When Natasha went away, he kept finding things she had left behind. A map of Belsize Park under the sofa cushions. An article torn out of the newspaper with a sentence underlined in purple felt tip in the pocket of the dressing gown she’d liked to borrow. Six numbers on a lolly stick caught between the floorboards in the hall. A set of keys on a leather fob.
Ralf became convinced that there was a connection between it all. He spent hours at the kitchen table with everything spread out on the pale Formica, trying to decipher a hidden message. And she had of course been extremely fond of number puzzles and conundrums. It was not after all that unlikely that had she had a message for him, she might have chosen this way to deliver it.
He remembered with painful clarity the birthday surprise she’d planned for him when they were together. She’d made twenty-nine clues, one for each year of his life, and written them out in her round happy handwriting on coloured card – you had to solve each one in order to find the hiding place of the next. She’d handed him the first one, wrapped up in tissue paper and ribbon. They get more difficult as you go along. I’ll help you if you get stuck. But he’d gone off on a tangent right away, misunderstanding the clue completely and spending ages turning all the towels out of the airing cupboard in an increasingly desperate but ultimately fruitless search for the second one. She’d had to explain to him how to decipher the message, but he hadn’t really understood the logic and had got increasingly sullen as he struggled with the clues. In the end, she’d grabbed his hand, laughing, and taken him to the garden shed where his real present was waiting on the shelf between his seeds and pots.
He’d always wondered how she had got so clever, as she seemed to have gone without much of a formal education. Her father had been born in Moscow and had some vague job with the Russian government which involved him moving round from one European city to another. Her mother was a crazy Brazilian former beauty queen. They would organise tutors at each new place; just people they knew who had some time on their hands, and a particular knowledge of something or other. She once spent a whole year learning car mechanics from a retired racing driver in Vienna. That was in fact how they’d met; her car had broken down outside his flat, and he had ended up giving her a lift to the garage to get spark plugs. Later, he’d watched as she swiftly changed them; when she stood up there was a streak of oil on her cheek that he had found completely endearing. He’d asked her in for a drink then, and that was it. She never went home.
He was so amazed by her. She was so beautiful and exotic and so different to any other girl he knew. And everyone he knew adored her. She had this knack of understanding what a person really wanted to talk about. I saw this bird the other day in the garden, I’m almost sure it was a shrike, she said to Ralf’s boss, who was a keen birdwatcher, the first time she’d joined them at the pub after work on a Friday. Then he was off, full of ideas about what it might be, did it have a curved beak, could she draw him a picture, perhaps on the back of this serviette? Ya plakala vsyu dorogu chitaya Annu Kareninu! she had said to Ralf’s mother, emerging flushed and anxious from the kitchen where a roast dinner was overcooking on the hottest day of the summer. Ralf’s mother had studied Russian literature at university. And then his mother had taken down her dusty novels from the bookcase, and they had looked at them together; the rare edition of The Brothers Karamazov, the signed copies of a book by some obscure poet she had worked for in St Petersburg for her final year placement. The beef sizzling in the oven was forgotten. Ralf had rescued it himself and sliced it thinly, and they’d eaten it cold later in the garden from paper plates, disguised with a salsa he’d made with tomatoes picked from the vegetable plot, and washed down with bottles of warm beer his father had carried up clinking from the cellar.
It was shortly after that day that she was offered a job in Tokyo. It’ll be such fun! A new adventure! He’d been enthusiastic on the surface, but inside he was filled with horror. Pack up his stuff, rent out his house, give up his job that he’d worked so hard at? Abandon his friends and live in a tiny flat with paper walls, eat sushi every night?
She enrolled them on a Japanese language course. The first week, he had to work late and couldn’t get there. The second week he got caught in traffic and then he couldn’t find the right room. He’d burst into Level 3 Mechanics on the fourth floor, looking suddenly out of place in his office suit and clutching his briefcase. When he eventually got to the right class, someone had already sat in the seat next to her. They were sharing a book, and were bent over it, heads almost touching; she didn’t see him come in. He sat at the back on his own and tried to concentrate. But they already seemed so far ahead. He couldn’t seem to catch up.
