It will be a miracle if we ever make it to Sheffield, thinks Andriy. This old single-decker bus must be fifty years old at least, with prehistoric transmission, only four gears plus reverse, on a long angled gear-stick, like the old Volgas. The engine drones like a swarm of bees, and when it picks up speed-the maximum is forty Ks per hour-the whole body shakes and vibrates. Even in Ukraine, to undertake a long journey in such a vehicle, you would call in the priest and ask for a blessing or two.
There is something else he notices-the smell from the engine. It is actually quite a pleasant smell. It reminds him-this seems strange-of the little restaurant on the corner of Rebetov Street. Fried potatoes. Irina sits up and sniffs the air.
“Fish and chip?” she says.
“Nearly,” says Rock. “Actually, it runs on used chip fat-I converted it missen. Burns up t’excess by-products of consumerism. Not strictly legal, because you don’t pay tax on it. But, as Jimmy Binbag said, the chips of wrath are wiser than the vinegar of instruction.”
She is sitting next to him at the front, gripping onto the edges of the double seat. Andriy catches her eye.
“Are all Angliski drivers crazy?” she whispers in Ukrainian.
“Seems so,” he whispers back. “At least this one is not speed maniac.”
“So where are you two from, then?” Rock relaxes into a steady thirty Ks per hour, resting his forearms on the wheel and rolling a cigarette at the same time.
“Ukraine. You know it?”
“Aye.” He pauses to lick the paper. “We had some Ukrainians up in Barnsley. Miners.”
“My father was miner,” says Andriy.
“Snap,” says Rock. “Mine too. Before he died.”
“He died in accident?”
“Neh. Pneumoconiosis. Black lung.”
“Mine died in accident. Roof falling down.”
“Fuckin’ roof fall. That’s tragic. Sorry, pal.”
“You still miner?” asks Andriy.
“Neh. They shut all t’ pits round us. Anyroad, me dad said I were too soft. Said I should get educated, instead. What use is educated in Barnsley, I said. Anyroad, I went to college and did mechanical engineering. But then I thought to missen, in’t engineering part of t’ problem? So I decided to do this, instead.”
Still resting his forearms on the wheel, he strikes a match and lights the cigarette. Puffs of sweetish smoke billow through the bus. “You still a miner?”
“I was. Before Father’s accident. Now I cannot go back down. I cannot work underground. So I have no work. I come in England for picking strawberry.”
“Aye, it’s all crap. As Jimmy Binbag said, when t’ toilet of capitalism is flushed, all t’crap rains down on them below.”
He takes another deep puff and holds the smoke in his lungs. Then he passes the cigarette to Andriy. Andriy shakes his head.
“My father said, when miner goes underground, death may visit. When miner smokes, death is invited.”
“Jesus! I bet that put you off! Anyroad, I thought they’d shut all t’ mines in Ukraine.”
“Many was shut. Then we open them again.”
“You opened t’ mines?”
“Miners did it. With our hands.”
“Weren’t that a bit dangerous?”
“Of course. Also illegal. Working in seam one metre tall. Thirty-seven degrees of heat. One hundred per cent of humidity. No ventilatsya. No safety vikhod. No power tool. Only with pick in our hand we go back underground to cut coal. Then we sell it for money. You know, in this time there is no other work. We have to live.”
The swarm of bees drones on, soothing and purposeful. A few drops of rain spatter against the windscreen. Irina sighs and stirs, her head heavy on his left shoulder. She is asleep. She hasn’t heard anything. One day, he will tell her the whole story: the bright spring morning; the hole in the ground, gaping like a wound, where they lowered themselves into the earth; the stifling darkness that swallowed them up. Those first tremors. Then the long roar of the explosion. The shaking. The tumbling boulders from the roof. The voices shouting, screaming. Then the silence. Black dust. He moves his arm up and enfolds her, pulling her head onto his chest. Her hair flows over him like streamers of dark silk.
Behind the front seats, a curtain made out of an old sheet has been strung across the bus. It is only partly drawn and Andriy can see into the back, where all the seats have been taken out apart from four, which are arranged around a square makeshift table. In one corner is a low cupboard with a gas ring on top, and some cardboard boxes in which clothes, food and pans are jumbled together. The rest of the floor space is taken up by a double mattress, with some grey-brown tousled bedding.
