The Disappearance of Anna Popov; Chapter 9; Kuragin Chateau, 17 January, 3 a.m.

Unable to sleep, Jack stared at the ceiling. His body was exhausted but his mind refused to rest.
‘I know Anna is alive,’ he heard the countess whisper time and time again. ‘Nikolai has given up hope, but not I. Do you believe in destiny, Mr Rogan? I know you do … I know you do … I know you do …’

Jack got out of bed, put on his tracksuit and walked downstairs. It was four in the morning. The logs in the fireplace had mostly turned to ash, but embers still glowed in the dark like restless eyes of demons watching. Something drew Jack towards the chapel. Bumping into furniture, he walked along the dimly lit corridor until he found what he was looking for.

The countess was kneeling in front of the altar. The candle next to Anna’s picture had gone out. Jack felt like an intruder and tried to look away but couldn’t. Instead, he watched the countess – motionless as a statue – praying next to her daughter’s photo. After a while, he turned around, tiptoed out of the chapel and quietly closed the door.
‘My father was fascinated by Goya,’ murmured the countess. Startled, Jack spun around.
‘Do you like it?’ Coming closer, she put her hand reassuringly on his arm and left it there. Well aware of the effect she had on men, the countess lowered her voice. ‘I couldn’t sleep either. I heard you come into the chapel before. I was expecting you. Strange isn’t it?’

Jack liked the intimacy of her touch. ‘Not everyone has a Goya in the hallway,’ he replied, looking at the painting. ‘We are only the custodians – usually for a very short time – of other men’s genius. One cannot own it. It’s timeless and belongs to everyone.’
What an extraordinary man, thought the countess, feeling something long forgotten stir inside her. ‘Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way,’ she said. ‘Come into the kitchen. I’ll make us some tea.’
A tantalising aroma of toasted almonds and spices hung in the warm air.
‘Cook never lets the fire go out in here,’ said the countess. ‘That’s why it’s the cosiest place in the house. And the most popular.’
‘Isn’t this beautiful?’ said Jack, pointing to a large urn standing on the kitchen table.

That’s a samovar, for making tea. My grandmother brought it with her from our dacha. It has been in our family forever. A tea urn warming generations.’
Jack pulled the bench closer to the table and sat down.

‘This was my grandmother’s favourite place,’ said the countess. ‘I sat here often, listening to stories of long Russian winters and sleigh rides through magic forests frozen in time.’

The childhood memories brought a fleeting smile to the countess’ wan face. ‘Anna is the last one. The end of the line. She’s my only child.’
Jack nodded.
‘The Revolution and the War have decimated our family,’ continued the countess. ‘My parents loved it here. Many of their friends went to the Riviera, but that was not for the Kuragins. You know what my father thought of the Riviera?’
‘Tell me?’
‘A sunny place for shady people, he used to call it.’ The countess poured the tea and handed Jack a cup.
‘You appreciate art, don’t you?’ she asked, putting her hand on Jack’s arm.
‘I do. It can tell us so much more than words alone. Just like the human touch …’
Smiling, the countess withdrew her hand and pointed to a painting hanging on the kitchen wall. Bold brush strokes and vibrant colour captured the soul of a spring garden viewed through an open window. ‘What do you think of that?’ she asked.
‘It’s lovely,’ replied Jack. ‘Echoes of Renoir.’
‘Anna painted that when she was fourteen. She was very talented, even as a child. We used to spend hours together in the Louvre. Italian Renaissance painters were her favourites. She adored Filippo Lippi. She was due to start art school in Paris after her return …’
‘How extraordinary.’
‘May I call you Jack?’
‘Sure.’
‘And please … call me Katerina,’ said the countess, smiling reassuringly at Jack. ‘This is an intimate place and an intimate hour.’
‘It sure is.’

The countess reached across the table and put her hand again on his. ‘You are right about the human touch … What did you mean when you said earlier that you intend to find out?’ she asked.
‘I’m a journalist, a freelancer. Putting it bluntly, I look for interesting stories. More often than not, they find me,’ Jack said, searching for the right way to continue without offending the countess.

