Massive congratulations to Nick Sweeney, whose story ‘Traffic’ has been awarded Runner-Up in this year’s Royal Literature Society VS Pritchett Memorial Prize.
We were honoured to publish Nick Sweeney’s first novel Laikonik Express in 2011 and we’re very pleased to publish ‘Traffic’ for your enjoyment here.
Traffic by Nick Sweeney
The baby was calm by the time Svitlana had finished ironing Yuri’s shirts. She marvelled at the silence, until the music started up in the apartment downstairs. The baby resumed his wailing to accompany it.
The music was part of her neighbours the Obuchovskis’ stepping-out ritual, and it seemed to Svitlana as if it went on for hours. They drank, thumped feet to the beat as they showered and dressed, shouted down their phones to make arrangements. Svitlana could almost see that slut Obuchovska with her back-combed bird’s nest, exaggerating her eyes with mascara in the mirror. They would go out into Kiev, even as it flooded with demonstrators and burned, its streets blocked off by police. They’d drink more, drink heavier, listen to louder music, thump those feet harder, dance. They’d come in at four, put even more music on, shout at each other, throw things, call more friends, or they’d make love loudly, growling and mewing. Svitlana’s baby would wake again, and cry again.
That was how it started, Svitlana thought. She remembered doing the hair, listening to the music, at home, in the bars, in the clubs, doing the mewing and growling; that was the part that had produced the baby, of course. No more fancy hairdos for her – no point – and the jewellery, the leather jacket, the boots, nobody looked at them or cared about them when all she did was wear them up and down the road to the shops with the baby. The luscious mommies could dress themselves up all they liked, go to the gym with the crèche in it, drink the cappuccinos, kid themselves all they liked that they were living the life, but they weren’t; they were just women who tended to babies, like her.
And they didn’t fool her. They wanted to get rid of their babies. Just as she did.
Svitlana wasn’t thinking of murder. She was incapable of murdering anybody, let alone her own child. No, there was a much better solution. It was elegant, not pretty. It could never be pretty when you were thinking of selling your baby to traffickers, but it wasn’t brutal, and it was elegant because everybody ended up happy: she and Yuri would have their freedom back – her, mostly – and be in funds again; the traffickers would be happy with the money they made, and, of course, the western couple who bought the baby would have their little dream come true to hug in their arms and dandle on their knees, and show off to their friends and families. And, most importantly, the baby would grow up happy in Germany, Britain, America, even, would be educated, drive a Cadillac, perhaps be president one day.
Ukraine was imploding in the face of threats by outsiders, and by its own nationalists, gaping with shortages, hospitals no good, services gone to ruin, political life reduced to slogans shouted by stupid men with guns. It had been a mistake to have a baby in such times – she was twenty two, for heaven’s sake, and Yuri was twenty four. She was too young to be closeted away all day with nothing to do, and nowhere to walk the walk and talk the talk and wear the clothes and live the life.
And Yuri still played his football every Friday evening, still did his weightlifting, went for his swims at the pool. He still saw his friends. Okay, he didn’t go out for the late-night drinking marathons anymore, and he didn’t blow all his pay on the ridiculous stuff that attracted some men, stunted their growth and kept them as boys. In fact, he gave most of it to her. He was a good man; straight in his thinking, and he was courageous, unafraid of standing up for himself, and for her. He was a bore, though. Svitlana wished she could appreciate him as a friend – she wished her father had been like Yuri, wished her lazy brother was like him. She wished she hadn’t married him, wished she hadn’t had the baby with him.
“This is no place to bring up a child,” she reminded Yuri whenever she could. “We must change things.”
They could both speak decent English, but it was too ambitious to try to go to Britain or the States. Svitlana also had some Romanian from her four years as a dogsbody at a Moldovan export firm based in Kiev until the crisis. It was not ordinarily a useful language, but Svitlana knew that in Bucharest there was plenty of work in hospitality and catering for her, and plenty for Yuri on the building, and the Romanians were not too strict about foreign workers. It was cheap to live there, and they could save their money, and put it towards heading further west, or coming back to Kiev when the trouble was over. Wasn’t it a plan?
Yuri often seemed as if he wasn’t listening. “What about the baby?” he said. He nodded over to him, sleeping, oblivious.
“We’re too young for a baby. We are, really.” Svitlana exhausted her list of unsuitable relatives with whom they could leave him, knew from their repetitions of this conversation that Yuri had misgivings about all of them. As ever, she let his own responses fix the drawbacks in his mind. She seemed to be joking when she conjured up untrustworthy Gypsy women who’d pretend to look after him in Bucharest. “And then sell him to a rich western couple,” she said. And she seemed to be joking again when she said, “I mean, we could do that.”