“You convert this bus youself?”
“Aye. It weren’t hard.”
“I would like to do something like this. Get old bus. Convert. Travel round world.”
Would Irina come with him, he wonders, on a trip like this? And Dog? On the mattress in the back of the bus, Dog is snoring and farting in his usual vigorous way and Rock’s dog, curled up beside him, is sniffing and sighing more delicately.
“I’m not sure Alice would make it round t’ world.”
“Alice is your girlfriend?”
“Neh, Alice is the bus. My girlfriend’s called Thunder.”
Hm. Interesting name for woman. Quite sexy.
“She is also miner?”
“Neh. They don’t have women miners over here. Mind you, if they did, she’d be ace.”
“Rock, if you not miner or engineer, what work you do?”
“Me?” Rock takes another long drag on his cigarette and adjusts the little round glasses that have slipped over to one side. “I suppose you could say I’m a warrior, like.”
“Warrior like? This is your job?”
“Neh, not a job. More like a calling. Aye, an earth warrior. Defending t’ earth from t’ vile clutches of corporate greed.” He starts to giggle.
“Hm. This is original.”
“Aye, you see there’s this ancient stone circle up in t’ Peaks. Three thousand year old. And some greedy bastard wants to open up a quarry right beside it. So us warriors-we’ve made a camp there, up in t’ trees. They can’t blast the quarry without cutting t’ trees down. And now they can’t cut t’ trees down, because of us”-he giggles again-“defending our ancient British heritage from tentacles of globalisation, in Jimmy’s immortal words.”
This Jimmy sounds an interesting type.
“But why for they make quarry in such historic place?”
“Greed, man. Sheer greed. All for export. Building boom in America. Turn muck into brass. Jimmy calls ‘em t’ enemy within.”
He has become quite agitated, staring all around him with anxious eyes.
“In Ukraine was same,” says Andriy soothingly. “Everything was sold. Now is nothing left.”
“Was it Ukraine where they had all them protests? Summat about t’ election? Orange banners an’ all that?” His voice has become calm again, almost dreamy.
“That also was greed. Few businessmen have got all public asset into their hand. Now they will sell to West.”
“Andriy, you are talking complete rubbish!”
She sits bolt upright, rubbing her eyes.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“How can I sleep when you talk such rubbish?”
“Is not rubbish, Irina. You know nothing about our lives in the East.”
They have slipped into Ukrainian, and raised their voices. Rock watches them with a benign smile on his face, leaning low over the steering wheel. The bus is going incredibly slowly now, barely ten Ks per hour.
“I know what is good for Ukraine, Andriy”-she stabs her finger at him-“and it is not to be dominated by Russia.”
What’s got into her? OK, so now it is time for re-education to begin.
“Is not domination, is economic integration, Irina. Integrated production, integrated market.” He speaks slowly and clearly. Can she, a young girl with a head full of feminine things, be capable of understanding such ideas? “Ukrainian economy and Russian economy was one. Without Russia, Ukrainian industry collapsed.”
“Andriy, Russia has been robbing Ukraine under the Tsars, under communism, now under economic integration. It is just a different name for the same thing. At least with Yuschenko we can build our own independent economy.”
Her voice has taken on an irritating preachy note which is not at all attractive in a woman. She should stick to womanly topics, not meddle her pretty nose in politics.
“Irina, the main people who have been robbing Ukraine are our fellow Ukrainians. Kravchuk, Kuchma, your Timoshenko-all of them billionaires. You know, when they closed coal mines in Donbas, there was European money to help miners, for new industries to replace old. What happened? All money went into pockets of officials. New Ukrainian officials, not Russian. Mobilfon-men. Mines were sold, stripped of machinery, closed. No new industries replaced them. In desperation, miners went underground themselves to dig for coal. Can you imagine in what conditions? Can you imagine this for one moment, Irina?”
“There’s no need to shout.”
“I’m sorry.” She is right. Shouting will not bring him back. “In one of these mines my father died.”
“Oh, Andriy!” She puts her hands up to her mouth. “Oh, why didn’t you tell me before? I’m very sorry. I’m so very sorry.”
