripped my hand tightly.
“Pray God that she is safe.”
“She will be.” I said quietly.
She curled up beside me, and as darkness fell, her deep, even breathing told me she slept.
I carried her into my room, removed the bathrobe and laid her between the sheets. After a shower and cleaning my teeth, I joined her, cuddling her back and wrapping my arms around her.
Monday morning saw us walking hand-in-hand, meandering up to Edgware Road, then taking the quiet route to Baker Street, past ‘The Windsor Castle’ and along Crawford Street. She had got up before I woke, made my breakfast for me, and had been very loving, but unusually quiet, and I had hoped the walk in the warm morning sunshine would raise her spirits, so I was a little heartened that as we turned the corner into Baker Street, she spoke.
“You love London Joe?”
I nodded. “I love this part of London, and where we live. Some parts I don’t like, so I don’t go to them.”
She squeezed my hand. “I love your beautiful house, and these streets, but most, I love you. Will you ask me to stay beside you always, whatever happens?”
I stopped and looked at her. I had assumed that this afternoon’s planned investigation had been preying on her mind, and that was the reason for her unusually low spirits. Maybe I was wrong.
I held her lovely face in my hands and said quietly in Serbian.
“Will you stay with me Svetlana? Will you stay and be my life and love? Will you be my wife?”
Her arms went around me and she buried her face in my neck. “I will! I will! I love you so much, I am afraid.”
“Afraid?” I asked.
“Afraid I lose you.”
“Never.” I kissed her. She still had her arms wrapped around me but she smiled, and the happiness was back in her eyes.
“Let’s get those Art supplies.” I said.
She nodded, and we crossed the road.
As we approached Roberta Connaught’s Art Shop, Svetlana stopped and stared in the large window. “We go in here?”
“We do.” I replied and pushed the door, holding it open for her to enter. Svetlana let go of my hand, and moved from display to display, picking up items and cooing to herself in Serbian.
I spoke to the young gent behind the counter.
“Hi, my name’s Joe Carlson. I work in the girl’s refuge down in Sussex Gardens. Miss Curuvija will be teaching life drawing and other skills to some of the girls, and we need some supplies and equipment. I will be paying by VISA. Will that be OK?” I handed him my business card.
He smiled. “Sure, Mr. Carlson. Will I walk the young lady round?”
“How’s your Serbo-Croat?” I asked smiling.
He grinned. “Sorry. That’s one I haven’t learned yet.”
“No matter” I laughed, “I’ll walk round with you.”
He nodded, and we crossed the showroom to Svetlana.
I introduced them and she gave him a dazzling smile. He blushed heavily.
We walked around the room. I invited Svetlana to get whatever she wanted, and suggested she also get items for the girls to use. The young man maintained a shuttle-service between us and the counter, carrying her purchases. Finally, when she announced that she had everything, I pointed to some easels. “What about some of those?”
Her face lit up “Not worry cost much?”
I shook my head, and we took three of the ones she chose.
Heading back to the huge pile of purchases on the counter, Svetlana’s hand went to her face. “Joe. I get too much?”
“No.” I said firmly and smiled at her, and continued in Serbian “You have inspired the girls. I am so pleased. The money is of little consequence.”
She nodded happily.
As we settled up, I rang Tomas and asked him to bring the Espace.
Ten minutes later saw us packing the people-carrier with supplies and equipment, and we headed back to Sussex Gardens.
I left Svetlana, Anna and a handful of the girls, organising space to store the art materials, but just before I left the day room I noticed that one wall had been stripped of the several nondescript prints we had, and now was proudly bearing a collection of Svetlana’s drawings of the girls. I walked over to look.
Jane joined me. “They had started writing comments on the wall, so Anna pinned up those sheets underneath each drawing.”
I stood and admired the vivid sketches, how she had made life jump out of the paper with so few, but beautifully drawn lines.
I read some of the comments and smiled. Some were funny, some genuinely complementary, all were generous.
Pride of place had been given to a sketch of Lizzie, who had asked to be a ‘princess’, and my eyes kept being drawn back to it. Svetlana had drawn her beautifully dressed in a mediaeval Celtic gown, sitting imperiously, but strangely vulnerable, on a throne. Lizzie’s beauty shone from the picture and I felt the tears on my cheeks, as I looked into the dark soulful eyes, with their terrible secrets, looking back into mine from the picture.