Yuri wasn’t just a good man. He was clever, too. He saw what Svitlana was getting at.
“And everybody would be happy,” Svitlana joked.
“Everybody.” Yuri seemed to be smiling. “But poor baby would miss his mama.” Svitlana sketched out a scenario of the baby’s life in America; the college, the Cadillac, the run for the White House, made Yuri laugh lightly. “You need to know the right people,” he warned her. “And they’re hard to find.”
“But not impossible.” Svitlana willed Yuri to make a connection to what she was thinking, but he just gazed at the baby. Finally, she had to prompt him with the words, “Didn’t you meet one of them, once? At the gym?”
“Oh yes. We were talking about our jobs, and he said to me, ‘And what do you do, then?’ And I said, ‘Pipe fitting. How about you?’ and he said, ‘I’m a baby trafficker.’”
She tried to join Yuri in a smile – he was turning it into a footnote to their evening, as if he’d simply told her a joke, or a rambling story about babushkas and drunks. But she hadn’t imagined it, had she, the chance meeting in a locker room, and Yuri’s reading of the man’s expression when talk had turned to work, maybe his hearing a chance remark into the phone as the man dressed, the sight of a jail tattoo that revealed his role to those who knew, or the sight of his car keys, Yuri’s seeing a gleaming villain’s choice BMW purring off into the night. Had she only imagined that?
And why had he even mentioned it?
The baby cried. Yuri picked him up, quieted him. The Obuchovskis’ music started up downstairs.
Svitlana loved her country – of course she did – but it was strangling itself with its strife. The school across the road had been closed all day, but nobody had been told, parents having angry conversations on phones, kids running wild in the street, up and down in the lifts, on the stairs, gathering in the playground down by the block with its broken, ugly sculptures. Despite their unexpected freedom, the schoolchildren were bored, and malevolent. Svitlana didn’t want her baby to grow up to be one of them, on this street, or on any other in Kiev.
There were rumours of two men carrying guns openly at the end of the street. Thugs, anarchists, robbers, nationalists, separatists, police? She didn’t know, and then next thing Svitlana heard that the men had gone into the grubby shop on the corner, picked up a packet of kitchen roll, had no change to pay for it – not no money, just no change – and pulled a gun on the shopkeeper when he declared that he in turn had no change, and wouldn’t let them have it. So they’d taken their prize like they were James Bond, darting against walls, behind cars, on an urgent mission to wipe up spills.
And the power off the night before for eight hours, like in some Third World hellhole, all the stuff warm in the fridge. And Yuri’s bus delayed by queues at fuel stations, people filling their cars full of panic-bought supplies.
She loved her country, yes, but it really was time to leave. And then, in a year or two, when it had argued itself hoarse, and when the mouthiest men had been shot by other idiots with guns, and all the blood wiped up with kitchen roll, when sense reigned – a woman in power again, maybe – she and Yuri could come back.
“We can have another baby,” she urged him. “Later, when we’re older. And we’ll have more money, and can have a child minder, and can send him to a private school, a proper school, not like that… mental ward across the road. We can have two, a boy and a girl, of course.” She’d laughed loudly, and rather stupidly. It wasn’t funny. She was just trying to draw Yuri into the feeling she had, get him to share a breath of the air she was imagining.
“Bucharest?” Yuri was right to scoff. Both of them had been brought up on the idea that anybody with ambition would go to the west. Ten years before, had anybody suggested they go to a place like Bucharest, they would have been laughed out of the room. But nobody believed in that dream of the west anymore, and that could have been good, but instead they believed in homelands, with a savage nationalism or an equally savage separatism.
“For a while. A chance to take a breather. Away from all this trouble here.” They’d had all their troubles, the Romanians, shot their dictators, settled into being a shambolic democracy, but at least it had peace. And there was money there, not millions – unless you counted them in Romanian lei – and there was work, and stability, and nobody was shooting guns. “Yuri, it’s dangerous here, it’s… deadly.”
She didn’t only mean the men with the guns, the stone throwers, the wreck of the town centre, and of the economy; the picture she saw of herself up in her tower, staring out the window, the Obuchovskis and their music downstairs, the baby crying – that was just as deadly to a girl of twenty two.
“There’s… prosperity there,” she said. “A girl I know went there said the city centre shops are all western – I mean no Romanian writing on them at all, all the adverts, the billboards, all in English. Crazy, eh? But, you know, people are happy when they’re prosperous, Yuri.” And of course she knew that was nonsense, but she was enthused now, anxious not to let the idea of this possible future slip out of his view.