Tears brim up into her eyes, and there’s such a look of pain on her face that he has to take her in his arms again to comfort her. He will have to go more softly with re-education next time.
“It’s not your fault, Irina. Please don’t cry. You didn’t kill him with your own hands.”
She sighs. She buries her face in him. He strokes the dark bird’s-wing of her hair that settles against his chest.
Wait a minute-what’s happening now? The bus seems to have slowed almost to a halt and is drifting gently across the road. Rock is slumped forward over the wheel, sighing softly and still giggling a little. Andriy leans over, grabs the wheel, and tries to guide the bus back on course, giving Rock a hard dig with his elbow at the same time. Rock shakes his head, blinks, smiles, resettles the glasses which have almost slipped off his nose, then takes control of the wheel again.
“No stress, our lad. Time for a little kip.”
At the next service station he pulls off the road, parks the bus, drapes himself over the steering wheel, and in a few minutes he is fast asleep. Irina wanders off to find the washroom. Andriy sits in the bus, listening to the snoring sounds of Rock and the dogs, and feeling impatience build up in him like steam in a cylinder. Will they ever get to Sheffield?
“What’s the matter with him?” whispers Irina, climbing up into the seat beside him, looking bright-faced and relaxed.
“Tired from driving. You know, this old bus. No power steering.”
He has a pretty good idea about the cigarette, but he doesn’t want to alarm her.
Half an hour or so later Rock wakes up, scratches his head, shakes himself all over like a dog and immediately goes off in search of something to eat. As he steps down out of the bus Andriy notices for the first time how small he is-he looks like a curly-haired elf in his baggy earthy clothes as he skips off towards the service area. He returns a few minutes later with a bottle of water, an orange, a loaf of sliced bread and four bars of chocolate. Andriy reaches in his pocket for some money, but Rock shakes his head.
“No stress. I liberated them.”
He peels the orange methodically, sharing out the segments one at a time between the three of them. Then he breaks up the chocolate bars and does the same. Then he carefully counts out the slices of the loaf. He seems to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Behind the little round glasses, his eyes have gone pink.
“I can drive if you like it,” says Andriy.
“No stress,” says Rock.
Half an hour later, when they have finished eating, he fills up the tank from a drum in the luggage box, hands Andriy the keys to the bus and crawls into the back.
“Move over, Maryjane,” he says, and stretches out between the dogs. Soon, the three of them are snoring in chorus with the drone of the engine. In the front passenger seat Irina seems to have drifted off to sleep too.
Sitting behind the wheel, Andriy is doing his best to concentrate on the road. Well, for one thing, he was right about the steering-this old bus is even worse than the Land Rover. The gear movement is fiendish, too. Fortunately, once they are on the road, there isn’t much steering or gear-changing to do, nothing much to do, in fact, but to sit there and watch the kilometres slip slowly by.
The promised rain has not materialised, and the sky is still heavy and hot. It is early evening now, and the traffic has built up a bit. Not that it makes any difference to him-theirs is by far the slowest vehicle on the road. It is surprising, he thinks, that Sheffield doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Surely they would have seen a sign for it by now. On their left is a sign for Leeds. Is that not somewhere in the north? Then a sign to York. Well, at least they are in the right county. But isn’t Sheffield supposed to be in South Yorkshire? Where has it disappeared to?
Irina wakes up, and reaches over to touch his hand.
“Are we nearly there now?”
“I think so.”
“Tell me something else about this Sheffield.”
“Well, you know, Sheffield is the first city in England to be declared a socialist republic, and the ruler, this Vloonki, is known throughout the world for his progressive policies.”
“What are these progressive policies?” she asks, a note of suspicion in her voice. “Will I like them?”
“You will like the bougainvillea for sure.”
He leans across and kisses her, steadying the bus with his right knee.
Although Andriy is very handsome and manly, there are times when I wish he was not quite so primitive. How have I let myself fall in love with a man who is riddled with Soviet-era ideas? I hope that here in the West he will be able to shed some of his outdated misconceptions, but I wonder about this Sheffield. Will it turn out to be some kind of communist-style workers’ paradise like Yalta or Sochi, with sanatoria and communal mudbaths everywhere? We will see.
Rock did not wake up for several hours. When he did, he was amazed to see how far we had come.
