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Judith Heneghan


‘Something terrible is happening here. Something terrible has already happened.’

Kiev 1992. Rachel, a troubled young English mother, joins her journalist husband on his first foreign posting in the city. Terrified of the apartment’s balcony, she develops obsessive rituals to keep their baby safe. Her difficulties expose her to a disturbing endgame between the elderly caretaker and a local racketeer who sends a gift that surely comes with a price. Rachel is isolated yet culpable with her secrets and estrangements. As consequences bear down she seeks out Zoya, her husband’s fixer, and the boy from upstairs who watches them all.

Home is uncertain, betrayal is everywhere, but in the end there are many ways to be a mother.


‘An unforgettable story. The claustrophobia is palpable, and the characters are utterly convincing in this beautifully observed novel. Outstanding.’ —Claire Fuller


‘This is a fascinating portrayal of Kiev and its people, written with skill, depth and sympathy but never shying away from darker facets. At its heart is the story of a marriage, of motherhood, and of a place contaminated by its terrible history. It is an alluring and gratifying read.’ —Jackie Law, neverimitate


JUDITH HENEGHAN is a writer and editor. She spent several years in Ukraine and Russia with her young family in the 1990s and now teaches creative writing at the University of Winchester. She has four grown up children.

Published by Salt Publishing Ltd

12 Norwich Road, Cromer, Norfolk NR27 0AX

All rights reserved

Copyright © Judith Heneghan, 2019

The right of Judith Heneghan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Salt Publishing.

Salt Publishing 2019

Created by Salt Publishing Ltd

This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN 978-1-78463-175-8 electronic

For Rory, Nellie, Jeremy and Meriel

“‘I am talking about mercy,’ Woland explained his words, not taking his fiery eye off Margarita. ‘It sometimes creeps, quite unexpectedly and perfidiously, through the narrowest cracks.’”

from The Master and Margarita


Chapter 1

Kiev, October 1992

High up on the fourteenth floor, a boy steps onto a balcony. He is twelve, maybe thirteen with slender limbs and shorn hair and he is naked apart from a pair of faded underpants. He scratches the bloom of eczema on his hip as he squints towards the neighbouring apartment block. No one is watching him. The steel hulk of the Motherland monument glints from her hillock across the valley, but she is a statue and her eyes are dead.

The boy moves to a pile of junk in the corner and yanks at a rusting bicycle until it breaks free from the chair leg that is jammed between its spokes. The bicycle’s chain has snapped, so he props it against the waist-high wall and hoists himself onto the seat, side-saddle, with one foot on a pedal. Now, perched there with his narrow shoulders hunched forward, one arm hugging the ledge, he waits.

Below him, the air hangs still between the tower blocks and the strand of fractured tarmac that winds down towards the Dnieper. His pale eyes flick across the hazy crenellations of the industrial zone on the horizon. He ignores, to his left, the green and gold canopies of the monastery on the hilltop with those silent, rotting cottages like windfalls at its feet. Instead, lizard-like, he is watching for movement: the cadets playing basketball between crooked hoops on their rectangle of parade ground inside the military academy, the dogs gnawing their rumps in a corner of the car park, and the women spilling out of a tram like spores down on Staronavodnitska Street.

The spores work their way across the waste ground along concrete paths that intersect at sharp angles. Here comes Elena Vasilyevna, the caretaker for Building Number Four. When her dark form disappears between the dump bins far below, the boy shifts on the saddle, leans out and cups his free hand to his mouth. One deep breath, then his jaw juts forward and he makes a sound like a dog’s bark from the back of his throat. For a moment the sound splits the emptiness before it drops down the side of the building. The old woman reappears, her face turning in the wrong direction. The boy smiles, pleased at the effect.

Then, just beneath him, he notices something else.

The balcony on the floor below is glazed, unlike his own, and the glazing abuts the base of his balcony, which forms a roof. One of the windows is open and the smell of a cigarette rises up towards him. Freshly lit – a Camel.

The boy stands up on the pedal and leans further over the edge. He can’t see in through the glass below because the white sky is reflecting back at him, but a man’s left forearm dangles out through the opening, fingers flicking ash.

Someone has moved in.

He studies the man’s hand. The skin is pale with golden hairs. His shirt is unbuttoned at the wrist – white cotton with thin blue checks. His watch is analogue with a leather strap, not metal. This man is in his twenties, maybe thirty, western, but probably not German or American. He wears a gold wedding band and when the arm withdraws a stream of smoke is blown out into the stillness.

The man says something, his voice muffled by the interior. Then a baby starts crying. Its mewls are a new sound, yet within seconds they seem to stake a claim on the building, seeping into the walls, travelling up through

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