In the summer of 1990, Davey and Camilla spend a carefree month in a Tuscan villa with Rachel and her enigmatic Russian friend Igor. Sharing food and drink and sex and talk, the four become very close. If anything is slightly amiss, they ignore the signs. It's an enchanted summer they will always remember.
And then the nightmare begins. Igor flees back to Moscow and repudiates his friends, attacking them viciously and publicly on Soviet television. Rachel will never recover from his betrayal, and Davey has reasons he cannot admit for taking it hard.
One year later, the Soviet Union collapses. Igor drops out of sight. Rachel tries to forget him, but seven years later Camilla picks up his trace in, of all places, Samarkand. Igor has moved to Central Asia and opened a bar.
The Cafe Maracanda attracts a wide range of clients. Tourists enjoy the charms of the old khanates in the fine tiled courtyard, while drug lords negotiate the price of heroin in the inner rooms. Samarkand is the centre of the world, and everyone goes to Igor's. Islamic fundamentalists come to buy arms, Igor's old KGB cronies drop in to chat.
It's the new Great Game, and Igor is a star player. But then Camilla walks in, intent on the truth. Rachel is close behind, intent on revenge. Igor's luck has run out. There's a guy from the CIA sitting in the courtyard, the Minister who used to protect him has cut him loose, the KGB is baying for his blood.
Cafe Maracanda is the final part of a trilogy of Soviet-era thrillers. Like The Angels of Russia and Music at the Garden House, it examines the toll taken on the individual by life in a totalitarian society.
A STATE OF GRACE
Igor is sitting alone at a caf? terrace. He is wearing a black silk shirt. On the table beside him are a pair of sunglasses and a glass of what looks like Campari. His expression is undecipherable. There is no way of knowing whether he felt love or hatred, scorn or affection, for the person taking the photo. He is neither smiling nor frowning. There is nothing to indicate what was going on in his mind. At the instant the shutter clicked, was he weighing his options and planning his escape route? Or was he simply enjoying his drink and admiring the architecture? Looking at the picture, it is impossible to tell whether he already knew, all those weeks earlier, what he was going to do, nor whether any shadow of regret had crossed his mind.
Splendid restored farmhouse surrounded by vineyards. Spectacular views over Tuscan landscape. Large swimming pool. Property is secluded but not isolated and lies 900m off the road. House retains original character with arches, ceiling beams, fireplaces. Attractively furnished, with some antiques and pine. Sitting/dining room opens on to terrace with pergola for outdoor dining. Spacious, well-equipped kitchen. Two double bedrooms, each with en suite bathroom, one leading to private terrace. Siena 15 km, Florence 55 km, Arezzo 80 km.
It was Camilla who found the house, and Davey who had had the idea of sharing it with Igor and Rachel. At first, Camilla had demurred. Davey had been playing tennis after work with Igor Strugatsky for two or three years, but she herself hardly knew him. As for Rachel Stern, neither of them had exchanged more than two words with her in all the years they had been working at the Radio. They knew who she was, of course. They had seen her stalking down the corridors with her preoccupied frown. They had observed her in meetings, where she rode rough-shod over anyone who disagreed with her. Within the Research Department, she had a reputation as a serious intellectual who spent her summers discussing the affairs of the day in the beer gardens of Munich, and her winters holed up in the library researching ancestors who had emigrated from the Pale of Settlement at the end of the nineteenth century. She had a German husband no one had ever seen. It wasn't a good idea, Camilla objected, to go on vacation with people you didn't know well (and who might give you lectures on anti-Semitism under the Tsars over breakfast). A month was a long time.
But no one else was free to join them. All their friends had plans. For that matter, they had had plans themselves. They had intended to go to Moscow to see perestroika at first hand, but in late May the trip fell through, and it looked as though they were going to have to spend August visiting their families in the States. It was then that Camilla made a stand. She couldn't face another summer shuttling between Massachusetts and Indiana, she announced. If they couldn't go to Russia, they would go to Italy. To Tuscany. She had visited Florence with her parents when she was young, and had been dying to go back ever since. They could drive down from Munich in half a day, it wasn't far at all.