“You should’ve turned off on the AS/. We’ve come way too far north. We’ll have to turn around and go back again.”
“You did not say anything about this,” said Andriy rather grumpily. That is one of his bad points, I have noticed. He is inclined to grumpiness. I suppose he is desperate to get to this Sheffield.
Rock looked vague and apologetic. “It was that skunk,” he muttered, staring into the back of the van, though I really don’t see how Dog can be held responsible.
Anyway, the bus was turned around and off we went in the opposite direction, with Rock at the wheel once more. The light had faded from the sky. Occasionally a car or lorry thundered down the southbound carriageway, headlights blazing into the dusk. We must have been driving for an hour or so, nosing our way southwards, Rock resting both hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead, without saying anything. The traffic on the road had thinned out. Once or twice a vehicle overtook us, its tail-lights dwindling in the darkness until there were two red pinpricks, then nothing.
Then suddenly he pulled off the road into a lay-by and announced, “I don’t think we’re gonna make it tonight, lads. Let’s pull over for a kip and carry on in t’ morning.”
Andriy didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking. I could see the thundery look on his face.
“You two can have t’ bed-I’ll sleep on t’ bench. Maryjane! Here!” Maryjane bounded into the front, and Dog followed. Rock pulled two of the seats together end to end. He took off his T-shirt and jeans, threw them into a box with the crockery, and eased his pale little body into a khaki-coloured sleeping bag like a larva crawling into its cocoon.
Andriy stepped outside and helped me down from the bus. We were in a lay-by, set back from the road behind a hedge. There was another caravan there, too, all shuttered up, with a sign saying TEAS. SNACKS. The night was still warm and humid, the sky overcast, with no stars. I breathed deeply, filling my lungs, stretching my limbs and feeling them loosen. We had been sitting for hours. I wandered behind a bush to water the grass and I heard Andriy doing the same a little distance away, stumbling in the darkness, then the soft hiss of his pee seeping into the ground.
When he came back in the dark, he took me in his arms and pressed me up against the side of the bus. I could feel him, all hard, and his breath hot and urgent on my neck. I don’t know why I started trembling. Then he held me close, until my body went still against his.
“Irina, we are two halves of one country.” His voice was low and passionate. “We must learn to love each other.”
No one has ever said anything so wonderful to me before.
He kissed my hair, then my lips. I felt spurts of fire running through my body, and that melting feeling when you almost can’t say no any more. But somehow I did say no. Because when it’s the night, it has to be perfect-not on that disgusting mattress where Dog and Maryjane had been lying licking their parts. Not standing up by the roadside like a prostitute in a doorway. You can’t imagine Natasha and Pierre consummating their love up against the side of a bus, can you?
“Not now, Andriy,” I said. “Not here. Not like this.”
Then he said something quite bad-tempered, then he apologised for being bad-tempered, and I apologised for what I’d said, and he said he was going for a walk and I said I’d go with him but he said no, he wanted to go by himself. I stood at the side of the bus, waiting for him to come back, and wondering what I should say to make him not be angry with me. Should I tell him that I loved him?
When at last we did crawl onto the mattress the bedding was grey and greasy, with a sweaty doggy smell. I couldn’t take my clothes off. Andriy thought it was out of modesty-he’s such a gentleman-but it was really because I didn’t want to feel those limp clammy sheets against my skin. He held me in his arms all night, my head tucked in between his chin and his shoulder. He didn’t even notice the sheets.
In the morning, I woke to find my hands and feet were covered in red lumps. Andriy’s were too. Rock was already awake, squatting by the gas stove boiling some water, wearing nothing but his underpants, which were grey and loose like the loincloth of an Old Testament prophet.
“Ready for a cuppa?” he said.
He was smoking a thin hand-rolled cigarette, which hung on his lower lip as he talked and puffed simultaneously. His body was stringy and very pale, with no manly musculature, but a sprinkling of ginger freckles and fleabites. I wished he would put some clothes on.
For breakfast we ate the remains of yesterday’s bread and some wizened apples that were lurking in one of the boxes. Rock poured out the hot, weak tea, which he sweetened with honey from ajar. Andriy leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You are as sweet as honey.”