“Christ!” I said wiping my eyes with my hand. “I’m sorry Jane.”
She touched my arm. “Don’t be – I cried too..” she paused
“Go on.” I said gently.
She continued “It’s as if Svetlana’s sketch is speaking to us, though Lizzie herself cannot.”
I nodded, but said nothing. I squeezed her hand and left.
I had just sat down with a cup of coffee when the front doorbell rang. A tall, impeccably-leathered motor-cyclist raised his visor when I opened the door.
“Special delivery person-to-person for Mr. Carlson. ID is required sir.”
I nodded. “Please come in.”
He followed me inside and I retrieved my driver’s license and passed it to him. He compared the details with the receipt he carried, and passed the license back. Only then did he remove a stout jiffy-bag from his shoulder pouch. I signed the receipt and he took one step back and saluted. “Thank you sir.” he said and left, shutting the door behind him.
I opened the package. Dearby had supplied five SOPS ID cards ready to have the photographs laminated into them. There were also contact numbers for the armourer and other details, including the addresses of two safe-houses, one of which I was to deliver Vasilov to, the other for my own use. There were also the keys to three vehicles. Nothing was missing. The ‘phone rang.
“Hi, Derek here. Got details of our ‘meet’ yet?”
“Hi” I said. “Sure. We all get together for the drive Wednesday at one. I’m emailing you the rallying point. I’ve also got a source for the equipment we need, and I’ll put his contact details in the email. Looking forward to it?”
“Absolutely.” he replied, “I’ve emailed you the names of the three other guys who are coming along.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you there then.” I said.
“Absolutely.” he replied, and hung up.
I replaced the receiver and drafted him an email and encrypted it before sending, then read his email, and spent the last hour before lunch, laminating copies of five photographs, including my own, onto the ID cards.
It was nearly 12:00 noon, and I wandered upstairs for some lunch.
While being occupied with the girls, Svetlana was animated and apparently at ease. However during lunch, though attentive and smiling, she seemed troubled and subdued. I looked at the faces of Zee and Jane, and saw the same troubled anxiety. All of us then, regarded the looming early afternoon investigation with some trepidation.
I had moved the dining table close to the PC desk. Zee sat in front of my PC, whilst I sat at the table, my laptop in front of me with Svetlana on my left, between Jane and myself. I had placed an A4 pad and pencils in front of Svetlana, and both Zee and I had copies of her conversation with Katya close by. Pictures of Svetlana’s tormentors were in front and to one side of the laptop, and there was juice and glasses in front of us.
I touched Svetlana’s hand. “Are you ready?”
She squeezed my hand “Yes plis.”
“OK if I record this?” I held up the recorder.
“Is OK.” she said quietly.
I talked to her in her native tongue, being as careful as possible.
“OK. You’ve arrived at this man’s house.” I pointed to Piotr Vasilov. Can you draw the street in front of the van?” Just a sketch will do.”
“I do.” she said and commenced drawing. I quietly translated what I’d asked her to draw, to Jane and Zee.
A pretty scene quickly emerged on the paper. The street was narrow, but had several small trees in the centre of the roadway. On either side were 3-story London town houses of late Georgian aspect. Our view was short, and the end of the street terminated in a small graveyard on the left, a much narrower lane, then what looked like a larger graveyard on the right.
Behind the trees in the left-side graveyard, I could just make out a large building, which looked more like a hall than a church. Svetlana pencilled in a few parked cars, but other than that the street was totally unremarkable.
She paused, and I asked “Was it a sunny afternoon?”
“Yes.” She said. “Sun in front, over trees.” She pointed on the drawing. I scribbled a ‘W’ and arrow on the drawing.
She looked around hopefully at me.
“OK. Now you are looking at the house you are about to enter. Can you sketch that?”
“Yes.” Her voice was very quiet, but I could see a strong twitch on her temple. Jane quietly took the pulse on her left hand. Svetlana had been pre-warned about this and said nothing.
A neat, but nondescript dwelling appeared on the paper, much like every other house-front she had already sketched. The number to the side of the door was 16a.
I waited for her to finish and said to Zee and Jane “Anything ring a bell?”
Both shook their heads.
I turned to Svetlana. “Did you get a chance to look to your left, before the man shoved you through the door?