He fell further and further behind. He didn’t spend much time on the homework; sometimes he forgot to do it altogether. It seemed to come naturally to her. Sometimes he heard her chatting in Japanese on the phone to Megan, her new best friend from class who always sat in the seat next to her now, which really should have been his. And he didn’t return the estate agent’s calls. Or hand in his notice at work. After a while, she stopped speaking about it at all.
He decided to get her a kitten. He spent some time researching it online. One afternoon when she was busy doing something else, he drove out of town to a village where there was a litter for sale. He spent ages trying to choose which one to take, while the mother cat watched from her basket with suspicious slit eyes and the owner stood yawning in the doorway, unwilling to leave in case he might decide to stuff a kitten in his pocket and walk out without paying.
He decided on the ginger one in the end. He paid the deposit and agreed a day to pick it up. When he got home, she’d bought her ticket to Tokyo.
But what about us? he’d said.
There isn’t any us. It’s not like we’re actually a couple. And anyway, you didn’t want to go.
Aren’t we a couple? But he knew that simply sharing a bed didn’t make you a couple. You had to have that conversation with each other and agree that you were in it for the long term before you called each other boyfriend and girlfriend. That simply hadn’t happened. And it was true. He hadn’t wanted to go. He couldn’t deny it.
A couple of days later she left. They hugged for a long time in the hall, and he felt hot tears blurring his eyes. He could barely speak. I’m not gone for ever, you know, she whispered in his ear. I bought you a kitten! he tried to say. But his voice didn’t seem to be working properly. She didn’t seem to have heard him. And then she was off, whirling down the path. She didn’t look back, but he stood on the step waving for a long time after her car had disappeared round the corner. Just in case she was checking in the mirror. They had been together for six months.
He tried to call her, but she rarely answered. When he did manage to get through, she always seemed to be in a crowded place. A party or a railway station or a supermarket checkout. He could barely make out what she was saying. In the end, she stopped picking up his calls altogether.
After a while his life went back to what it had been before. He went to work. He went out with his friends. And there was the cat to keep him company. He’d gone back and picked up the ginger kitten, even though Natasha wasn’t there anymore to receive his gift. The cat was almost completely feral. He spent his nights outside yowling and scrapping with the neighbour’s cats. In the day he would find some hidden place in the house to sleep. Ralf would come across him sometimes in an unexpected place; curled up in his sock drawer perhaps, or on the shelf under the printer where the ink cartridges and spare paper lived.
Ralf began to look at the clues less often. He hadn’t lost interest – he just couldn’t work anything out. But one night, about three years after Natasha had left, he had a revelation. He woke up hot and sticky with the thought of it, the bedroom curtains not properly drawn and a yellow streak from the streetlight lying across the carpet. It was something to do with the letter Z. The newspaper article with its title underlined had been about zero tolerance policies in schools, although most of the article was missing and he’d had to plead with the local newspaper to give him a copy. Is There a National Problem With Behaviour? The numbers on the lolly stick, if translated into the letter that each number represented by its position in the alphabet, would spell ‘zeds’: 26 5 4 19. The map of Belsize Park spoke for itself. And the strange animal painted on the key fob – wasn’t there an animal that had a hump on its back called a zebu?
He had got out of bed to think about this, had run himself a glass of water and wandered into his little study to drink it. He picked up his old dictionary from the shelf and flicked to the end. Was it a zebu or wasn’t it? And there in the blank page after the zeds, she had written something.
Saturday 4th at 3pm.
His heart was pounding. This was surely the final clue. It was the equivalent of the present on the shed shelf. But so incredibly better. This was when she was coming back.
There are only two Saturday 4ths in every year. Sometimes there’s only one. Ralph looked at the calendar. It was Saturday 4th in three weeks’ time. She was coming back.
Those three weeks passed in a haze. He tidied the house. He bought a new rug for the living room. He got the window cleaner round. He trimmed the bay trees outside the front door. He had a haircut. On the Saturday morning he went to the farmer’s market and bought bunches of tulips – her favourite flowers. He got white ones with red tips. As if they had been held upside down in a bowl of blood, he thought. By twelve o’clock he was ready. He stood at the window looking down the street. This was a day he was going to remember forever. The before she came back and the after.