A brown curl flopped down in the middle of his forehead as he said it, and for some reason I can’t explain, I felt a shining bubble of love swelling up inside me, not just for Andriy, but also for Rock, for Dog and Maryjane, for the smelly old bus, even for the fleabites and the loincloth underpants, and for the whole fresh lovely morning.
It was still very early. Outside, the landscape was softened by a haze that lingered over the flat empty fields, clinging to the outlines of trees and bushes. The birds had already started to rouse themselves, chirping away busily. Dog and Maryjane were chasing around out there, tumbling and playing. Rock whistled, and they came running, their eyes bright, their tongues hanging out. They settled themselves on the bed, and we sat in front. Then Rock revved the engine up, tearing through the misty silence, and we were off.
Some time last night they must have turned westwards off the Great North Road. The road they are on now is smaller, winding through a featureless agricultural landscape of large fields planted with unfamiliar crops and little settlements of redbrick houses. But what amazes Andriy is that there is already so much traffic on the road, cars, vans, lorries, people racing to get to work. A large black four-by-four cruises by. It looks like…No, surely there are dozens of such vehicles on the roads. He glances at Irina. She is sitting in the middle again, her left hand warm beneath his right hand. Her eyes are closed. She didn’t notice.
A minibus overtakes them on a long straight stretch, and he counts some dozen men squashed together on the benches, swarthy dark-haired men with brooding early-morning faces, some of them smoking cigarettes, gliding past them into the mist.
“Who are these men?” he asks Rock.
Rock shrugs. “Immigrant workers. Fragments of globalised labour, Jimmy Binbag called them.”
“Whole country’s run by immigrants now. They do all t’ crap jobs.”
“Aye, like you,” says Rock. “Did you hear about that crash in Kent? Minivan full of strawberry-pickers. Six killed.”
“In Kent?” Irina sits up sharply, her eyes very wide.
“Poor exploited bastards. Minions of faceless global corporations. Not me. I’ve had enough of all that. Now I’ve turned warrior.” He pushes back the glasses that have slipped down his nose. “If only me dad could see me now. He said I were too soft for t’ pit.”
“But you are defending stones and not people,” says Andriy. “Why?”
“Coal, stone, earth-it’s all our heritage, in’t it?”
“What is mean eritij?”
“It’s what you get from your mum and dad. Gifts passed on through t’ generations.”
“Like underpants,” whispers Irina in Ukrainian.
If I were a warrior, thinks Andriy, I would not be defending some stupid old stones, but the flesh and blood of living people. In Donbas, too, the mobilfonmen have taken over, and people have become disposable, their precious lives thrown away through avoidable accidents and preventable disease, their misery blunted by vodka. This is the future his country has prepared for him-to be expendable. No, he will not accept it.
“What are you thinking?” asks Irina softly. “I’m thinking how precious you are, Ukrainian girl.” The words feel strangely solid in his mouth, like lumps of un-dissolved sugar. He isn’t used to saying things like this to a woman.
They are still going westwards. They pass through an ugly traffic-clogged town, out onto a larger highway, then take a narrow road through the fields, which are green and undulating but without the luminous beauty of the Kent countryside.
“All round here used to be pits,” says Rock. “In t’ strike, they blocked all t’ roads to stop Yorkshire pickets coming into Notts. Scabby Notts, they called it. It were a battleground. Me dad were arrested at Hucknall. That’s all history now.” He sighs. “No binbags in t’ dustbin of history, as Jimmy used to say.”
“Motorway up ahead,” says Rock. “Once we’re over, we’ll soon be home.”
Beyond the fields, some kilometres ahead, they catch glimpses of a huge road carved through the landscape, bigger even than the Great North Road, the lines of cars and lorries moving slowly, as close as coloured beads on a thread.
After the motorway, the road becomes narrower, and starts to climb. The houses are no longer of brick but of grey stone, and the villages smaller and further apart. As they climb, they come into a different sort of countryside, wild and heathy, with dark crags, copses of silver birch and conifers, and sweeping wind-smoothed hills. The sky is heavy, with storm clouds resting on the horizon. Rock is driving in first most of the time, leaning forward over the wheel, because the road is so narrow that if a vehicle comes the other way, one of them will have to back up to let the other pass.