She nodded “Street same as this.” She pointed to the 1st sketch. “But up at top I see small shops on main road.”
“Good.” I said smiling encouragement. “A shortish quiet side road, running East-West, with London Town Houses, and a couple of graveyards, with possibly – probably, a church. The street leads off a reasonably busy main street.”
I took a drink of my juice, and picking up the transcription, quoted directly from the Serbian.
“Now you were in the back of this dirty, smoky van with no windows, and you asked them to stop because you felt sick.”
She nodded. “Wouldn’t stop, but I retch and he curse me then ask driver to stop.”
“Good” I nodded. “They stopped and you got out.”
“I retch badly.”
“Can you remember where the sun was?”
She nodded. “Over big house with pretty roof.”
“On your side of the road?”
Again she nodded.
“What was so pretty about the house roof?”
“I show. “ She said and quickly sketched the skeleton of a large house with a pronounced large zig-zag pattern on the roof.
“Before you got back in the van, what else did you notice about the road?”
“Very pretty road, narrow, with many trees and bus – number 46, Lancaster Gate.”
“Coming down the road on the other side?”
Zee was rattling the keys on the PC. I asked Svetlana. “How much longer after you got back into the van before you arrived in the street?”
She shrugged “A few minutes only.”
“Do you remember the van taking any sharp bends?”
“Only one, then we stop.”
Zee spoke. “No. 46 – Lancaster Gate to Stonecutter’s Lane.” She enlarged the bus route-map on the screen.
“So.” I said she’s travelling roughly north, on a narrow, tree-lined road.” I paused.
“Let’s look at the 1st section of College Crescent just after the bus leaves the A46.”
I opened Google maps on my laptop and fed in the road name.
“Svetlana. If there’s anything you recognise, stop me.”
She nodded. I double-clicked until the 1st Google photo of the road was shown. Svetlana leaned forward eagerly.
As we moved up and into Fitzjohn’s Avenue, she murmured.
“Yes?” I said stopping.
“Road looks same. Pretty, with many trees.”
I smiled. “We’ll get there.”
I moved slowly up the road until she let out a yell. “On left – big house with pretty roof!”
I moved the viewpoint to the opposite side of the road and panned around.
“There.” she shouted “I retch there!”
I nodded smiling. “Devonshire House Preparatory School.” I said aloud.
Zee was typing again. “There’s a couple of churches close by. The nearest one is left off Heath Street, it’s called Spinner’s Lane, just into Hampstead.”
I panned around and moved us slowly, but steadily north. The trees gave way and a small parade of shops appeared on the right.
There were several small streets leading off. When I saw Spinner’s Lane flagged, I turned left into it. Svetlana had gone completely still, I moved the viewpoint slowly forward. Suddenly she jumped up, her chair flying back behind her. “Stop! Stop! This is street. Look! Graves!”
And so there were. I looked at Jane. She persuaded Svetlana to sit, and quietly took her pulse again. Svetlana grabbed my arm. “Show me Joe. Show me houses on left!”
I moved across the street and panned around. There in front of us was 16a.
I expected a reaction. It was inevitable. She screamed in Serbian “That’s the evil bastard’s house. The slimy, miserable loathsome creature that he is. I will kill him, kill him!”
She beat the table in front of her with her fists, then picked up the picture of Piotr Vasilov and spat on it, before tearing it to shreds. Then she stood up and screamed at the laptop screen. “You make me suck your slimy little dick will you? Yes, then I will! Only to bite it off and spit the pieces in your loathsome face!”
I had stood up and tried to comfort her. She turned on me and beat my chest, screaming non-stop abuse I could only half- understand. Jane and Zee made to restrain her, but I held up my hand, and we let Svetlana’s anger run it’s course. Eventually, her screaming turned to sobs, and she buried her head in my chest and gripped me in an embrace that close took my breath away. I mouthed “tea” to Zee. She nodded, and I walked Svetlana to the sofa, took her in my arms and cuddled her.
Slowly, she recovered her composure. Zee handed her a mug of sweet tea and a shortbread biscuit, and Svetlana dunked the biscuit before hungrily devouring it. Zee passed the dish, and Svetlana took another. We waited while she ate. Jane quietly asked Svetlana for her wrist and again took her pulse. I waited and Jane looked up and nodded. She was OK – so far.
