Mice Hiding under the Floorboards

Sometimes we all need that last straw, that last drop. Back in the 2000s I got to know a person by the name of Artur. He had an interesting occupation, you might even say a preoccupation: interviewing, selection, training, development of work motivation programs and payment systems, and firing people, of course. That’s right, you’ve guessed it – Artur worked in personnel, and if we’re going to be really specific about it, he was a pimp.
In Petersburg, especially back in those glory years, there were a lot of conferences and forums. These wonderful events kept a significant quantity of citizens and guests of the Northern Capital in bread and booze. And it would be hard to put into words the inner spiritual joy experienced by girls who weren’t prepared to work in brothels, but were keen to in some way monetize their excellent genetic assets.
What incredible men these were, after all, coming here from all over the country!
Well-groomed, plumped up, intelligent, successful. In Russia, sleeping with the likes of these for free wouldn’t raise a blush, and if there’s money involved it’s akin to a sacred duty. An added advantage here is that your face won’t be featured in the sales catalogue. In fact, sometimes you don’t even have to get into bed with them. You simply make the rounds at party, and then head off home to end the night with a few pages of Bunin, or perhaps a few stanzas of Brodsky. Less pay, but the pricks of conscience are far less prickly.
So, Artur was responsible for a great deal in these contractual arrangements, but for the most part, as I said, it was personnel issues. The technology worked as follows: a restaurant was selected and booked out for a few hours, rumors of casting sessions were sent out on the jungle drums, the girls would come along, sit at the tables and drink tea. From the sidelines, it all looked a bit like much like what passes for glamour out in the Russian sticks. Artur would sit himself down with those fine enough to make it through his visual sieve, chat with them, establish how far the girl in question was prepared to go, make sure they weren’t barking mad, and make a final decision.
One October there was a major conference going on. A big-boss woman came to town along with her female assistant. The big-boss woman, whose professional specialization was helping kleptocrats invest their hard-stolen cash abroad, was seriously over the forty mark, while serious was a word you would never use in relation to her assistant. The women arrived early and went for a walk around town. It was the kind of October in St. Petersburg that wasn’t ideal for taking a stroll, so soon they decided they needed to warm up.
As they stepped into the restaurant, they were asked: “Are you here for the conference?”
“For work?”
“Yes, why?”
“Then come in.”
The women exchanged glances, but didn’t really pay any attention. Perhaps they were at some closed dinner for conference participants.
There then followed a most intriguing conversation with Artur, who happened to be in the same cafe, hard at work.
“Girls, do you mind if I join you and we have a heart to heart chat?”
Artur was goodlooking, and turning him down would have been tricky. All the more so as the only people these unsuspecting guests had been having heart to heart chats with for quite some time now was one another.
“Of course!”
“I’m Artur.  ”
“Maria and Anna.”
“Wow. You’d didn’t take long choosing your names – usually all the Marias want to be Angelicas, but you’re not bothered.”
“Actually, my parents chose it,” laughed Maria, touched by all this male attention suddenly coming her way, and more used to being addressed formally as Maria Alexandrovna. Artur was good-looking. Oh, so good-looking. Or, rather, so bad that he was irresistible.
“Cool! I rarely meet girls who use their own names.”
“Where do you meet all these secretive girls? We’re not hiding from anyone.”
A thought occurred to Artur: “You’re definitely not! These Moscow women…”
“We could do with more like you! Is this your first time working at a conference?”
“Of course not, I’ve been working all over the world for years, but Anya here, my assistant, is a novice. She needs to get some rest – a conference isn’t like being bent over your desk at the office from dusk until dawn, sweating it out.”
Artur appreciated the sense of humor of this lively representative of a somewhat older generation who, of course, was slightly outside the age limits that he himself had set. Nevertheless, she looked so much better, or, rather, of such a higher quality than all those he’d seen previously at this beauty and hygiene competition that he decided to take her onboard anyway. The presence of an assistant, however, wasn’t entirely in keeping with the standard format. He even briefly lost his usual armor-plated, suave demeanor, fumbling like a linguist in a plumbing shop.