“I like this landscape,” says Irina. “It is how I imagined England. Like Wuthering Heights.”
“Peak District,” says Rock. “We’re nearly there.”
On a steep narrow road between two woods, Rock takes a left turn onto a rutted dirt track that leads into a grove of silver birches. At the bottom, among the trees, another bus is parked. As they drive closer, two dogs run out of the wood and race towards them, barking. Maryjane pricks up her ears and starts barking too, and Dog joins in. Then three people emerge, following the dogs. Andriy studies them curiously-are they men or women?
Andriy was rather annoyed when he realised this was our destination. I think he had believed we would soon arrive in Sheffield. Rock had promised vaguely that he would drop us off in Sheffield the next day. Or the day after. To be honest, I was in no great hurry to reach Sheffield and I was curious about this camp. Maybe there would be a tent or little romantic caravan perched up on a hillside where we could spend the night.
But there was just a jumble of old vehicles at the edge of a wood, some of them propped up on bricks, and the only tents were crude tarpaulins stretched low over bent saplings. Then I looked up and my eyes blinked, because up there among the leaves was a whole spider’s web of blue rope, stretching from tree to tree like walkways in the sky, and canvas shelters perched up in the branches.
Rock jumped down and ran towards three people-they must be his fellow warriors-who were coming out to greet us. He embraced them, and introduced us. They were all wearing the same baggy earth-coloured clothes. In my opinion, they did not have the appearance you would expect of typical warriors. The smallest of them, whose name was Windhover, had a completely shaved head. The two taller ones had the same twisted rat’s-tail hair as Toby McKenzie, though one of them had it pulled back into a ponytail. They were called Heather and Birch. Everyone round here seems to have these stupid names. In my opinion, people should be named after people, not things. Otherwise, how can you tell whether they are male or female?
Heather is the name of a small purple flower which is very popular in Scotland and it is also a woman’s name, but this Warrior Heather seemed to be a man, at least if facial hair is anything to judge by. Despite his feminine name, he looked quite chunky and muscular, with a thick brown beard that looked as if it had been chopped with nail scissors-maybe this is a warrior fashion. I was less sure about the other two. Warrior Birch was quite tall but seemed somehow insubstantial, with a soft voice and an apologetic manner. Warrior Windhover was smaller but seemed more ferocious, despite having no hair of any kind apart from eyebrows, which were dark and curved expressively over luminous sea-blue eyes that stood out vividly in the pale bony head. As we followed them back to the camp, I noticed that Windhover and Birch were holding hands, so one of them must be a woman and one a man-but which was which?
To my surprise I spotted a washing line stretched between a caravan and a tree, just like at our strawberry field, and on it were hanging three pairs of warrior underpants, all greyish, shapeless and soggy.
And this amused me, because to be honest they did not seem like the kind of warriors who would bother much with laundry.
In a clearing among the trees a fire was smouldering, with a blackened kettle hanging over it and some logs set around it as seats. They invited us to sit, and Heather poured tea for us, which was greyish, smoky-tasting, and very weak, into cups that were also cracked, greyish and smoky-tasting. Then Birch ladled out some food from another pot, and that was greyish and smoky-tasting, too. It reminded me of the warrior underpants. If you boiled them and mashed them up a bit, they would look and taste like this.
They were talking among themselves. Rock was telling them about his visit to Cambridge, and they were asking various questions about laboratories, but I wasn’t really paying attention, because I had spotted something in the trees. Up there among the leaves was a caravan-a little round green-painted caravan, sitting in the crook of a massive beech tree, secured with blue rope, and a dangling rope ladder leading up to it.
“Look, Andriy,” I said.
Rock said, “Aye, that’s the visitors’ caravan. You can sleep up there if you want.”
Andriy gave me look that set my body glowing from inside, and my heart was jumping around all over the place, because I knew for sure that it would happen tonight.