Three o’clock came and went. The light started to fade as night took over. Still he stood there. There was no sign of her. He poured himself a glass of champagne. Perhaps her flight was delayed. He poured himself another. He woke up the next morning on the sofa with the empty bottle of champagne tucked under the cushions. His mouth felt dry and furry. The ginger cat was watching him disapprovingly from the top shelf of the bookcase.
There was a whole seven months to wait until the next Saturday 4th. He started to think that perhaps she was waiting for a sign from him, so that she knew he had solved the puzzle. He wrapped up the dictionary and sent it to the address he had for her in Tokyo. It was such a brilliant idea, he could hardly believe he had thought of it. Now she would have to come.
When he woke on the morning of the next Saturday 4th and pulled open the bedroom curtains, there was her car parked outside. He could tell it was hers because there was the dent in the roof from the time there was a big storm and a branch had fallen onto it. He pulled on some clothes. The doorbell rang. He clutched at the banister as he went down the stairs, then fumbled with the chain, pulled open the door.
Natasha! But there stood Megan. Hi Ralf! I’m just calling to collect the spare keys. I’m selling the car, and they won’t buy it without. I’m in a bit of a cash crisis. How could he have forgotten? Natasha had sold her car to Megan before she left. It would cover her rent for the first couple of months at least, she told him. How much do apartments with paper walls cost then? he’d said, rudely. But she hadn’t understood what he was talking about. What?
He reached out to the key box behind him. Megan, is this a hump backed zebu? He realised how ridiculous he sounded. Megan looked at him, puzzled. Then she laughed. I doubt it! Natasha made it herself. The paint ran. She had to make it bigger to cover it up. It’s just a cow. Then she took the keys and walked away. He should have asked her what she knew about Natasha. Where she was. But he couldn’t.
If there’s anything I can do to help? he called out after her. But he hoped she hadn’t heard. He’d forgotten how much he disliked her.
A few days later, there was a note through the door from his next-door neighbour when he came home from work. The postman tried to deliver a parcel to you today, she wrote. You weren’t there so I took it. It’s been marked ‘return to sender’. I think it’s a book. He sat down at the kitchen table, tipped the box of clues out. They weren’t clues really. He’d just imagined they were because he missed her so much. There was no zebu. The map of Belsize Park was exactly what it was. A map of Belsize Park. The article in the paper had no connection to anything. And the numbers on the lolly stick just coincidentally spelt out a word. It was just a telephone number without the dialling code. He thought it seemed vaguely familiar. He thought it might be the dentists’. She was always jotting down numbers and messages on inappropriate things; she could never find a piece of paper.
The doorbell rang. He sighed. He could see his neighbour through the glass panel of the front door. She would be bringing the parcel over. He drew his arm over the table and swept all the clues into the bin. He didn’t want the dictionary back. But he’d have to answer the door anyway. Waste twenty minutes of his time listening to her gossiping about other people in the street. He opened the door. There she was, the parcel tucked firmly under her arm. She clearly wasn’t going to give it up until Ralf had listened to all her news. Off she started. Ralf leant against the door frame and tried to nod agreement in the right places. Her voice began to sound very distant. He had a huge desire to yawn. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the ginger cat curled up on the dry earth of the bay tree pot.
At last the neighbour was finished. Well, let me know if you want to sign that petition, she was saying. She started to reach down to stroke the cat but withdrew her hand hastily as he hissed. Of course, he tried to say. But the yawn was starting to creep from the corners of his mouth and it didn’t sound like that at all. The neighbour looked alarmed. I’ll leave you in peace then. She backed off down the path. At the gate she stopped and turned. Oh yes, that friend of yours was here today. In a taxi. Loads of luggage. She said it in such a way that you knew she didn’t approve of having lots of luggage. Ralf had a brief but alarming flash of Megan in the back of a cab, surrounded by boxes and boxes of Japanese homework in exercise books. Carless and homeless. He shouldn’t have offered to help.
You know, the one who went to Japan. She said she’d be back in an hour. Seemed very excited to be back. Then the neighbour was gone.
And then the ginger cat did a most surprising thing, something he had never done before. He got out of the pot and wound himself round Ralf’s legs in a figure of eight. In and out.
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