When Tash’s husband fails to return home from work one evening, she struggles to make the police take his disappearance seriously. Now, more than three years later, a stranger knocks on her door ….
The white SUV pulled up outside my house just on sunset and a dark-suited man got out, merging with the shadows as he approached my front door. I thought spies drove black cars. Bit disappointing really.
He introduced himself as Jeff from ‘the agency’. What agency? He didn’t say. I suppose that was on a need-to-know basis. And I didn’t need to know.
Ushering me into the back seat, he climbed in after me. “How are you feeling, Mrs Montague?” His tone bordered on patronising.
“Bit nervous. And it’s Ms Delaney. I kept my name.” He nods, not surprised. It would take a lot to surprise him. “You can call me Tash.”
“So, Tash, I believe the office explained … tonight we’ll be doing a spy swap. Which means we release a Russian agent in our custody. And the Russians return your husband to us.”
“Just one agent?” I’d seen films where some agents were worth several on the other side. Jeff ignored the question.
“We need you to observe your husband, closely,” he said. “There’s some chance – only a slight one – they’ll try to substitute one of their own agents, with his face surgically altered.”
What the-? “You mean plastic surgery?” Have I stepped into a Bond film?
“We expect you, Tash, as the expert on your husband, will be able to tell the difference.” I nodded – as if that wasn’t the strangest sentence I’d ever heard.
Driving in silence through Sydney’s streets, we turned into a peninsula and headed towards the water. The driver parked in a side street. Jeff led me along a bush track, through a security gate, to an out-of-the-way cargo terminal where an enormous red cargo ship – like a gash of blood – stood anchored.
“This is so weird,” I said. Jeff smiled tightly.
And it was weird. Over three years ago, my husband kissed me goodbye as he left for work. He never returned. After weeks pestering the police to take his disappearance seriously, a grim gentleman appeared at my door, claiming he was from a government agency and that Matt had been working for them when he went missing. “We think the Russians took him.”
The Russians took my Matt? I remembered thinking. What could they want with him? He doesn’t even speak Russian!
Now, Matt was back and somewhere in the cargo hold of this giant, rusty ship.
“This way,” said Jeff. We climbed the gangway to the deck, which smelt strongly of petrol and cheap detergent. The engines thrummed beneath my feet, my heart beat twice as fast. Dead-eyed boatmen smoked as they watched us moving about.
My high heels echoed on the metal stairs (definitely not spy footwear). The temperature rose with each step down. My face felt clammy; I wished I’d worn waterproof make-up.
We entered a low-ceilinged space crammed with crates, with narrow corridors between them, like rat runs. A ruddy-faced man, his shirt soaked with sweat, stood at the end of the row. Seeing us, he made a ‘get-on-with-it’ gesture in the air.
Jeff nodded to an agent behind us who brought the Russian prisoner forward. I expected he’d be cowed and broken. He looked anything but. His almost translucent gaze, settling on me, made me shudder.
“Right,” said Jeff. “It’s happening.”
For an interminable moment, I struggled to get enough air into my lungs.
Then … Matt came around the corner.
“Natasha!” he ran forward and hugged me hard.
“Matt! It’s good to see you.”
We looked each other over, smiling shyly.
“How have you been?” he asked.
“Still writing those lovely kids’ stories?”
Even in this dull place, his eyes seemed filled with light. I felt my cheeks heating up and wished Jeff wasn’t there, watching and smiling-not-smiling.
“What have you been doing?” I asked. A ridiculous question. We laughed nervously, releasing some of the tension.
Matt looked good. Still handsome, with that strong jaw and dark eyes like chocolate Tim Tams that melted all my defences.
At least that’s how it had been at first. Ten years of marriage had changed things. His job at the agency didn’t help. He always seemed preoccupied, evasive. In the end, we barely spoke. The clocks ticked loudly in our lifeless living room. He’d say things like: “You still writing stories about batty bats and dragons named Norbert? Most people would have given up after so much rejection.”
It wasn’t a compliment. Nothing much was by then. “You wear a lot of blue.” “You’re so like your mother.” “You should have your thyroid checked!” “Don’t ask about my work; you won’t understand!” “Shepherd’s pie again?”
If he hadn’t disappeared when he had, I’d have asked him to do so. I’d begun looking into new living arrangements.
But now, he was different. His time in a Russian gulag had shaken things up. For the better.
“I bought some raisins,” I said, proffering the box. “Your favourite.”
“How thoughtful! I could do with the antioxidants.”
I shook some into his hands. He popped them into his mouth, chewing happily. And the way he looked at me … like I was land, and he’d been at sea a long, long time.
“Can I have a word with your wife?” Jeff asked. “I won’t keep her.”
“Better not!” Matt winked.
“Is this your husband?” Jeff whispered.
On the way back, Jeff rode in the front. Matt and I held hands like high-school sweethearts in the back. At home, he didn’t comment on all the new blooms in the garden. (“Too many colours is commonplace!”)
I guessed he’d be happy with shepherd’s pie now too. Anything would taste good after prison food.
Especially, when he’d never had it before.
“Raisins?” I said.
He took some more, beaming at me. I beamed back.
Matt always hated raisins. Years of torture wouldn’t have changed that.
Oh well. Naslazhdaytes’, poka mozhno. An old Russian saying. Enjoy it while you can.
And I intended to.