The biscuit dish was nearly empty. She appeared much more calm and smiled weakly back at Zee, thanking her for the tea.
“I draw inside for you now. Yes?”
Jane was shaking her head at me. I knew I had enough. I answered. “Svetlana, you have done enough. The rest is up to me.”
She was adamant, but I resisted. Finally she said
“OK then. I stop on stairs. Point to rooms, not go in?”
Jane was still doubtful, but Svetlana was determined. She got up and brought back the pad and pencil. After doing a blazingly fast sketch, she spoke, and delivered her commentary in a convicted and confident way, that was not unlike the rat-a-tat-tat of an automatic machine pistol.
“Inside front door. See video-camera on wall? 1st door – sitting room, next door dining and kitchen.” She drew an arrow pointing to behind the stairs. “Stairs to cellar.”
She flipped the page and drew a view half-way up the stairs. “See video looking at us?” She drew it on the wall above a door at the top of the stairs. She pointed to the door. “Loo.”
Again she flipped the pad and we watched the 1st-floor landing appear rapidly. “Next to Loo is bathroom. Then bedrooms one, two.” She pointed onto the wall above the window which would look out onto the street. “More video”. The next page another view up the next flight of stairs. She pointed again. “Video.” There was no door this time, and on the next page she drew just two doors. “1st door – his room and en-suite loo and bath. 2nd room – his office. There is connect door to bedroom from office also.” There was a note of disgust and contempt in her voice as she spoke the last few words, and she threw the pencil and pad onto the coffee table.
I took her hand and she turned to me and smiled sadly. “I do not know what outside building looks like where girls are. I’m sorry Joe.”
I kissed her. “We will find them. I will ask Mr. Vasilov nicely, and he will tell me.”
She looked at me quizzically. I repeated my words in Serbian and she laughed quietly. “You get help from Avenging Angel?”
“I will.” I smiled, and we kissed again.
She had spoken the last words in English, and both Zee and Jane looked at each other and smiled.
I felt a terrible weight lifted from my chest, and breathed deeply and freely. Her bravery and sheer determination had seen her through a difficult and dangerous early-afternoon.
Svetlana spoke. “Can we go walk in park?” she said, looking at me.
I looked at Jane. She nodded.
“Do you mind Jane and Thak going with you?”
“You not come?”
I kissed her. “I need to sort out some details, I’m sorry.”
“Ssh!” she said, putting her finger gently to my lips “I am sorry. You need use things we talk about. I understand.”
I called Thak, and all three set off for the park.
I poured another coffee. Zee was quiet.
“What do you think?” I said.
“That,” she paused “was a roller-coaster ride I wouldn’t like to take too often.”
I laughed gently “But will she be OK?”
She smiled “Joe, she’s a fighter. Yes, I think she’ll be OK.”
“Thank God for that.” I sighed.
“What did she scream at your laptop?”
I smiled sadly. “Are you sure you want to know Zee?”
She paused then nodded. “It was about a key event, wasn’t it?”
I nodded. “Svetlana refuses to give Vasilov oral sex, and he beats her.”
“But she still refuses – and he could have forced her, but didn’t. How can that be?”
I looked steadily into Zee’s eyes. “The detail is missing in Katya’s account – I believe Svetlana never mentioned it deliberately.”
Zee nodded “Go on Joe.”
“She frightens him.”
“Christ! How does she do that?”
I repeated an English translation of Svetlana’s threat.
She gasped “You believe she actually said that to him?”
I nodded “I do – and he knew she meant every word.”
She continued “So he then beats her again, this time to cover up his own cowardice and shame, rather than to coerce her.”
I nodded again.
Zee shook her head slowly. “I believe you are right. She stood up against this bullying, perverted thug and won!”
“She is a very, very brave young woman.” I said quietly.
“And you are right to love her.” Zee said. She got up and kissed me gently on the cheek. “I’ll leave you to it. See you later.”
I squeezed her hand and she went upstairs.
I showered the effects of my anxiety off me, and was towelling myself when the doorbell rang. I grabbed my bathrobe and headed for the door. It was Alec.
“Oh” he said, seeing the bathrobe, “I’ll come back..”
I laughed “Come in Alec, it’s not what it seems.”
“A juice?” I asked, pouring myself one. He nodded. I brought it over to the sofa and we both sat down.
