As you may remember, I went on a bit of a bender after Rose's death. It's been five years, just over, since she disappeared. As I said, I've seen a few other women, with always the same outcome - I just couldn't handle the closeness, the sense of loss for what I once had.
Well, not a lot has happened since I wrote the last story, about a year and a half ago. I'm still in my job - I managed not to get fired, just - and I'm still a regular at the bar. Got a couple of grey hairs now, though, but I've managed not to put on any pounds, thank God. Stayed off the rollies too, and feeling much better for it.
This takes place just a few months ago, on the five year anniversary of Rose's vanishing.
Right, where was I that night? Easy to answer - the bar. And tonight, I was going to get utterly, utterly hammered. As I discovered, five years doesn't dull the pain nearly as much as it should.
I'd drunk til closing time, then given John - same old barman! - a few roubles on the side, and he'd returned with a bottle of Vodka. "On the breakages," he muttered, and I nodded gratefully. It wasn't the first time.
I sat outside on the step, in the shelter of the doorway to avoid the falling snow. Raising the bottle, toasting the flickering street-light a few yards away, I worked my way round the lump in my throat and whispered, "Here's to you, Rose, wherever you are. Remember I love you." And with that, I buried my head in my arms and started to cry.
The purring of an engine did little to rouse me from my stupor, until a voice broke the relative silence to say, "You all right, buddy?" There was the click of a door, and I raised my head to look up. A woman, dressed in cast-off mechanics' overalls, was standing on the pavement, looking down at me. Hurriedly I wiped my face on my sleeve, stumbling to my feet. "Erh, yeah, I'm ok really. Just a little emotional," I slurred, not looking at her.
There was no response. Still staring at the ground in shame, I shrugged and looked at my bottle. I was just about to ask her to leave, when she suddenly spoke.
I spun round to look at her, neatly depositing myself at her feet as I did so, the slippery snow and the alcohol doing nothing for my composure. She reached down and grabbed my arm, pulling me to my feet. I looked at her, and saw in that worn face someone I knew, someone I loved. "Rose? Is... is that you?" She nodded, and her arms went out to me just as mine went out to her.
We stood, holding each other on the pavement, for long minutes. When she pulled back, she had tears on her cheeks. Without a word, she tugged me to her car, and drove in silence to my flat.
When we reached my flat I groped in my pockets for my key, finally extracting it and sheepishly proffering it to Rose, explaining, "I really doubt I could open this lock anytime soon!" She looked at me for a second, then took the key and opened the door, pulling me through and locking it behind her. I extricated myself from her grasp and stumbled to the bathroom, locking the door and then throwing up, hard, into the toilet. Pulling myself up and staring into the grimy mirror, I shook my head at the state I was in, and splashed some icy water on my face.
Still gasping from the shock of the cold water, I left the bathroom, walking discernibly straighter than before, and found Rose had put some coffee on to boil. I stood beside her at the kitchen counter and took her in my arms. Burying my head in her hair, I took in her scent, remembering it like she'd left only yesterday.
Over coffee she told me what happened.
"The day I was due to meet you, I got car-jacked, around three hundred miles outside Moscow. It was a young man and his girlfriend. He kept his car, and gave mine to her. I heard later she died in it, but I don't know anything about that. The guy - he called himself Vladimir - forced me into his car. Turns out that there's a large Clan - maybe two hundred riders - who've taken up residence in what was once a peasant village, that was abandoned and forgotten in the Stalin purges. I don't think it even has a name. They called it the Enclave.
"Vlad was surprisingly protective of me. The rapes I'd heard of never happened, though there were some close moments. He was pretty good to me, all in all.
"Turned out, though, that I knew just as much about cars as their best guys did, so I got drafted into the mechanics side of their clan. I spent three years working, doing that. Then, one day, a seriously beat up car was recovered by a clan member who subsequently flaked out and shot himself. No-one wanted the car, so I took it.
"It took me a year to do it up, starting from scratch, using parts from other totalled cars. And then, some guy, who didn't like the fact Vlad wouldn't let him get his leg over, nicked the fucking thing, and set it alight. A year's work, lost like that. Vlad killed him for that, though. Sometimes I wonder if he fell in love with me.
"Still, it doesn't matter. There I was, carless again. For the next ten months, I worked harder than ever, and managed to fix up another wreck. A shite car, but it had wheels.