Unfortunately, most of the rental houses in Tuscany had been snapped up months ago. Camilla's thoughts were beginning to turn resignedly to the beach house on Cape Cod, when suddenly there was a cancellation. A villa with a swimming pool, north of Siena. Camilla was euphoric. The location was perfect and the photos looked wonderful. The problem was that it was too big and expensive for the two of them on their own. Camilla spent a few days pondering the evils of sharing a swimming pool with a Russian cultural journalist and an English bluestocking, and decided that in the interests of economy and marital harmony (she had already said yes to the rental agency and Davey was furious) she had better give way. In any case, she was beginning to have doubts about Davey's willingness to endure a serious investigation of Renaissance art. She knew what would happen. He would linger and delay and find iron-clad excuses for not leaving just yet, and she would end up missing half of what she wanted to see. But if someone else was there, she could leave them all behind and go off on her own. When Igor and Rachel came over for a drink one evening in July, she showed them the map and told them where she intended to go.
"We will come with you," said Igor, smiling at her. "We cannot let you go all that way alone. Isn't that so, Rachel?"
"Um," said Rachel. "Petro della.... What did you say he was called?"
"Piero della Francesca." Well yes, of course. As trivial pursuits went, Renaissance art was clearly an all-time winner. Camilla gritted her teeth. We can't all have persecuted Lithuanian-Jewish ancestors. "He was born in about 1420 and died in 1492. He's one of the most important painters of the Quattrocento."
"Oh yes?" said Rachel.
"There are paintings by Piero all over Tuscany. His main work is a series of frescos in a church in Arezzo. That's here." She pointed to the map. "And from Arezzo, you can follow what's called the Piero Trail to Monterchi, here, to Sansepolcro, and on to Urbino. That's what I'd like to do."
"It sounds very interesting," said Igor. "Urbino, of course, is too far away. Have you looked carefully at the map? It's a twisting road, and the drive will take longer than you think. But we can certainly go to Monterchi and Sansepolcro."
He looked up and smiled at her again.
"Oh ... well ... er ... great," said Camilla.
The Villa Tolomei stood at the end of a long dirt track on the edge of a hill. To the east of the house, the ground fell away sharply and the windows looked clear across the valley to the opposite hill. From her bedroom window, Rachel could see a wide swathe of forest and, further away, the sloping outline of fields and olive groves, dotted here and there with square harmonious Tuscan farmhouses. Behind the straight rows of vines, directly opposite, rose the graceful shape of a campanile. Higher up, on the crest of the hill, stood a long row of cypresses. Rachel was mesmerised. She felt as though she had been looking for this landscape all her life, without even knowing it. From below, the voices of Igor and Camilla drifted faintly up to her. Something about food for tomorrow and the supermarket in Siena. Rachel paid no attention. Food didn't interest her: it never had. Leaning against the window sill, gazing across the valley, glimpsing a patch of blue down to her right that could only be the swimming pool, she began to feel that it might have been worth coming.
When Igor had broached the idea of spending August in Italy with Davey Morton and Camilla Stacey, Rachel had been first disbelieving and then horrified. Davey and Camilla scared her to death. Tall, blond and smiling, they looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife, with their vitamin-fed American good looks and their clear confident voices. Davey was big, and possessed the physical assurance of big, handsome men. Apparently he had been a high-school swimming champion. Certainty radiated from him like an aura. He was so big and so blond that Rachel found it difficult to look him in the eye. As for Camilla, with her exquisite clothes and beautifully crafted sentences, she was even more daunting.
Everywhere they went, they were conspicuous. Every time Rachel emerged from her office, she seemed to catch sight of one of them striding down the corridor, pausing to greet an aquaintance, chattering with cronies in the canteen, or lounging with a stein of beer at a shady table at the Chinese Tower. The golden couple. They were so visible it was amazing they had time to get any work done, but Camilla produced elegantly written, closely argued papers on Soviet military matters nearly every week, while Davey edited a daily summary of events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Handsome, intelligent and talented: how could they not intimidate her? Rachel was dark and pale, with a tendency to put on weight. She had heard that Camilla's father was a diplomat, and that Davey's was a prominent surgeon. Rachel's father taught woodwork in the local comprehensive. What in God's name would she say to people like that?
For a while, she considered refusing to go. Especially when she discovered that, on top of everything else, she was supposed to be on first-name terms with Renaissance art. The Quattrocento and the Piero Trail. Why spend a month feeling inadequate? She could go home to the North of England and see her parents instead. Her mother was always complaining that she didn't visit them enough.
But in the end, she gave in. Igor had set his heart on it, and she couldn't bear to refuse him what he wanted. Trust me, it'll be fine, he said, and she believed him.