“An assistant? Er… right … so you work … as a pair, as it were?”
“Yes. Anya is always with me. I took her on from my last place, working at my age on my own isn’t really the done thing, my colleagues would laugh at me. And a spare pair of hands when you’ve got all this technical work to do comes in handy, sometimes I just don’t have the strength to see things through to the end.”
Maria Alexandrovna was flirting coquettishly. You must never take this oxygen away from a woman. Never. Without it, a woman … no, they don’t die, they simply start breathing carbon dioxide, and a person gets used to anything. Artur was realising that he still had a lot to learn about his profession, especially about seeing things through to the end.
“So, Anya was even with you at your last job! That’s great loyalty. If it’s not a secret, what was that job. Usually I just hear all these hard-luck stories. But you’re really cheerful, positive and, most important, frank!”
“Come on, in my business you can’t get by without being cheerful. People only believe happy people. I was the vice-president of a bank. But it was so depressing and boring that I went into, well, consulting. For the most part I help government employees to resolve a host of intimate issues. They don’t trust anyone, but they’ve all known me for a log time. They can trust me.”
Artur had heard a lot in his life, and taking this expert aback was no easy task, but down-shifting on this scale was radical, even by his standards. The lord and master of Petersburg’s courtesans was open-mouthed in astonishment, like a kid at a David Copperfield show.
“And …how long have you been …. resolving intimate issues for government employees?”
“Two years, and you know what? It’s like gulping down a breath of fresh air! The only drawback is that sometimes it’s almost like being a psychologist. Sometimes you can sort them out in five minutes … But all the talking about it will take up an hour. Mostly it’s about how miserable their lives are, their wives, their children, their mistresses, and what they should do with all of them. Soon I’ll have to start charging for the psychoanalysis.”
Artur had never considered a prostitute’s work as being like a breath of fresh air, but he was fast realizing that he needed to take a fresh look at this entire phenomenon. He even sensed a new found respect for himself. He was giving people air, after all. Fresh air.
“Fresh air … You’ve put it so poetically … And how’s Anya taken these changes?”
Maria Alexandrovna went on with the show.
“She’s taken them well, right, Anya?”
Anya nodded. Maria Alexandrovna was so clearly shining and holding the handsome Artur’s attention, that this plain Jane didn’t dare to try and give her any competition. She simply smiled. Her boss, however, was only getting started.
“So many new people, new skills, she’ll be priceless, I could even marry her off. She’s already had two proposals, but the age difference wasn’t right – they were rich, but they weren’t old enough, they’d have lived too long.”
Maria Alexandrovna chuckled loudly.
“Although at this rate I’ll have to be married off soon too…”
The cheerfulness waned somewhat.
“Really, why?”
The conversation had made a brief escape from the realm of the grotesque, and Artur snatched at this last straw of realism.
“My husband didn’t really like my new line of work. Especially as I’m earning more than him again. To be honest, we’re in a fake divorce – we’ve separated.”
There was a sadness in her voice. Maria Alexandrovna didn’t want to get divorced. The fear of loneliness and the familiarity. The familiarity and the fear of loneliness. Maria Alexandrovna hadn’t had anyone to talk about all this with, and then here was this stranger, a man, she liked him, and it came flooding out. In the same way that you can sometimes talk about your innermost feelings to a stranger on a train. Artur heard that loneliness, but he decided to come back to it later. At that moment he was more astonished by the extent of her husband’s awareness.
“He ‘didn’t really like it’?” asked Artur, taken aback by her spouse’s restraint.
“Well, he said that basically I had the right, but I’d often work late, and I wouldn’t be home often. And he thinks my clients are thieves. He knows a couple of them, as we’d sometimes go to dinner together.”
In David Copperfield terms, little Artur just saw dear old Uncle David turning into John Snow, cutting the heads of all the spectators, belching fire and singing “Oh the nights are delightful in Russia…”, that old classic. But in fluent Hindi.
