‘Snezhinka, my darling Snowflake, come and meet Valeriya.’
Papa summoned his daughter with a beam which stretched from his full lips to his black, heavy-browed eyes.
At fourteen, Snezhinka – or as she preferred, Tinka – was too old to run into Papa’s arms. Instead, she smiled her way across the marble floor of the London house’s living room, her Pretty Ballerina flats sinking into the bearskin rugs, to come face to face with Papa and his latest lovely young lady.
Tinka had no problem with the young ladies who passed through Papa’s life. She knew that her mama, dead since Tinka was three years old, would always be the dearest love of Papa’s life, apart from Tinka herself. She understood that the lovely young ladies were tolerated by Papa like a medicine, or a therapy, to assuage his inconsolable grief. Like it helped Papa to see Tinka with her glossy black hair curled and brushed and her slim body draped in the most fashionable clothes from Harrods or TSum.
‘My beauty, the image of your darling mother,’ Papa would sigh, wiping away a tear.
Tinka held out her hand to the newest young lady, who shook it, exclaiming, ‘What a pretty girl!’
Tinka accepted the normal praise, then briefly narrowed her eyes. While the lady was as beautiful as any of her predecessors, she was more –Tinka found the right word in English – mature. Her blonde hair didn’t hang in loose curls about bare shoulders. Rather, it was lifted away from her high cheekbones in an elegant French roll. Her patrician nose derived from ancient royalty, and her vermilion lips held the exact amount of plumpness to suggest the knowing passion of experience without undue wantonness.
Papa gazed into the woman’s emerald-green eyes with the concentration of an Olympic high-diver calculating his plunge into the pool below.
‘My sweet myshka, my baby mouse,’ Papa purred to Tinka, patting the hand of the new woman. ‘Valeriya and your old papa are to be married! Imagine! Papa has found his second soulmate.’ A maudlin wetness brought a brief shine to Papa’s eyes before he let the beam return.
‘Married?’ Tinka’s certainty of the universe cracked, as if Papa had hurled a stone onto the thinning ice of a frozen pond in spring.
Valeriya coyly released her hand from Papa’s grasp. She rested it softly on Tinka’s shoulder. ‘I cannot replace your dear mama, Tinka, but I hope one day, soon, you will love me as much as I love your papa and think of me as your new mama.’ The emerald-green eyes dampened to match Papa’s brief glistening.
Tinka shrank from her new mama’s touch.
Tinka tiptoed past her step-mama’s dressing room, unwilling to be summoned yet again to cry pretended delight at Valeriya’s modelling of her latest Balenciaga or Gucci purchase. She made it past, exhaled her relief and stopped when she heard her step-mama say: ‘Dina, tell me. Who is the fairest of all the women you have known?’
Dina, Valeriya’s personal dresser and, to Tinka’s eyes, an ancient being of perhaps fifty years, murmured obligingly, ‘You madam are the fairest of them all, as I tell you each day.’
Tinka giggled and crept away. But she was curious about this ‘each day’. So the next morning, she pressed herself against the suede wallpaper of the passage and listened through the open door. There it came: ‘Dina, tell me. Who is the fairest of all the women you have known?’ And Dina murmured, ‘You madam are the fairest of them all, as I tell you each day.’
Three years passed. Tinka grew from a teenager to a young woman. She discarded Pretty Ballerina flats for Gucci heels, and children’s Dior for womanly Dior. She rode and skied and practised karate. Her nubile body swelled in all the places which made men gaze upon her with greed in their eyes and an apparent itch which had them subtly scratching at their crotches.
One morning, as Tinka stole past her step-mama’s dressing room, she heard the old refrain: ‘Dina, tell me. Who is the fairest of all the women you have known?’
Tinka grinned, waiting for the ancient dresser’s response. It was longer coming than usual, and when it did it was a hesitant murmur.
Tinka strained to hear.
‘My dearest madam, the girl Tinka is the fairest of all the women I have known.’
Tinka heard a quick gasp which matched her own, but before her step-mama could speak, a maid hauled a noisy vacuum cleaner from the stairs onto the landing.
Never mind. Tinka skipped to her own dressing room where she leaned into the lighted mirror. She lifted her head, examined one cheekbone, then the other, ran a slim finger down her straight nose and across her sculpted lips.
Dina was correct. Tinka winked at her image, grabbed up her Missoni swimsuit from the floor and wandered off to the pool.
Twinkling fairy lights smothered the ceiling of the Moscow house’s cavernous reception room like stars in a desert sky. Red, white, pink and purple roses clustered in masses on tables and mantels, bathing the room in their heady scent. It was Tinka’s eighteenth birthday party.
Valeriya smiled her perfect smile and handed Tinka a creamy envelope. ‘Our gift to you,’ she murmured.
Papa stood by with his fond eyes. ‘Open it, myshka,’ he urged.
The envelope held a thin sheaf of papers and an airline ticket. Tinka opened the ticket: Rio de Janeiro, then some place called Manaus.
Tinka’s stomach quivered with excitement. Rio! How fascinating. But …‘Manaus?’ she said to Papa.
‘A cruise on the mighty Amazon, little kitten.’ Papa kept smiling. ‘An exotic adventure for my exotic princess.’
Tinka would need new clothes for the steamy Amazon. Did Dior make jungle appropriate footwear?
‘Thank you!’ Tinka kissed Papa.
‘Not me, little one.’ Papa’s laughing gaze fell into his wife’s shining eyes. ‘It was Valeriya’s idea,’ he said. ‘And she is going with you.’
‘Just us girls.’ Valeriya laughed her musical laugh.
