It’s March and still the snow is falling, thick sooty flakes of it. It settles on heaps of slush, growing out of the ground like mould. Treacherous grey puddles line the road and a passing lorry leaves Vasilisa drenched. The driver speeds away and Vasilisa gives him the finger. She knows that in his rear-view mirror she’s just an angry Babushka. Vasilisa tries to pat herself dry with a handkerchief. Even her headscarf is wet. She feels the urge to do something drastic. It’s that kind of day. She straightens her coat and wipes down the plastic bag she is carrying. The bag is taut with food, bought with her employee’s discount at Centralny supermarket. Bread, milk, cabbage, a little mince, a tin of peaches. Her sons will moan, but it will feed all four of them. And Vasilisa will tell them: If the young Messieurs don’t like the fare, they are free to go marry an oligarch’s daughter. Then you will have steak and caviar every day. Mind you change out of those stained underpants first though.
Ingrates, the lot of them. Four grown sons plus a husband who hasn’t left his armchair since a work accident twelve years ago. Not a job between them. Vasilisa dabs the last of the slush from her face and hurries towards a Soviet-style apartment block. It’s twelve stories high, but the fifth floor is where the magic happens, where yet another job waits for her. The plastic bag’s handle is cutting into her hand. She pushes the door open and finds the lift broken. The stairs smell of piss. By the time she reaches the fifth floor she is struggling for breath. She pushes her headscarf back – it’s uncomfortably hot. Vasilisa you need to lose weight, she tells herself. The carrier bag handle is about to give out. It’s a matter of seconds now. She reaches the door with the sign ‘Forever Love Babes & Co’ and rings the bell, panting.
Pavel’s face, which looks like a ham carved by a mad surgeon, appears behind the door. He peers out through the crack.
‘Oh, it’s you Vasilisa.’ He turns away, leaving the door to swing wide open.
‘Who did you think was coming to you?’ Vasilisa says, ‘Melania Trump?’
Pavel never smiles, but his laugh is straight from the bottom of a gravel pit. Officially Pavel is the CEO of Forever Love Babes & Co. As far as Vasilisa is concerned, that is a fancy way of saying that he runs this racket. There’s no ‘& Co’ unless you count Pavel’s goons. She takes off her coat and hangs it near the radiator to dry. She finds a place for the plastic bag.
‘You ready for some horny bastards?’ Pavel asks.
She laughs, ‘Who am I going to today?’
‘David again,’ Pavel points at the far end of the room.
The room is a strip-lit office filled with two dozen people typing away at computers. There is a low hum and the occasional flicker from the lights. From time to time there are murmurs from the people at the computers, the sounds of fingers on keyboards, a throat being cleared here, a sip from a cup there. On one of the windows a crack has been fixed with brown tape. This is where the magic happens, where Vasilisa turns into Yelena, where a Babushka turns into a swan, where straw turns to gold. And yet Vasilisa feels that today must be different, that something needs to happen.
Outside, the snow falls from the fuzzy dome of the sky. The streetlamps have just come on in the road below. Vasilisa walks to the computer station near the window.
‘Do your best,’ Pavel says, ‘We need to keep him hooked.’
‘I know,’ Vasilisa says. This David guy has been a goldmine for years.
‘He likes your style.’ Pavel says and Vasilisa nods. ‘God knows why.’
Piter sees her coming, and gets up from the computer station. Piter is a nineteen-year-old with the kind of slim jeans and feathery haircut Vasilisa has seen on the music magazines her sons buy. Piter is not a musician though, he is an engineering student and her co-worker. If Vasilisa is any judge of young men, and with four of her own she thinks that she is, Piter is in dire need of a girlfriend.
‘What’s been happening?’ she says.
Piter blows out his cheeks and makes wide eyes. He hands her a thick folder and a bunch of handwritten notes.
‘He’s coming for sure,’ he says.
‘Yes, David. He’s coming here. He thinks he’s really going to meet Yelena this time.’
‘Ah no,’ Vasilisa says. ‘The fool.’
Piter shrugs. ‘Don’t know what we’ll come up with this time.’
‘Last time it was her mother who died, no?’
‘No, I think it was a car accident.’
‘So it was. The mother dying was someone else. Or the time before that? I get confused.’
‘Look, Vasilisa, check the notes. I don’t have time to brief you now.’
‘Well look at you, Piter, all in a hurry! Who’s the lucky lady?’
Piter turns his face away and fiddles with his feathery hair. Vasilisa sees the blush creeping up his neck.
‘It’s not a date,’ he says quietly.
‘Of course not, Piter, of course not. All the same. Best of luck!’
She pats his back. Piter is a good boy. He zips up his parka. Vasilisa sits down heavily. The chair, which Pavel must have pilfered from a derelict office, creaks under her. She glances at the handwritten sheet. David, she thinks, dear David. All the clients here are horny bastards. But there’s more to David. He’s a retired dentist from Florida who likes sailing. Over the years she feels she has come to know him. She checks the clocks at the end of the room. Five plastic kitchen clocks, each showing a different time: New York, Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong. Miami. The United Nations of shady business. Vasilisa puts on her reading glasses, smooths down her still-wet hair. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes briefly and then she is ready to be Yelena. Yelena: 23, 50 kg, 170 cm, 34DD. According to her profile, ‘searching of true love with older sophisticated man.’