He struggled to ask a question:
“And what did you say?”
“Well, a husband can forbid a woman from working with the double multiplier.”
“What? The multi… what?”
Anya, who had become almost a sister and best friend to Maria Alexandrovna in all her dramas, already knew all this firsthand, of course, so she was bored. She was, however, somewhat surprised by this unexpected frankness from her generally reserved boss. But here she smiled. She really liked the double multiplier theory. She’d decided that she’d definitely find herself this kind of husband.
“Well, it’s when the husband is prepared to pay his wife double what she can earn for herself. Then he has the right to put her under house arrest and cactus-cultivating duties. I honestly asked him. He can’t. So I work. Well, I work as best I can. But he couldn’t stand my money. You know, I even think that, because of that, he stopped, er … anyway, that’s not important, sorry.”
Maria Alexandrovna realized that she was saying too much. Her husband really had stopped sleeping with her. This metamorphosis, in a striking manner, coincided with a growth in her prosperity. The first time she informed him of a large-scale increase in her income, he almost pointedly turned her down, bluntly parrying her with an “I don’t want to.” She thought she detected a trace of some inner satisfaction at the sight of her eyes welling up at this insult, the eyes of a 37-year old woman who had become well-off at such an inopportune time. Her husband was taking revenge. And then a young, otherwise unremarkable mistress appeared. And Maria Alexandrovna couldn’t answer in kind because of her principles. She got invitations, of course, but … Eventually her husband said that he wanted to live on his own, but he was in no hurry to get divorced. He just carried on taking revenge.
“Basically, he couldn’t stand my work, even though I told him about everything honestly. Anyway, sorry, you like cheerful people. I remember.”
Anya listened and reached her own conclusions: “My husband won’t know anything about my money, and anyway, you should only have a career that’s within the bounds of common sense (and the same goes for your appearance). Each mouse in his mousehole. Safer that way.”
Meanwhile, Artur was carrying out an analysis of what he’d had to drink that morning, took a good look at his packet of cigarettes and gave his coffee an investigative sniff, before accepting that he simply couldn’t understand what the world was coming to. He made a retreat into the safer realm of enterprise:
“All right, let’s get down to business. If I’ve understood correctly, you’re ready to work flat out at the conference, not just stand around at the parties, although obviously that’s not really your preferred option.”
“To business … right, then … Totally flat out, all the main clients are here, two hours hard at it, and then they bring you all the money. I work with what’s really precious, I know their weak points, the things they wouldn’t even tell their wives.”
“Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you sure you need to take Anya with you? You’re like an S-class Mercedes, perfectly waxed and polished, but she’s … forgive me for being frank … not really got the right look. No offence, but her hands, her haircut, she’s just kind of withered. Not everyone here knows you, after all, this is a new crowd. Maybe you can manage on your own? Maria, what do you think?”
A weighty pause hung in the air. Anya blushed. Maria Alexandrovna took the complaint personally, although she realized that it was entirely merited. However hard she tried to get her assistant to pay some attention to her looks, it all came down to laziness and excessive flattery from the clients. She gave Anya money, then gift vouchers to beauty salons, then memberships at gyms. Anya somehow got her appearance up to a level where it could pass at the reception desk at the office, but no further.
“Really, it’s true, Anya, we could turn you into a princess in a month, just look at, well … take a look at your boss. Faultless. How old are you, Maria? 37-38?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Maria Alexandrovna melted inside, but she wasn’t going to give her protege up without a fight. “But damn it, it’s nice that he was a whole 7 years out! And he hasn’t even seen my bust… True, nobody gets to see it … sigh…”
Artur continued.
“I get it – money, time, the gym, ten grand for a new set of tits, but this is business, and you have to play by the rules. So, no Anya. But I’ll take you on, I’ve got three or four guys that are perfect for you, we’ll split everything evenly.”
Maria Alexandrovna didn’t like aggressive business partners, but just in case she decided not to send him packing straight away.