Tinka held herself tall, a queen on her barge, especially in her cream silk sleeveless top and red leather skirt which Papa had jokingly referred to as a wide belt. She sniffed at the memory of her step-mama suggesting Tinka’s jungle wardrobe should comprise shapeless, ugly loose dresses, wide trousers and blowsy tops with long sleeves.
‘Cooler,’ Valeriya had said.
‘They will make me look like a babushka in a tent.’ Tinka had turned away. knowing her step-mama was jealous of Tinka’s slim beauty and would use any excuse to hide her in the shadows.
Gucci did make jungle-appropriate trainers, so Tinka and Valeriya were able to agree on footwear.
Tinka was bored with the never-changing landscape of over-lush vegetation and brown river. She spent her time swinging in a hammock under an awning to keep the sun off her sunburned and bug-bitten arms and legs, her phone plugged into her ear listening to music.
One clammy evening, a passenger gazing shoreward shouted, ‘Over there, look! Alligators!’
Passengers ran to the side, peering out, exclaiming. Valeriya appeared at Tinka’s hammock.
‘Come and see, Tinka. This is why we are here. For the alligators.’ Valeriya smiled.
Tinka sighed and removed her earplugs. She rolled off the hammock and strolled after Valeriya. The crowd had thinned to the most ardent adventurers, pressed against the boat’s rear railing, watching the alligators grow dim in the fading light. Between Tinka and Valeriya stood the bodyguard, his eyes searching out the reptiles in case they might take it in their prehistoric heads to leap over the railing and swallow his charges whole.
Tinka didn’t like the bodyguard. He wasn’t Tinka’s usual giant, but a silent dark-jowled man hired recently by Valeriya. It wasn’t only that he and Tinka’s step-mama often murmured together, casting glances in Tinka’s direction. They also smiled at each other from time to time, like co-conspirators in a secret undertaking.
‘Do you see the alligators, Tinka?’ Valeriya was close behind her. ‘That’s what we’re here for. The alligators.’ Her hand gripped Tinka’s shoulder, urging her with gentle shoves towards the railing.
The bodyguard stepped closer on Tinka’s other side.
Tinka remembered Dina’s admission that Valeriya was no longer the most beautiful woman she had known. Tinka recalled her step-mama’s jealousy-motivated suggestions about ugly clothing and how this Amazon trip had been Valeriya’s idea and the bodyguard was Valeriya’s hire.
Tinka experienced a new emotion. Fear coiled in her flat gut.
The other passengers had tired of peering into the darkness. Tinka was alone, with her step-mama and her step-mama’s bodyguard.
Tinka’s sweaty back grew cold. Perspiration dripping from her forehead scalded her eyes.
The screeching of the jungle birds rose in its obscene cacophony to match the pounding of Tinka’s heart.
‘Tinka, what’s wrong, my love?’ Valeriya’s hand left Tinka’s shoulder to rest in the small of Tinka’s back.
The bodyguard glanced at Valeriya, who arched her fine brows. ‘I think it’s time …’ she began.
Tinka’s thudding heart pulsed adrenaline strength through her veins. The years of karate usurped her mind and body. She twisted from Valeriya’s grasp, stepped to her step-mama’s side and flipped her into the brown waters churning white against the engines.
There was no scream, no shout, only, afterwards, Tinka’s gasping retches as she gripped the railing, staring into a dark nightmare of thrashing, feasting alligators.
The bodyguard was Tinka’s friend after all, and well-rewarded for it. He had shouted for help, pulled Tinka clear of the railing, swore Valeriya had leaned out too far, straining for a final glimpse of the giant reptiles fading against the shadowing bank.
Papa wept: on the telephone when told the news, at the airport, at home, at the funeral, at the wake. He grew gaunt. He hugged Tinka and soaked her glossy black hair with tears. Tinka wanted to tell him, ‘No, Papa, you mourn wrongly. Your Valeriya would have murdered me.’ She couldn’t add this awful knowledge to Papa’s grief.
Dina offered to leave, once she had sorted Madam’s wardrobe.
Tinka said, ‘No, Dina, you will be my dresser now. We will sort my step-mama’s clothes together.’
Tinka delighted in taking the sumptuous gowns from their Prada and Fendi bags and tossing them to the floor. The charity shop. That’s where they would go, to expiate that woman’s attempted sin.
Dina collected each item from the floor, stroked it, laid it carefully on the sofas lining the mirrored walls. Tinka watched her.
‘You loved her, didn’t you, Dina?’ she said, when all the dresses were packed in cases.
‘Yes, Miss Tinka.’ Dina sighed, blinked. ‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘every morning I had to tell her she was the fairest of all the women I have known?’
Tinka curled a lip.
‘It was the only way,’ Dina said, ‘Madam could get through the day. She never believed it, was always certain others, especially your papa, would believe her ugly and no longer love her. And then,’ Dina shook her head at Tinka’s unbelieving eyes, ‘one morning I had to tell her you were the fairest of all. She was thrilled, because the burden of trying to be as beautiful as people expected was no longer hers alone to bear.’
Tinka’s perfectly sculpted lips parted in a silent, ‘Oh.’
‘That was why she wanted to take you to see the alligators, Miss Tinka.’
‘Alligators?’ Tinka squeaked.
‘Yes, miss. Madam loved you so much, as if you were her own daughter. She had this notion that if you could show bravery at the brutality of alligators, you could cope in this brutal world.’ Dina ran a wrinkled hand through her grey hair. ‘You could cope with those nasty-minded, brutal people who insist on finding wickedness everywhere, even in those who are kind and pure.’