Vasilisa begins to read the exchange between Piter and David. David’s last message sits in the middle of the screen, unanswered.
‘I can’t wait to finally meet you. Counting down the hours.’
Vasilisa begins to type. She’s not fast. Some of her younger co-workers are real wizards, but these kids spend their lives on smartphones. Vasilisa’s English isn’t as good as some of the others’ either, but the clients don’t seem to mind. Fools, Vasilisa thinks. Horny bastards. She hesitates over the keys. She looks out at the flakes, falling and weightless. If you look long enough it seems as if they’re floating upwards. Everything is off today.
Vasilisa turns her attention back to Yelena. Yelena is fiction. She is sometimes Piter and sometimes Vasilisa and sometimes a bald man called Dimitri. In truth, Yelena is probably a wank-fantasy of Pavel’s. As are all the women on the Forever Love Babes & Co. website. All these fictitious, buxom women provide an income for the students and grandmothers and unemployed men at these computers day and night. There are tales being spun and pictures being sent. There’s the Yelena-selfie folder and the Yelena-sexy folder. Stolen photos, taken from social media and from porn.
You have to send the right picture to the right client; make sure the photos matched the girl and the story. But accidents happen, and sooner or later the clients jump ship anyway. After a lot of money has been taken from them. David is different though. Three years and thousands of dollars in, undeterred by two failed attempts to meet Yelena, he is still going strong. Three years Vasilisa has been talking to David. They had good times (his daughter had a baby) and bad ones (Yelena’s cancer scare that made David send money to pay medical bills). David, dear David, who wears a toupee and listens to Brahms and lives in a yellow house with palm trees out front. To the others he’s just another idiot, but to Vasilisa he has become someone. She couldn’t explain it.
‘Can’t wait to meet you also,’ she types and adds a smiley emoji for good measure. ‘It’s cold here,’ she continues, ‘what is like in Florida?’
She watches the little dots dance on the screen while David types.
‘There’s a warm breeze,’ he types. ‘A hummingbird is in my garden right now. It darts from the pink hibiscus to the purple bougainvillea like a nervous fairy. Its back is green but on its chest the feathers shimmer bright red. The peach tree is in blossom. When the breeze catches the tree, the petals fall in a gentle shower. They are the colour of a baby’s skin and they are just as soft. Close your eyes. Can you see it?’
Vasilisa closes her eyes and for a moment she can see the little bird hovering, its beak deep in a hibiscus flower; its wings just a blur. She can feel the peach blossoms between her fingers, delicate as a kitten’s nose. She feels the warm air caressing her skin and she can hear, almost, the rustle of palm leaves overhead. She opens her eyes again and looks out of the window at the grime-coloured sky. Then she turns back to the screen.
‘You write like poet,’ she types. ‘Not the sad, Russian kind. Another kind. You make me happy.’
David sends a laughing emoji. ‘I only write like this for you Yelena. I am no poet. It’s you that makes me write like that. My Yelena, my Helena, my Helen of Troy. The face that launched a thousand ships.’
Vasilisa feels a shiver going down her spine. Then she checks herself.
‘Thank you,’ she types. It seems harder today than ever before. Again, the thought that she must do something haunts her. Something needs to happen. But what?
‘I mean it,’ David types. ‘My kids, they want me to date other women. Sometimes they invite me round and there will be a nice neighbour there or a friend they think might be right for me. But these women… I don’t know. They’re so complex, they all have a history and lots of opinions and needs. They’re all flawed. But you, you’re perfect.’
Vasilisa sends him a kiss emoji. ‘You really coming here?’ she types.
‘I’m all packed, the taxi to the airport is booked. I’m going to hold you in my arms tomorrow.’
Vasilisa’s heart contracts. It’s not right.
‘Very good,’ she types. ‘I like very much.’
‘I’m sending you my phone number, Yelena. I know you’re shy about giving out yours but I just want to give you mine in case…you know. Just to be sure. You’re meeting me outside the hotel tomorrow noon, right?’
Vasilisa hesitates. David waits. Vasilisa bites her lip. This is too hard, she thinks, I have to do something.
‘Everything alright?’ he writes eventually.
‘Yes,’ Vasilisa writes. ‘Yes. I will be there.’
‘Good. You don’t know how much this means to me.’
‘Ok,’ she writes. She feels a bit queasy. This is even worse than the last time she stood him up.
‘Listen,’ he types, ‘if money’s a problem, I can help.’
Vasilisa hesitates. ‘No,’ she finally writes. If Pavel sees this, he is going to kill her. He will cut the beating heart out of her chest, the evil bastard, and leave her in a dumpster.
‘No money,’ Vasilisa writes again, her hands clammy. Sod Pavel, she thinks. Sod him. Her throat feels really tight.
