Alma sat on the steel chair in the middle of the stark room and looked around her. The walls were covered in what could only be described as institutional snot green emulsion. If she squinted her eyes against the glare of the neon strips above her she could just make out what seemed to be hieroglyphics scrawled into the paint. She wriggled on the hard chair which seemed to be bolted to the floor. She tried to scrape it towards the table so she could lay her head down and close her eyes for a few moments. The chair wouldn’t budge. She looked down; it was bolted to the floor, as was the table and the chair opposite. Alma bent over and buried her face in her hands; she could feel the stress of the past few days building up inside her. She felt that she could shriek like a banshee and throw the total of her intestines up on the floor if just One More Bad Thing happened to her.
She had actually quite enjoyed the flight across the English Channel. She had never travelled first class before on a scheduled flight, usually she had been herded onto one of those drab pay as you go airlines where you have to even pay for the drab coffee and the even drabber sandwiches. It wasn’t until the immigration officer had looked at her, then looked at the passport in front of him and then at her again while riffling through the pages that she had started to worry. Her stomach dropped through her shoes as he started to tap stuff into a computer and politely ask her to stand on the line as she stepped forward to ask him what the problem was. She darned well knew what the problem was, she was travelling on a stolen passport of a Russian academic who she looked nothing like and couldn’t speak one word of Russian apart from Gorbachev, and at that moment she wasn’t even sure who or what that meant.
She was eventually led away to a side room where she was met by a female immigration officer who asked her to confirm her name and reasons for travelling to the UK.
‘You are Olga Ivanova Gubinicha?’ asked the officer riffling through the passport in the sort of irritating way that made Alma believe that they were taught it at immigration officer school
‘You are Russian?’ the officer asked peering at her
Alma nodded again not wanting to give it all away with her received English pronunciation
‘Ah’ said the officer, who Alma thought looked quite friendly in a bureaucratic kind of way, Alma tried a hesitant smile.
‘You are a….’ she peered again at the passport again…cyrptographer?’
Alma nodded once again feeling panic starting to rise, she was rumbled.
‘Devoshka, ti gavarrete par russkie?’
Alma gulped, she nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again and smiled at the woman who was looking sternly at her,she didn’t look quite so friendly now.
Alma couldn’t help herself. ‘Pardon’ she blurted out, cursing her good manners.
‘Aah she speaks’ said the officer. ‘now perhaps we could get to the bottom of this and you can tell me who you are and why you are travelling on this passport’. Of course Alma did spew her guts but to the woman in front of her and not in technicolour abandon across the floor.
It turned out that Alma’s first mistake was to think that she could have entered the country on a Russian passport. Of course she knew nothing about visa’s and boundaries and borders. She didn’t know that Olga had been travelling through Europe courtesy of her Schengen Visa which of course the UK isn’t a signatory to and Olga, should she have travelled to the UK would have needed a separate visa in her passport.
The second mistake was to think that the immigration officer was a friendly sort, she was nothing of the kind and had grilled Alma mercilessly for over an hour before marching her down to this putrid green room she now found herself in.
Boris and Mr Pyre sat sweating in the hotel room despite the central heating. They were sat on hard chairs watching a small man having a pedicure. Boris actually though it was more entertaining than a lot of the Belorussian TV he had been subjected to over the years. Mr Pyre yawned and dozed.
The small man was called Abilio Quadrilheiro and he was patient and he enjoyed having his weekly pedicure, here in the hotel, without any disturbances. And now here were these two oafs disturbing his afternoon and fouling the chilled air with their sweaty stench, indeed, he sniffed, one of them smelt like he was sweating óleo de combustível - deus proibido!
The twenty year old transvestite finished drying Abilio’s feet and placed them on a fluffy white towel. The old man slipped a wedge of notes into his hands and whispered something into his ear. The young boy smiled and nodded and slipped past the two waiting men with a sly smile on his face.
Abilio turned towards the sweating men and fixed a smile on his face that to Boris looked like the smile of a serpent.