"And then one night, I just upped and left. It took me a week to find out where I was. Since then, I've been on my way to Moscow - got a new car on the way - though it's not much of an improvement. I've been searching for you for three weeks now. When I saw you at the bar tonight, I didn't honestly think it could possibly be you. But... well, here we are."
I sat in silence for a while, staring at her shoes. Then, lifting my head, I met her eyes. "I read about Vlad's girl's death in the paper - I thought it was you, in fact. Since you left, I've not done much with my life. Still the same old job, you know how it is. Met a few women, but... I just couldn't relate to them. It's good to see you, Rose."
She nodded, setting down her coffee cup and taking mine from my hands. The coffee was cold now, anyway. "Well, it's damn good to see you, Peter. But right now, I'd like to go to bed. I've not slept since yesterday night."
I just nodded and led her to the bedroom, turning off the lights as she undressed and slid between the sheets. I disrobed and climbed in beside her, pulling her soft form to me. She rested her head on my chest, and, the room still trying to spin around me, I fell into sleep.
When I woke up, the bed was empty. I rolled over and touched the spot where she'd been lying, and found that it was still warm. Sitting up, I cursed long and loud as my hangover kicked in, my head pounding like a jackhammer, right between my temples. The curtains had been drawn, revealing a grey and cloudy day. For a moment I lay in bed, my forearm over my eyes, and thought about last night, running into Rose after all those years.
The bedroom door clicked and swung open as Rose pushed it open with her foot, bearing a tray with a coffee pot and two mugs. She chuckled at me as I cringed as she flicked the lightswitch with her elbow, and I winced as she slammed the door with her foot. "Hungover much, then?" she inquired with a raised eyebrow. I could only nod.
She set the tray down on the bedside cabinet and sat on the bed. It finally dawned on me that she was dressed, and dressed in clothes she wasn't wearing yesterday. Black T-shirt, black jeans, and faded motorcycle boots. "Did you go out?" I enquired, sitting up and pouring myself a mug of coffee. It steamed in the cold of my bedroom - the damn boiler was broken again, and I'd not got around to getting it fixed.
"Yeah," she said. "You were spark out, so I thought I'd head off to - to where I've left the car, and get some things. I figured you wouldn't wake up." I nodded wryly, and drank great gulps of the coffee. "What time is it?" I asked. She checked her watch and told me it was just after nine. I cursed again, and struggled out of bed - spilling my bloody coffee on the way, too. "Shit, I'm late for fucking work. The boss'll kill me!" She laughed at me, shaking her head, and pointed out that it was a Saturday. I looked at her, shaking my head at my own stupidity, and started to laugh. She laughed with me, and, as the laughter faded out, we sat there and looked at each other.
I studied her face. She was older than when I met her first, that was plain to see. Lines that hadn't been there before were now etched, like great sorrows, into her face. Years of working in the wastelands of Russia, repairing cars, had ground in fine lines of oil that showed up like deep shadows on her face. She seemed almost hardened. But when she smiled, the years fell off, and it was like she was in that bar again, asking me for a seat.
That day was a little surreal. I go dressed and we went out. We walked for an hour or so, deep into the Moscow backstreets, down alleys that I didn't even know existed. Finally, we came to a parking lot. There, at the end, was her car. It was nothing like the gleaming, sensual piece of engineering that she'd had when I met her. This, too, was black, but it was battered. Dents had been sprung out, but you could still see where they'd been. The wheel arches were muddy and smeared with dirty snow, and the windscreens were grey/brown sheets, punctuated with the clear glass where the wipers had done their work. It looked like a workhorse, rough but effective.
"Yeah, it does the fucking job, at least," she quipped as she saw me study it. "We'll take it back to yours - it'll be a little safer than leaving it here, at least. Hop in."
I got in, and she pulled off with the slightest of screeches. Cutting down a couple of overgrown alleys, she pulled out onto the main road to my flat, deftly inserting herself between two taxis that seemed, to me, to be almost nose to bumper. Nonetheless, she found the space somehow.
Pulling up by my flat, she pulled a dufflebag out of the boot, hefting it over her shoulder. We climbed the stairs to my apartment, let ourselves in, and she made lunch while I took a much needed shower. As I returned to the kitchen, she was rummaging through the dufflebag. I had a quick look in over her shoulder, and noticed the flash of banknotes. "Got some cash there, then? It's ok, you don't need to pay rent!" I quipped. "It's not rent money - it's all my money. Just before I found you I was planning on going South again, so I withdrew all my savings. 35 million roubles here."