‘However, this is now more than just an interesting story. This is a mystery and a challenge. I want to know, have to know …’
‘If Anna wrote those words? If she’s perhaps still …? Is that what you mean?’
‘That, and more …’
‘Are you prepared to go all the way?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Then let me help you. There was this police officer in Alice Springs – Andrew Simpson, the one I mentioned earlier – who was different from all the others.’
‘In what way?’
‘He never gave up. He too believed, against all odds. Just like me …’
‘That Anna was alive?’
The countess nodded. ‘But the case was closed. Yet there was so much more. Much, much more. You must talk to him.’
‘I will.’
Reaching for Jack’s hand, the countess put the bracelet into his palm.
‘Take it. It will guide you to her. I firmly believe that.’
Then slowly, she leant across and kissed him tenderly on the forehead. He’s crying, thought the countess, noticing the tears glistening in Jack’s eyes. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked. Overcome by the beauty and sadness of the moment, Jack tried to control his racing emotions. The fascinating woman sitting so close to him drew him irresistibly towards her. He could feel the warmth of her body and the scent of her perfume, radiating allure and excitement.
‘We only met a few hours ago, yet you entrust me with something so precious,’ he said, choking. ‘Why?’
‘Intuition. Time and trust have nothing to do with each other. The length of days doesn’t shape character. I’m sure you know that.’
Realising that there was only one way to respond to this, Jack took the shy boy’s leap into the unknown. ‘May I kiss you?’ he whispered.
Surprised, the countess looked at him. ‘You are asking for permission?’
Jack nodded.
‘I’m sure you know the answer to that too,’ she said, closing her eyes.
A rush of excitement washed over Jack as his lips brushed against hers and then locked in a kiss.
Feeling a little dizzy, the countess realised that she had already gone further than she should. It was a fine line between magic and regret. Leaning across the table she blew out the candle and watched the little plume of smoke spiral lazily towards the ceiling. Jack understood exactly what she had done: she had extinguished the flame before it could consume them both.
After a little while the countess stood up – reluctantly, thought Jack – adjusted her silk dressing gown and looked at him.
‘God be with you, Jack,’ she whispered, and then hurried out of the kitchen.

Jack and Rebecca were the only guests having breakfast in the glass conservatory the next morning. It was quite early, and the others were still in their rooms.
Divided by a thin sheet of glass, two worlds were rubbing shoulders: outside, it was winter. The snow-covered garden looked bleak with the frozen ponds and leafless branches of the oak trees and maples dreaming of spring. Inside, however, is was cosy and warm.

Filled with ferns, flowering cacti and exotic palms, the atmosphere in the conservatory was almost tropical, conjuring up images of golden beaches and sunshine.
Sitting back in his comfortable cane chair, Jack was enjoying his second cup of coffee when the countess sent her apologies. She was unwell, the maid explained, and wouldn’t be able to see them before they left.
Rebecca noticed a subtle mood change in Jack, and decided to investigate.
‘A little sleepwalking last night?’ she asked, buttering her toast.
‘Oh, you heard me. I couldn’t sleep.’
‘So you went to explore the sleeping house instead,’ teased Rebecca.
‘Not quite. I went back to the chapel. The countess was there; praying.’
‘And?’
‘We went into the kitchen and had a chat …’
‘At three in the morning?’ asked Rebecca, carefully watching Jack. Noticing the melancholic look in his eyes, she sensed that there had to be more to this.
‘Yes. And she gave me this.’ Jack pulled the bracelet out of his pocket and put it on the table next to his cup. Rebecca looked at it, surprised.
‘She gave it back to you?’ she asked. ‘Why?’
‘Because I’m going to find out what happened to Anna.’
‘You promised?’
‘Something like that.’
‘And when, may I ask, are you going to fit all this in?’

Jack shrugged and kept staring dreamily out the window. Rebecca decided to drop the subject for now. If we’d shared a bedroom, none of this would have happened, she thought, marvelling at how the right decision made the night before, could look so wrong in the morning. The countess must have turned his head, thought Rebecca, a stubborn little needle of jealousy pricking at her heart. Men!
‘We have to go,’ she said, standing up. ‘Your London commitments are waiting.’
‘Don’t I know it.’

When Jack went to pay the bill, he was told there wasn’t one. Instead, he was handed an envelope. Inside was Anna’s photograph from the chapel. Written on the back was a date – obviously Anna’s date of birth – with a dash after it, but nothing else.

PS Don’t forget to visit us again next Friday for your next instalment of The Disappearance Of Anna Popov. Or better still, may I invite you to subscribe to our blogs, Letters from the Attic, and you will be notified when a new one is due. That way, you will never miss out!

0