“I’ll come straight to the point” he said “Stella and I would like to take you up on your generous proposal.”
I leaned forward and extended my hand. “That’s great Alec. I’ll set the wheels in motion.”
He shook my hand. “I’ve already asked for 3 valuations, and I’ll bring them round to you when they arrive.”
I said, a little tongue-in-cheek “Stella and you are sure about this, aren’t you?”
He laughed. “More sure of anything I’ve ever done before.”
He finished the juice in one swallow and stood up. “ Look Joe, I’ll be happy to show you, or any of the other Refuge staff around, should you wish to start making plans. I will also drop off the architects drawings I had done a few years ago.” He paused “I can see you’re busy, so I’ll now see myself out.”
We shook hands, and he left. I returned to my toiletries in the bathroom.
I stood back and looked in the mirror. Had I over-cooked it? I smiled at the image. The ‘transformation’ was almost complete. From the light-blue cravat around my neck, the shocking-pink shirt and the blue velveted-cord jacket and fine-weave herringbone trousers, to the light-blue socks and red suede shoes on my feet.
I reached into the wardrobe and took a matching corduroy cap, jamming it on my head and re-inspected myself in the mirror again. This time I laughed. I looked so camp, everyone would have to believe that I was indeed so.
I headed upstairs and entered the day room. There were several titters from the girls, but I just grinned happily at them. Sniff was lying in her basket, but as I bent down in front of her she got up and her tiny tail wagged furiously. I picked her up and tucked her rump under my right arm, supporting her little body with my forearm and hand. I turned around. The whole room were my audience. Anna grinned from ear-to-ear, and several of the girls whistled.
“Whaddya Fink?” I lisped.
The room erupted with shrieks of laughter. Zee came out of the kitchen and looked at me, shaking her head. “Oh My God! You’re not going out like that are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I minced “What’s wrong?”
She collapsed into laughter, and I strutted over to her.
Lisping heavily I said “A man has the right to take his dog for a walk, without all of this homophobic abuse. I shall talk to you later.”
I winked broadly, retrieved the dog’s lead from the kitchen and headed for the garage.
I got into the M3 and parked Sniff on the passenger seat, and opening the garage doors with my remote, I headed out into the afternoon sunshine.
After the short drive to Hampstead, I parked two blocks before Spinner’s Lane.
“Now then Sniff – it’s walkies.”
She barked and wagged her tail, and I slipped the lead on her and we left the car, and headed up to the lane next to the back of Vasilov’s house.
I walked slowly, letting the dog’s tiny legs set the pace, and pouted at one or two of the locals who stared at me. I took a good look at the rear of the building, and meandered on, going around the corner and into Spinner’s Lane.
I crossed the road and took in the layout of the street. Despite Google’s excellent photography, I needed to reassure myself of the street’s exact geography. I left Spinner’s Lane, and returned to my car walking back down Heath Street.
I was back in Sussex Gardens in less than twenty-minutes, and the whole exercise had taken about an hour. I took Sniff back upstairs, emptied her dish and gave her some fresh water, grabbed a glass of Connie’s lemonade for myself, then sat down on one of the sofas after removing the hat, jacket and cravat.
Patricia walked over to me and smiled. “Do you always dress like that to take Sniff out Joe?”
I laughed. “Thankfully no, Patricia. But it did give you a laugh, didn’t it?”
She nodded smiling. Still looking at me carefully, she said steadily “But that isn’t the only reason is it?”
I nodded “You are quite correct. I wanted to check somewhere out, and needed to look as non-threatening as possible.”
“You are very good.” she said “If I didn’t know you, I’d have been convinced you were well gay.”
I laughed “Thanks Patricia. I’ll take that as a compliment, and I’m glad it gave everyone a laugh.”
“Well.” she said, “not just that, but something for Svetlana to draw later” She held up her mobile, showing the photo. There I was, Sniff under arm, proud and as gay as could be.
I burst out laughing. “Oh Dear! Looks like you’ve really got me!”
She laughed and left to join the other grinning girls.
I sat for a while watching the activity in the room. The three easels were all in use, with a further two girls acting as models. From what I could see, the standard of drawing, unskilled as it was, seemed very good. Already, it seemed, the very few hours the girls had been instructed by Svetlana were paying off.
Lizzie walked up to me. “Hello Joe. What pretty clothes you are wearing.”