The bald woman, Windhover, has the most entrancing eyebrows-the way they lift enquiringly, curve suggestively, tighten into a frown, or rise up in arcs of surprise or pleasure. A woman’s eyebrows can be a very seductive feature, thinks Andriy. She is talking to Birch, the eyebrows rising and falling in rhythm. Earlier, he saw them holding hands, and as they bent their heads together there was a little stolen kiss. To watch two women kissing is very arousing to a man. Were they doing it on purpose? He has never met a homosex woman before, but he has heard that they are incredibly sexy. Never until now has he had an opportunity to find out for himself. He has heard it said that their passionate nature, thwarted by the absence of a suitable man, turns in on itself and fixes on another of the same kind. But should a suitably manly man appear on the scene, they say, the intensity of the ardour that will be unleashed is beyond description. There’s no stopping these homo-sex women once they get going. A man has to keep a cool head or he could drown in the torrent of their passion. What’s more, they say, the homosex woman will be profoundly indebted to the man who liberates her from her sterile inward-looking fixation, and will show her gratitude in an astonishing display of sexual abandon, etc, which he can only begin to imagine.
This poor hairless woman with beautiful eyes and seductive eyebrows, the thought of her mysterious body pale beneath its layers of dun-coloured wrapping, hungry for the love of a good man, fills Andriy with intense…pity. And although of course he is completely committed to Irina and to their future together, still, he wonders whether Irina would object if as an act of kindness, he were to free this sad confined creature from the prison of her thwarted passion.
Oh, don’t be such an idiot, Andriy Palenko.
After our meal, Rock said, “Come on. Time to meet the Ladies.”
He led Andriy and me and a small pack of dogs back along the track, over the lane and up a steep path through the wood on the other side. As we climbed up I stopped to look back at their camp, but it was hardly visible, the green-painted caravan and faded green tarpaulins hidden among the foliage. You could just see a wisp of smoke fingering up through the leaves. Warrior Heather, who had accompanied us, pointed out an outcrop of rosy-coloured stone.
“That’s the sandstone they want to quarry,” he said. “Pretty colour, isn’t it? It was licensed in 1952. Now they want to open it up again. But we stopped them.”
“You stopped it? With your camp?” said Andriy.
“Yes. We made them take it to court. The court threw it out. We should be celebrating, but actually it’s rather sad, because it means the end of this camp. Some of us have lived here for five years. Isn’t that so, Rocky?” His voice and manner of speaking were very cultivated, unlike Rock’s low-class regional accent.
“Aye,” said Rock, who had gone on ahead, and now stopped and waited for us to catch up. “Bloody sad. I’ve been here three year. Now I’ll have to become a wage slave again. Earn. Spend. Buy crap. Surrender missen to t’ vile clutches of materialism.” He re-lit the cigarette that was dangling on his lip. “Some of them’ve gone up to Sheffield and Leeds already. Thunder, Torrent, Sparrowhawk, Midge. Working in t’ call centres. Sweatshops oft’ information age, Jimmy called them.”
“Don’t worry,” said Heather. “Nobody’11 let you near a call centre.”
At the top, we emerged on a wide stony plateau covered with heather.
Heather said, “Calluna vulgaris. Ericaceous. My favourite plant. Just smell it.”
I stooped to pick a sprig, but he stopped me.
“It’s protected. You’ve got to smell it in situ.”
I bent down and breathed deeply. It smelt of summer and honey. I could see why he’d chosen this flower for his warrior name. The purple flowers were so small that in the distance they just looked like a mauve haze drifting over the hilltops.
Following a sandy track, we came through a small copse of trees, ash, beech and silver birch, and found ourselves in a flat grassy clearing some fifteen metres wide. Set in the grass was a circle of nine stones.
In my opinion they were somewhat disappointing. I was expecting something bigger and more structured, like Stonehenge. These stones were crooked and uneven in size, like bad teeth. They did not look anything like ladies. No one who has seen the basilica of Santa Sofia or the Lavra monastery at sunset, or even certain English monuments, would find these stones of interest. But then Heather said, “Iron age. Three and a half thousand years old. Forerunners of our great cathedrals.”
I suppose that is quite interesting.
“You can listen to the spirits up here,” said Rock. He flung himself down on his back in the middle of the circle, his arms and legs outstretched. “Sometimes, when I lie still, I think I can hear Jimmy Binbag talking. Come and lie down and listen.”
