She opened the door and felt a cold rush of fear. He'd been here again. There was that familar, spine-tingling, terrifying scent of his aftershave. She stood in the doorway of her tiny flat, waiting for her racing heart to slow down. Slipping a hand into her tote bag, she withdrew her mobile phone.
"Sandra, is that you?". Her mother had caller ID, but never seemed to fully trust it.
"Hi Mum." Sandra felt a little silly now, hearing her mother's sensible voice. This was not the first time Viktor had been in her flat, and it shouldn't rattle her so much. He was playing mind games with her, that was all. She couldn't go running to her parents every time this happened.
"What's wrong Sandy?", her mother queried. Her mother always knew when something was bothering her, even when she tried to hide it.
Sandy sighed, stepping inside, and plonking her bag on the kitchen bench. "Oh Mum, I'm embarrassed to tell you. I feel like such an idiot. I should never have agreed to date him in the first place." She didn't have to explain further. Sandy and her mother knew each other so well that their conversations often took this oblique form. Sandy sat down on the crumpled suede couch, removed her shoes one by one. She could hear her mother's voice, faint and worried as she turned away from the phone - "Don, it's Sandy. That man has been in her flat again." Sandy listened as her mother breathed quietly, the rumbling low tones of her father's reply unintelligible. It was excruciating to be in her late thirties and still calling home like a child. She had to stop this.
Her mother's voice was falsely bright in her ear. "Sandy, your father's coming round now. Why don't you bring your things, and stay the night?"
"No, Mum! Tell him not to." There was a tiny note of irritation in her voice now, although she'd tried to hide it."I'm perfectly capable of driving myself over you know." Sandy frowned, rubbing a strand of her dark hair between finger and thumb as she walked into the kitchen and pulled a plate of leftovers from the fridge. "But Mum, I can't keep staying at your place. I have to live my life. I can't let him get to me."
There was a pause. "Are you sure sweetheart?" her mother prompted gently.
Sandy deposited the plate in the microwave, pressed reheat. "Yes Mum, I'm sure. I'm alright now. I'll talk to you soon, OK?". She tossed the phone on the bench, poured herself some wine, retrieved the now steaming-hot food from the microwave, and settled herself back on the couch. She had just flicked on the TV when she saw the vase. She inhaled sharply, stiffening.
It was a lumpen pottery vase she'd made herself, during a series of pottery classes she'd enrolled in after she and Steve had separated. She'd been terribly, desperately lonely, reeling from the loss of her marriage, her husband. Suffice it to say she'd quickly realised pottery was not her thing. She'd kept the lopsided blue vessel, though, out of a sort of affection and kindness towards the sad and lost woman she'd been back then. These days she could smile at her inept attempt to get back into the dating world. In fact, with her new job, and finally owning her own flat outright, things would have been pretty much perfect, were it not for Viktor. She stared at the vase, now, her heart accelerating once more. What was it doing beside the TV? She kept it out of public sight, on her bedroom chest of drawers. He'd been in her bedroom.
She moved now with a kind of reckless courage, still holding the plate in her hand. Angrily, she strode into the bedroom, glancing wildly about. Nothing else appeared to be out of place. The bed was made neatly, as she'd left it that morning. Her stack of bedtime reading was still topped by 'War and Peace' which she never seemed to manage to read for more than two minutes before falling asleep. Sandy sighed, and her shoulders relaxed a little. This was just what he would want her to do - to freak out, feel edgy and scared. She'd stay calm, keep her head. She'd get the locks changed again tomorrow, and file another report with the police, for what that was worth. It was hard to prove your ex-boyfriend was stalking you when all you could testify was that an ornament had been shifted, or a piece of fruit eaten. Sometimes she even wondered if she was imagining these subtle changes, or if maybe she herself was the one wandering around the flat in her sleep, moving things about.
Sandy retreated to the couch, and ate her curry in front of the news. The newsreader's words washed around her, meaningless and unheard, as she marvelled again how naive she'd been to fall for Viktor. Not that she'd fallen for him, exactly - it was more that she'd been consumed by him, overwhelmed by him, hopelessly flattered by his passionate attentions. After Steve's indifference, it was so thrilling to be adored, worshipped and pursued. She'd fallen in love with Viktor's love for her. She could see now that she had never troubled to get to know who Viktor really was. Victor was handsome in his brooding, European way, he was well-mannered, he was clever. He smoked cigars sometimes at night, and he drank fine wine. He had even white teeth that flashed when he laughed heartily at her jokes. He was a facade of a perfect man.
The first hint of a problem between them had arisen about a month into their romance, when Sandy had invited Viktor to her firm's Christmas party. Viktor had offered to drive, and Sandy had felt a little bubble of joy in her chest as she accepted. Steve would have tried to convince her to drive. It had been so nice to feel taken care of. But the night had not turned out well. Viktor had upset her by sweetly suggesting she change her dress, before they even left the flat. He claimed it was the wrong colour for her, which had annoyed her, as much for the fact that she doubted this was his true reason. Her cream-coloured sheath dress had a low, cowl neckline which showed off her cleavage nicely. Sandy had been curiously stubborn, refusing to swap outfits. Viktor had been surly all night. From that night on, the relationship had slowly begun to unravel - Viktor becoming more possessive and prone to bouts of anger, as Sandy tried to ease her way out of the ties she'd allowed to form. The night she'd finally ended things for good, Viktor's face had been impassive. "You're making a very foolish mistake", he replied softly, in his precise but accented English. When Sandy had repeated this statement to the young sergeant, after the first time Viktor had been in her flat, he had seemed unimpressed. As the sergeant rightly pointed out, there had been no threat of violence, no swearing, no angry name-calling. But the sergeant hadn't seen Viktor's eyes when he'd uttered those simple words -glittering, malevolent eyes. Sandy shivered, and stood up.
(to be continued)