‘So my friends’ he hissed ‘What brings you to my quarto do hotel this time of the day? You have the ovo Russian I hope?
Boris nodded sagely ‘Da da, Abilio, all is well. We have the egg and the angliski devoshka has departed’.
‘Terminally’ the old man asked nodding.
Pyre snorted at this and the gangster looked sharply at him, his eyes clouding.
‘Ah sim sim Mr Pyre our amigo inglês, it is you, is it not, that has bought some calor, some heat on us eh? The old man laughed quietly.
Mr Pyre sat watching the dust motes spin and twist in a beam of bright sunlight that shafted across the room. The gangster turned his attention back to Boris. ‘So my soviet amigo where is the ovo, do you have it, show it to me’. He held out his hands.
Boris shrugged his heavy shoulders ‘The egg is safe Abilio, very safe, we are not here about the egg, we have other pressing business with you. We need to ask a favor’. Abilio placed his hands back on his knees.
‘A favor eh? Well tell me, what is this favor that you need and we shall see’
Ten minutes later Boris and Mr Pyre we back on the streets walking swiftly away from the hotel. As they turned a corner, Mr Pyre looked swiftly back towards the hotel building; he smiled with satisfaction as he saw the grey smoke starting to pour out of one of the upper windows.
Together the two men hurried towards a taxi rank, they had to get to the aeroporto in time to catch the next flight to Brussels where Abilio had arranged a meeting with a very important connection.
In Brussels Oppenhiemer was having a hard time keeping his cool. Firstly he had had to put up with Olga raging about a lost bag and blaming him for picking up scum off the side of the road. Secondly nobody knew anything about the egg, or if they did they were not telling him. Oh he knew that he was a bit of a pariah, viewed as a bit of a rogue, a thief even, but he knew he got results. He had had the egg, it had been in his hands, it existed, it hadn’t been a dream, until that, that dwarf has stolen it from out of Olga’s hands.
He pushed through the crowds of the Espace culturel towards the Faberge exhibitions. It should have been his crowning glory, he should be presenting his find here, opening the egg to find the secrets within, but now it was gone, like a gossamer thread in a breeze, it had spun briefly and beautifully before him and now was gone.
He saw Olga across the room talking to someone who Oppenheimer recognised as the curator of the Kremlin museum. He hung back, hidden in the crowds. Olga was speaking excitedly to the woman, Tatyana , gesticulating and then showing her something on her mobile phone. He edged towards them trying to pick up what they were saying, but the background noise was just too much. Tatyana saw him and muttered something to Olga, who stuffed her phone back into her new bag.
‘Ah ladies’, he said effusively. ‘Privyet Tatyana’ he said kissing her three times on the cheeks as was the Russian way, ‘kak dela’ – how are you, as beautiful as ever hey?
Tatyana pursed her bright red lipsticked lips in a way that could almost have been taken for a grimace; she glanced at Olga, who wrinkled her nose back.
‘Oppenheimer, how nice to see you again’, she forced a smile, ‘I thought you were in Lisbon or somewhere chasing rainbows’.
Oppenheimer shot a look at Olga. What do you mean Tatyana chasing rainbows? This time the rainbow gave up its pot of gold’.
‘So you have the egg’?
‘Ah’ Oppenheimer faltered, ‘no but we know it exists and I will bet my life that it will turn up here’, he looked around at the fabulous exhibits, ‘where else can it go now its out in the open?’
Tatyana shrugged, ‘maybe back to the end of the rainbow once again, who knows?’
‘No’, Oppenhiemer was emphatic, it’ll turn up here I bet my life upon it!’
Olga smiled grimly, ‘let’s hope it doesn’t come to that eh darlink’
Alma was still sitting with her face down in her hands when she heard the door to the room open. She heard someone walk across and stand opposite her. She thought that if she ignored him, why did she think it was a him? She sniffed through her fingers and could detect a lemony expensive cologne wafting towards her. She thought anyway, despite the expensive lemony cologne, that perhaps if she ignored him he would go away.