She reached for her laptop, for the page she’d bookmarked, a forum of Ukrainians’ comments about places to rent, and about the work there, and how its word-of-mouth system functioned, with pointers to where to go, even who to seek out… She clicked and clicked, saw that the connection was down, looked up, saw a corner of the city dark. She snapped the thing shut, went back to babbling, repeated all the buzzwords, saw Yuri nodding, as if memorising them, his smile on, his phone in his hand.
The man looked at the baby. The baby smiled. The man took a deep breath, caught a whiff of baby; an antiseptic smell, not entirely pleasant, though it seemed neither to please nor displease him. He said, “Good,” and turned to Svitlana.
She and the man studied each other. He was mid-thirties, she thought, handsome in a cruel way – remote, she thought, a man whose thoughts nobody could ever know. Kazak in his eyes – from way back, maybe – Tatar? He wore unremarkable clothes, she saw, but the accessories were the real thing, the watch – Rolex? No, the other one that went for a king’s ransom – the rope of gold necklace she could see just under his open shirt collar, the sunglasses in his top pocket. He was the real deal, for sure. You couldn’t always tell; the city was full of liars and blaggers scammers and braggers and, in fact, people who just said the first thing that came into their crazy heads. But there was something in this man’s eyes that warned of the lengths to which he would go to make a living.
His eyes were dispassionate, almost disinterested, as they rested on her face, then moved down her body briefly. Svitlana felt herself just a little flattered, found herself sticking her chest out.
“How much are you asking?” the man said.
Svitlana looked at Yuri. He mouthed the sum they’d agreed on. She named it. The man seemed to be thinking about it. Svitlana wasn’t fooled by that, was sure he’d already decided what he’d pay. The man said, “I will consult,” took his phone out and walked into the hall with it, and out the door onto the communal landing.
“You didn’t finalise it with him,” Svitlana whispered to Yuri. She kept her eye on the door. “I thought you’d… discussed it. I thought you’d made an agreement.”
Yuri said, “These people keep you in a permanent state of negotiation, right till the last minute. That’s how it works.”
Svitlana wanted to ask more questions, but it was plain that nobody would be able to answer them except the man outside the flat. “That’s how it works, then,” she agreed. She felt worldly and businesslike when she said the words. “It’s a buyers’ market.”
“A buyers’ market, Yuri. That’s when… when the buyers call all the shots.”
“Oh.” Yuri’s expression was half-frown, and half-grin, as if he was holding himself back from a patronising remark. “No, Svitlana,” he said, choosing a neutral tone that was almost kindly. “It’s not. Neither buyers nor sellers call the shots. The market always belongs to the men in the middle.” He pointed towards the door. “The men who do the things the buyers and sellers don’t have the nerve to do. They call the shots.”
“Good news.” Their man with the nerve was back in their living room, hands in his pockets, something like a smile on his face. He said to Svitlana, “I am authorised to pay you a little more than your asking price.” Without ceremony, he pulled a wad of notes out of his pocket, and handed it over to Svitlana. “Count it,” he commanded her.
Dumbfounded, and barely able to contain the mad flush of her good feeling, Svitlana could only look at the money in her hand. She came to her senses and handed it to Yuri, said, “Yuri, please, you count it. I will only make a mistake.” She giggled, stupidly, invited the men to do so too, if they wanted to. They didn’t. “But what am I thinking of…” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Yuri flicking methodically through the notes. “Please, you must have a drink with us, to… to celebrate. We have some vodka.”
“No thank you.” The man patted his pocket, made his car keys chink. “Not while working.”
She remembered suggesting to Yuri that he take the man out for a drink, a week back, ten days, once he’d positively identified the fellow as a trafficker. And Yuri saying, “These people only drink with their friends. It’s their rule.” She looked at Yuri, fearful that he’d detected her faux pas, and the look in his eyes told him that he had, but that he forgave her.
“Of course,” she said coldly, as if her invitation to drink had been a mere test of the man who was to drive her baby away, conveying the precious cargo to a safe home, to education, the presidency. She invited him into another staccato laugh. “Completely correct, and… right.”
“All good?” the man asked Yuri.
“All good,” Yuri replied. He came and put his arm briefly around Svitlana, squeezed her shoulder, passed on, shook the man’s hand.
“So, expect a call.”
“Excuse me?” Svitlana spread fingers towards the cot and its tiny occupant, the pile of blankets, the bulging bags full of baby clothes, nappies and soft toys. She thought she’d make the man laugh when she said, “Don’t forget him.”
The man didn’t get near a laugh. He said, “I’m not the baby man. I’m the money man.”
Svitlana had to strain to keep her eyes calm, her expression composed. They needed every last penny of the fee to start their life in Bucharest, of course, but she’d thought it wouldn’t have done any harm to have one big night out in Kiev – especially now that the fee had increased. She’d wanted to go through the Obuchovskis’ stepping-out ritual; the hair, the lipstick, the perfume, the nails, the clothes, the thump of music, for the pleasure of it, the anticipation. And, while she was at it, to give her neighbours a taste of their own medicine. It had been months since she’d been for a night out.