‘Ok then.’ David writes ‘See you tomorrow Yelena. I love you so much.’
By the time Vasilisa gets home dawn is creeping through the shutters and the house is quiet.
She sets the plastic bag down on the kitchen table. She undoes her headscarf and hangs up her coat. She checks on her husband, asleep in his armchair. She picks up the empty beer cans at his feet and he stirs.
‘Vasilisa,’ he says, drowsy with sleep, his speech slurred. ‘Get me a beer?’
She doesn’t answer. Instead, she stands quite still until his head lolls to the side and he is asleep again. She goes to the kitchen, clicks on the kettle and takes a packet of biscuits from the cupboard. They are the jam-filled ones that are Vasilisa’s favourite. She dunks them into the hot, sweet tea before eating them, one by one until the packet is empty. A plan has formed in her head. She wipes the biscuit crumbs off the table and goes to bed.
At noon, Vasilisa gets off the bus outside David’s hotel. She wraps her coat tightly around her. There is an icy wind and the grey flakes are starting to fall from the sky again. David’s hotel is a fancy one, there is a doorman in a uniform and a cap. The entrance is lit up. She waits at the bus stop. Then she sees him come out of the hotel. For the first time in real life. David. He is very tall and he walks uncertainly on the icy pavement. The wind tugs at his toupee and he has buried his hands in his coat pockets. He is squirming; not used to this kind of cold. She watches him stand there looking left and right. He’s waiting for Yelena. He looks at every person walking towards the hotel. He shifts from foot to foot. Then Vasilisa walks towards him. Each step makes her heart beat faster. She tries not to think of Pavel and the cut-out heart and the dumpster. She tries not to think of the conversations she’s had with David. She tries not to think of the times he’s called her Yelena. She tries not to think of the way his words make her feel, the places they take her. Then he is there, right in front of her.
‘David?’ she says.
He looks at her blankly.
‘David. I am Vasilisa. You don’t know me.’
‘Is something wrong with Yelena?’ His eyes are wide with fear. ‘Are you her mother?’
Vasilisa shakes her head.
‘David, Yelena is not real woman,’ she says. David stares at her. His collar flaps in the wind.
‘She is not real,’ Vasilisa repeats. ‘They make her up. To make money.’ She breathes out, she feels lighter. ‘I’m sorry David.’
‘Not real? Made up?’ he says and closes his eyes for a second, as if trying to absorb the words.
‘Yes,’ Vasilisa says, ‘I’m sorry. Is to make money. Many, many different people write to you. There is no Yelena.’
He looks at his shoes. Then up at her again. She tries to smile.
‘I’m sorry,’ she repeats.
He nods. ‘I shouldn’t wait then.’
‘No,’ Vasilisa says, ‘she not coming.’
He nods again.
‘Please don’t tell,’ she says to him. ‘I get in much trouble.’
‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I won’t.’
He turns and walks back into the hotel. Vasilisa watches him walk away. She watches the way his shoulders move when he walks, the back of his head, she sees his hair being tugged at by the wind one last time before the hotel entrance swallows him.
That night it snows again. The walk up the five floors to Forever Love Babes & Co. seems longer than ever. Vasilisa sweats profusely. She has to force herself to knock. Pavel opens the door but he is on the phone. His face is like thunder. Vasilisa avoids looking at Pavel. She hangs up her coat and walks toward the computer where Piter is packing up. Her heart races. She wipes her hands on her skirt, they are clammy. Piter is getting up from the computer desk.
‘So how did it go?’ She says to Piter, trying to sound casual.
‘Great!’ Piter smiles. ‘She gave me a hug before she got on the train. We had a great time. I’m taking her to the cinema on Tuesday. Her name is Dasha.’
Oh that, thinks Vasilisa.
‘Good for you,’ she says, managing a weak smile. Her heart feels like it is being squeezed.
‘And this?’ She gestures at the computer.
‘Oh that,’ Piter is zipping up his coat ‘Yeah good. We got a new one, Klaus is his name. German. I’ve written everything down, he’s quite horny, I think. See how long we can string him along.’
‘And David?’ she asks.
‘David,’ Piter chuckles and shakes his head. ‘So, Yelena couldn’t be there because—’ he checks the notes ‘—she missed her train and lost her phone. And he was fine with that.’ He laughs. ‘And then she asked him to send money for a new phone. Which he did. And then, check this out—’ he clicks on a photo ‘—he went back home with this. Got it done before he left.’
Vasilisa looks at the photo. It’s of an older man’s arm, slightly wrinkled. The skin is raw and covered in clingfilm but underneath is a tattoo of a heart and the words ‘Forever Yelena’. Piter is in stitches.
‘Oh,’ Vasilisa says, ‘ok.’ She suddenly feels quite faint. She steadies herself on the back of the computer chair. Piter is wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. He gathers his things and heads for the exit. Vasilisa flops down on the office chair, which makes a squeaking sound as if in protest. She looks out at the snow and then at the screen. And she begins to type.
‘David,’ she types, ‘are the peach petals falling from the tree again today?’
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