My eyebrows rose in shock as I calculated. "That's nearly 3/4 of a million! Where the hell did you get that?!" She merely raised an eyebrow and bit into her sandwich. I sensed the discussion was closed.
Life slipped into an easy rhythm in the next few days. I got up for work each day, she made me coffee. We left at the same time, she'd drop me off at work, and then drive off. Sometimes she wouldn't return until late, 10 or 11 at night. She seldom spoke, and I seldom broke the silence. It wasn't an uneasy one, mind. There just wasn't much that either of us had to say. She was solitary, and I wasn't exactly Mr Party either, so it suited us.
Often she'd come in late, and, without a word, crouch in front of me as I sat on the sofa and kiss me passionately, before pulling me into the bedroom. She'd climb on me and ride me without a sound, barely a shadow in the dark, collapsing on my chest as she came, before pulling me on top of her, clutching my shoulders as I emptied myself into her.
Sometimes she wept afterwards, silently, but I felt her tears on my shoulder. I didn't ask, and she didn't tell me.
Months passed. Rose got a new car, gleaming and black, just like the old one. She spent many hours underneath it and inside the bonnet, tweaking it just right.
My parents died. They were rich, and, though I'd not spoken to them in years, they left me all their assets. I was their only son. Suddenly I was rich, and I didn't know what to do with the money. I spoke to Rose about it, and she told me that I should do what my heart wanted. And with those words I did know what I wanted. As we sat in the kitchen on Saturday morning, naked, I said to her, "I want to do what you do. Between us, we have the money to never have to work again. We can be nomadic, like you used to be."
She looked at me, hard. "This isn't a decision you make on a whim, Peter. There's no romance in this life. You have to love it to stick with it. It's hard. It's alienating. Still... it'd be great to have you with me." And with that, she broke out into a smile. "C'mon, if you're serious, let's go. We'll pick you up a car on the way. And, for God's sake, some proper clothes!"
I grinned, like a little boy. For the first time, I felt free. We dressed quickly, me in jeans, jumper and desert boots, her in the black top, jeans and boots that I associated with her and Riding. She packed her dufflebag with the efficiency of someone who's done it many times. "Take what you must, if anything. You don't need clothes. But grab a bag for your cash - there's no ATMs where we're going." I could only nod, hoping to hell that I was still in control.
We got into her car and roared off. I felt exhilarated and breathless. Stopping at my bank, I went inside with my dufflebag and requested the attention of the manager. I explained to him that I wished to withdraw all the money in my current and saving accounts and close them both. He seemed a little surprised, but complied without much persuasion. 117 million roubles, it came to, all told. 2.4 million, in Sterling. Like I said, my folks were rich.
Back in Rose's car, we took off towards a car dealer. With money to spend, I could barely contain myself from buying the fastest thing they had, but Rose cautioned me. "You've got to eat, sleep in this thing. You've got to be able to drive for 30 hours without getting cramps. Don't be a fool." Taking her advice, I prowled around the cars in the lot, looking for the one. And, near the back, I found it. Midnight blue, a long swept bonnet and tapering tail, the engine roared like a velvet lion. The instant I slid into the seat, I knew for sure. It seemed to mould itself around me, like it had been built for me.
I bought it. The next few hours passed in something of a blur, as Rose played with the engine, making a few critical noises - but as many pleased ones, as well - installed some radio gear in the cars that I was certain I'd never figure out how to use, before stepping out, leaving the door wide open, with the words, "Enjoy. She should serve you well." I slid in and gunned the engine, slipping out the dealership on Rose's tail. Stopping only to pick up provisions for my car, along with maps, and a handgun and knife for my protection - even I knew that bears weren't the worst things out there.
We stopped at the first motel on the East highway out of Moscow, and killed time until evening, playing pool - badly - and musing in silence over a pint or two. At last night began to fall. Rose got out the maps, and pointed to Tomsk. "That's where we're going this time. I've an - an old friend over there, who I've not seen in a little too long. It's over 2000 miles, so we're better get started. All being well, it'll take us about 2, maybe 3 nights driving." With a quick kiss to my forehead, she got into her car.
I shook myself out of my slight daze and followed suit. She gunned her car down the highway, and I followed, leaning back in the seat as my speed reached 100mph. I had a slight nagging disquiet in my mind - her tone of voice when she mentioned her friend had unsettled me. Shrugging it off, I got comfortable for the long drive to Tomsk.