And, she had to face it, she’d made her goodbyes to the baby; in her mind, he was gone. Having him and the money in the flat together was somehow not right, just not… correct. She said only, “But…”
Both Yuri and the man waited politely for a few seconds. Svitlana realised that nothing she said was going to change the plan, and that she’d have to save the stepping-out ritual for another time. The man turned to go.
Another thought occurred to Svitlana. “You don’t want to… examine him?” she said. She couldn’t put it into words, but surely it wasn’t beyond the bounds of belief that people tried to fool traffickers by offloading on them babies who had… problems, a lack of limbs, of fingers, of brain, a strawberry birthmark shaped like a horse’s head.
“The baby? The trafficker seemed surprised, then understood, nodded, said, “I’ve seen him. Your husband told me all about him, and he is a man of his word, I am sure.”
“Of course,” Yuri said, and Svitlana echoed him, as did the trafficker.
“I’m not… qualified. I’m the money man. You got your money, yes?” It was a jovial question, and the man accompanied it with a jovial face, but still waited for Svitlana to answer. “So. That’s how it works. You’ll meet the baby man in the next few days, and then your troubles will be over. The great migration.” He wiggled his fingers. “Fly away, birds.”
Yuri was weighed down with the bags, but strong, uncomplaining. Svitlana was ahead. It had started out as a warm evening, but the night would be cold, and she was glad Yuri had insisted she bring her leather jacket to complement the hair, the nails, the eyelashes, the stepping out heels.
She giggled. It was strange to be taking the baby out in the dark. She was a little sad. In the two days since the money man had visited, Svitlana had sensed the pull of bonds she’d never dreamed existed between herself and the baby. He was a lovely little man. But the great thing was that all babies were lovely little people. And another great thing was that, some time in the future – five years, maybe, in Romania, maybe, in Britain, maybe, and why not? – she’d have another lovely little man, and a lovely little woman, too, and when that happened, she’d do things properly, build them a good life.
She had started off all wrong with the baby; it wasn’t his fault that he was a little accident in a country on the verge of eating itself up with bitterness and carnage, but at least she’d been able to give him a new start, the start he’d deserved all along. “Mister President,” she whispered in his ear as she lifted him out of his carriage.
She’d seen the car turn into the street, the dark green SUV they were expecting. From the passenger side, a track-suited young man – he looked even younger than Svitlana – jumped out.
“The baby man.” Svitlana had rehearsed the greeting, and the comic face she put on with it, but neither had the heart-lightening effect she’d envisaged, either on her or the baby man.
He narrowed his eyes, made a scowl that verged on the friendly, did an exaggerated double-take, moving his shoulders, and said, “You what?” He pulled the rear doors open. The seats had been put down to clear a space for everything, Svitlana saw. She was pleased, and pleased too to be seeing the last of those imperfect little home-made clothes in pastel colours, those nappies, those awful awful toys everybody had bought the baby.
The baby seemed a little alarmed, sensed something going on. He wriggled. He opened his mouth to make an experimental wail. Yuri leaned over, shushed him, made noises that diverted him. “Give me him,” he said. “Time to say goodbye.”
Svitlana handed him over. Yuri turned around, cooed urgently at him. Now that Svitlana had let go of him, she was anxious. She took a look round at the baby man.
The gel in the baby man’s short, spiky hair gleamed, and he had a tattoo on his neck, and though those were part of a common enough style, it struck Svitlana that she’d never seen such a man taking care of a baby; he didn’t look very… qualified to be a baby man. He had a missing front tooth, made it part of a terrible grin. He shoved Svitlana in the chest, and sat her down on the rear part of the car. He stuck a syringe quickly into her neck and pressed the plunger until it was all the way in.
“Comfortable?” the baby man said.
Svitlana knew that there were questions she wanted to ask, but she didn’t know what they were. It was easier to nod. The young man lifted her legs gently, and pulled a restraint for a wheelchair out and fixed it around her ankles. He shut the door, and walked round to the passenger side. With a purr of the engine, the car had gone, had merged into the traffic.
Yuri thought the baby was no longer puzzled. He gurgled, and wiggled his fingers. Yuri said, “Come on, little man. Let’s buy us an ice cream. And then we’ll have to find you a new mama.”
Nick Sweeney’s Laikonik Express was published by Unthank Books in 2011 and is available in paperback and for Kindle and iDevices.
Nick Sweeney also has a story, ‘Nine Hundred and Ninety Something’ in Unthology 2, also available in paperback and for Kindle.
Traffic by Nick Sweeney
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