She said it matter-of-factly, with no hint of irony or sarcasm.
I nodded. “They are very pretty – I’m glad you like them.”
She reached out and touched the velveted-cord jacket on the sofa beside me. “This feels nice too.” She rubbed the cloth gently with her fingers, then lifted the cravat and placed it around her neck.
“Do you like blue?” I said.
She nodded, and added vaguely “Like the sky.”
“It is,” I said “very much like the sky.”
She sat down on the sofa beside me. I saw Zee sit down facing us a few yards away. She nodded at me.
“Where is Svetlana?” said Lizzie.
“Svetlana is walking in the park with Jane and Thak. They’ll be back shortly.”
“Do you like my picture she drew?” She beckoned to the wall.
I smiled. “I did, very much. You make a beautiful princess.”
She looked up into my eyes. “But I’m not really, am I?”
“You can be whoever you want to be. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you differently.”
She nodded slowly. “My real Dad said I was his princess.”
I nodded. “Then that is what you are.”
“He went away.” she said simply.
“But you are still his princess, even though he isn’t with you.”
She nodded. “He died.”
“I’m sorry.” I said quietly.
“My Ma got me a new Dad, but he was horrible to me.”
I looked across at Zee, who was watching and listening, and didn’t appear too concerned, so I relied on my instincts. “Oh! That must have been awful for you.”
She nodded and looked steadily at me. “He used to creep into my bed and touch me, then he started hurting me.”
“That was very wrong of him. Is that why you left home?”
Again she nodded. “I told my Ma, but she didn’t believe me, and thumped me, so I left.”
“And now you are here with us, how do you feel?”
She smiled “It is lovely. Everyone is so kind to me.”
“Good. I’m glad you are happy here Lizzie, because we love having you with us.”
I thought that our conversation was drawing to a close, and she would drift off to the other girls again, but it wasn’t to be.
“Do you hurt Svetlana when you fuck her?” she was looking straight at me.
“No, I don’t” I said evenly. “I would never hurt her.”
She shook her head “But it hurt when he fucked me.”
“You are still very young, and your body is not fully grown. It will not hurt when you are older.”
She was quiet, so I added “This man did a terrible thing to you Lizzie, hurting you in this way.”
I looked at her. Tears had started rolling down her cheeks. I offered my upturned right hand and she took it.
With tears in my own eyes I said “I’m so sorry you have been hurt. Can I do anything to help?”
“Will you be my new Dad?” she said looking at me.
“Of course, if that is what you want.”
She lifted my right arm and slid underneath it, putting her head against my chest with her right arm wrapped over me tightly. I held my right arm around her. I didn’t know what to say, so said nothing.
She started to sing, the same melancholy song in the same strange tongue she had sung whilst brushing Svetlana’s hair. I closed my eyes, but still felt the tears running down my cheeks. She played with the buttons on my shirt as she sang. Part of me was very, very angry, part of me very glad. Mostly I felt that my emotions had been fed through a wringer.
I felt a warm hand touch me gently on the back of my neck. I opened my eyes. Zee was behind the sofa. She kissed the top of my head before walking back into the kitchen. I closed my eyes again and let Lizzie’s plaintive song soothe me. All at once I felt at peace, and the anger had disappeared.
Lizzie finished the song and we just sat cuddling. I said softly. “Where did you learn that song Lizzie?”
“My Dad taught me it. It was his favourite.”
“You sing it so beautifully.”
She tightened her arm around me. I closed my eyes again.
Jane’s gentle voice broke my reverie. “Joe”
I opened my eyes. Jane and Svetlana stood in front of me, both grinning.
I gave them both a lop-sided smile. Lizzie greeted them both, but without moving from my arms. “Hello Jane. Hello Svetlana.”
Jane smiled at Lizzie. “Are you enjoying a cuddle with Joe, Lizzie?”
I felt the child’s head nod.
Svetlana sat down beside me and whispered in my ear. “She is very precious girl. Good she loves you.”
She kissed me on the neck.
Jane said gently “Shall we get some tea Lizzie?”
Lizzie peeled herself off me, then turned and asked me “Are you having tea Joe?”
I looked at Svetlana. She nodded, smiling. I turned back to Lizzie. “Right, let’s all have some tea.”
We headed into the kitchen.