“Now listen. I don’t know who these clients you’ve got for me are, and I don’t have any shortage of them as it is, but it makes no difference – Anya’s going to be with me the whole time, I don’t even understand why it’s any of your business. And fifty percent – you’ve got no shame. For a good client, I’m prepared to pay ten percent of the first payment. All right – 20 percent, and then he’s mine. But that depends who we’re talking about. We’ve known each other for all of half an hour…”
Anya suddenly felt ashamed of having laughed with her girlfriends about her boss and her unhappiness. But Anya couldn’t forgive Maria Alexandrovna for her beauty, or for her success. Artur, on the other hand, was overcome by a feeling of admiration. “What women we have here in Russia. We drown them and drown them, but they keep on swimming back up to the surface!”
“Obviously you’ll never let him go. All right, this is an exception, but you can have seventy percent. You can keep Anya if you want, but believe me, she’ll ruin everything for you. But that’s your problem. And I take the money off the clients in advance, otherwise you’ll never get it out of them. Oh, and remember – this is Petersburg, there’s none of your Moscow prices here, the visitors spend all their money on museums, they work on spiritual development, and then they pinch pennies when it comes to bodily pleasures. Well, you probably know all that.”
Artur reined in his inner miser, recalled his admiration, and made an offer.
“Three grand maximum for the night, even for someone as hot as you.”
Anya’s red faced turned purple, and she decided not to put her tea cup back down, as she feared she might crack the silence now hanging in the air. She just froze there, eternally drinking tea.
There was a good reason why Maria Alexandrovna had once been a vice-president at a bank. She was quick-witted. She rarely blushed. The pause was brief. Her voice became wrought in high tensile titanium.
“Am I right in thinking that you think we’re prostitutes?”
There was also a good reason why Artur was in his job. What’s more, he relaxed. The world hadn’t gone mad. The pause was brief. His voice became wrought in neon.
“Am I right in thinking, that I’m entirely wrong in thinking?”
“What, are we like them?”
The question blended indignation with curiosity.
“Everyone is, if they come to a casting session for prostitutes. Take a look round. You don’t notice anything? You think Petersburg has run out of men? By the way, your assistant didn’t make the cut at this casting session. But you did. Best of the season. I don’t know if that flatters you or not.”
Instinctively, Maria Alexandrovna wanted to slap Artur’s face, but she brought herself up short and examined the situation from another point of view. It’s perhaps the sole skill in life that only comes with age.
“Anya, wait for me outside.”
Artur had never before seen a person dissolve away in an instant, and he even began to suspect that teleportation was an actual thing.
Maria Alexandrovna had an ability to strip a conversation down to the nuts and bolts. She asked a question. In her intonation, she found room for sorrow, for excitement, for anguish, astonishment and hope.
“Listen, do you really think that I … that, well, someone would pay three thousand … to … well … because I think that I’ll be ready to pay soon, if I’m being honest. My husband’s gone off to some mouse of a girl, I can’t with my clients, I don’t take the metro…”
“Not three – five. I was conning you out of the extra two. You’re absolutely fine! I wouldn’t mind … well, we could offset our costs, so as not to pass the three thousand back and forth, if you’re saying you’re ready to pay. To be honest, I was sitting here thinking how to talk you into giving me a test drive, but I realized you’d never let that fly. Here’s my number. I’m better than your mouse of a husband, that’s for sure. Phone any time.”
Maria Alexandrovna lost another five years in age, gazed out into nothing, very distinctly aware of who she was in fact looking at. She’d won, and in leaving, she didn’t leave any bridges burned.
“Offsetting the costs. With no commission?”
A month later she got divorced. Half a year later she married.
Maria Alexandrovna didn’t sleep with Artur. She sent a photograph from the registry office, with an inscription, “Thank you, Artur.”
At this, something inside Artur cracked, something broke, the most important thing for a man. Uncle David had flown away forever, and he hadn’t take little Artur with him.
He started looking for someone like her, but they are one in a million.
Every mouse in its mousehole, after all.
Alexander Tsypkin (с)