She heard his shoes creak a little, she peeked through her fingers, they were expensive looking brown brogues. He cleared his throat in that way that the British do when they don’t want to be rude, but do actually want your attention, a sort of a ahem noise.
Alma peeked a bit more, she could see the bottom of his trousers, they looked quite nice and the brown brogues really matched them, his socks though were a startling yellow.
He made a noise, not quite clearing his throat this time more like a squeak, like when you just start to open an old garden gate. He squeaked again. ‘Miss eeerrrr miss….’ Alma pushed her face deeper into her hands.
He sat down on the chair opposite and drummed his fingers on the scared Formica in front of him. He squeaked again and then cleared his throat. ‘Miss Alma isn’t it?
She peeked up at him, he looked quite nice, but she’d already been tricked by that witch of an immigration woman who had looked quite nice too. But the lemony after shave was quite nice, so he couldn’t be too bad could he, and his shoes were awfully shiney.
She took a breath and sat up. As she did so she became aware of the egg still in her bra, she immediately returned to her bent over position. She hadn’t been searched yet. If they did they’d find the egg. She fumbled about a bit and peeked up at the man in front of her.
‘Ah Alma’, he said, clearly, he didn’t squeak this time. He stood up and held out his hand.
She looked across at him standing there with his hand out.
‘My names Derek…Derek Blond’
Alma took his hand, it was soft and cool, she wanted to press it to her brow, she wanted to feel normal, she wanted to get rid of this stupid egg, she wanted to see her children, make it up with her husband, she wanted her life back!
These were all the things she blurted out to Derek as he sat there wafting comforting lemony cologne over her. He sat there and listened as he sipped a cup of earl grey that he had had bought in while Alma had sobbed and sobbed and held onto his cool soft hands.
Alma was aware that she was just gabbling on and on and on, but she couldn’t stop herself, it was like the dams had finally given way, the stresses and strains of the last few weeks and just been too much, I mean what was she, just an ordinary 34 year old woman with a kid, things like this didn’t happen to people like her, ‘Did it did it?’ She looked at Derek through tearful eyes.
Derek nodded sagely, then changed his mind and shook his head with a sympathetic look on his face. ‘Er your tea?’ He pushed the battered china mug full of aromatic tea a little closer to Alma. Alma sipped.
‘Who are you?’ she asked slightly irritated, both at her complete and utter wishywashyness and the way he sat there wafting at her, one perfectly creased trousered leg over the other showing three inches of yellow sock poking out of perfectly polished brown brogues – which she noted with a little sense of triumph still had a price ticket on the sole - ‘ha!’
He put his mug down. He squeaked a little, Derek, Derek Blond sorry sorry’
‘Yes I know that, but WHO ARE YOU? Are you the police, immigration or what?’
‘Ah yes, lets just say I’m with the Government for the moment, OK Alma?
‘Well what do you want with me Mr Blond’
He squeaked. ‘Call me Derek’
‘Ok Derek what do you want?’
He coughed, ‘well its like this, we know all about the egg, including the one that’s currently tucked up in your..err, um, br….bus….blouse’
Alma clutched herself. ‘How did you know that?’
Derek smiled ‘We have our ways’, he smiled at her.
Alma started to dislike him again, despite the yellow socks.
‘What’s going to happen to me?’ she asked hesitantly
‘Oh you’ll be ok Alma’, he said, ‘you’re going on a little trip’
‘A trip’? She looked at Derek and noticed that he had green eyes, they looked quite nice as well, with some crinkles at the edges. ‘Where to, who with?’
Derek squeaked and ahemed again. ‘Well you’re coming to Brussels with me?’
Alma squeaked too, ‘Brussels’ she said, ‘But why?’
The egg pressed against her breast like a piglet seeking milk.
‘Can’t I just go to prison’ she groaned.
By Dr Robert Wibble
, the saviour of the alma, our precious, our lovely.... Proper job! (private South West England joke)
illustration by Cream!