So we lay, the four of us, in a cross shape, our heads to the centre, our outstretched hands and feet just touching. I expected one of them to start chanting some weird stuff at any minute, but nobody did, so I just lay staring at the sky and listening to the breeze ruffling the grass. The clouds were heavy, their undersides purple with rain, with unexpected shafts of sunlight breaking through in bursts of gold and silver like messenger angels. I could feel the closeness of the others, him on my left and Heather on my right, and the silence of the stones. Then, in the silence, I started to feel the closeness of all the other people who had stood and lain in this place over thousands of years, staring at these same rocks and this sky. I imagined I could hear their footsteps and their voices in my head, not hurrying or shouting, but just the gentle chatter-patter of human life, as it has been lived on this earth since time was first counted.
It reminded me of my childhood, when my bed had been in the living room of our little two-roomed flat, and each night I fell asleep to the sound of my parents’ voices and their quiet movements tiptoeing around so as not to wake me-chatter-patter.
The silence inside the stone circle is eerie. It hangs in the air like the huge hush in the cathedral, after prayers are finished. If you lie still, you can hear the wind sighing in the grass like voices murmuring in your ear. Andriy listens. Really, the sound is uncannily like the whisper of human voices. What language are they speaking? The hiss of sibilants makes him think at first that it is Polish-yes, it is Yola and Tomasz and Marta, talking quietly together. They are back in Zdroj. Marta is preparing a feast. It is somebody’s birthday-a child’s. They are drinking wine, Tomasz filling up the glasses and proposing a toast to-Andriy strains to hear-the toast is to him and Irina, and their future happiness. Tears come to his eyes. And in the background someone is giggling and whispering-not in Polish now, but in…is it Chinese? Abruptly, the giggling stops, and turns to sobbing. Then the sobbing grows deeper, and now he sees the miners from the pit accident, struggling out of the mass of fallen rock, reaching out for him with their hands, pulling at him, pleading. His father is there among them, shrouded in that terrible black dust, already formless as a ghost. He knows he has to run, to get away, but he is pinioned to the ground. He can’t move. His limbs have turned to lead, but his heart is beating, faster, faster. And just as it seems the panic will overwhelm him the sobbing turns into music, a voice-a man’s voice-deep and sweet, singing of peace and comfort, easing the pain and rage in his soul with its promise of eternity. Emanuel is singing to him.
He awakes with a start, wondering-did Blessing remember to make that phone call?
Maybe I was dreaming, because after a while I realised that the patter was raindrops, and the chatter was Andriy saying, “Wake up, Irina. Let’s go back. It’s raining.”
The others had already rigged up a large canvas awning stretched between the trees, and underneath it a fire was smoking. Heather was peeling potatoes, and Rock was stirring something in a pot.
“Can I help?” I asked.
Rock passed me the stirring spoon. Then he disappeared.
“I’ll get some more dry wood,” said Andriy, and disappeared too.
“Where are the other people in your camp?” I asked Heather.
He explained that some of them had gone south to a music festival and others, like Rock’s girlfriend, had found temporary jobs in nearby towns to earn some money. Unfortunately, since the success of their court hearing the support of the local villagers had dwindled away, and soon maybe it would be time to close up their camp altogether.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
He shrugged. “There’s always somewhere. Roads. Airports. Power stations. The earth’s always under assault.”
I thought how wonderful it would be to have some new roads and airports and power stations in Ukraine, but I didn’t say so. We listened to the rain pit-patting on the canvas, and the wood cracking on the fire. Somewhere, somebody was playing a guitar.
“Do you like cooking?” Heather threw a handful of chopped carrots into the pot. His fingernails were very long, almost like claws, and full of black dirt.
“Not much,” I said.
“Me neither,” he said. “But I like to eat. When we lived in Renfrewshire, my parents had a cook called Agatha. She was six feet tall and swore like a trooper, but she had a great way with pastry. One day she was making a batch of tarts, when the oven exploded, and she was rushed to hospital, where she died a week later of third-degree burns. That’s enough to put anyone off cooking, don’t you agree?”
“Of course.” I laughed, despite of the gravity of the story, wondering whether it was true. And I wondered how someone who spoke in such a cultivated way, and came from a house with a cook, could tolerate living in such a place, and eating such food, and having such dire fingernails. And I wondered whether he had a girlfriend, and whether she lived here in the camp, and what she thought of his fingernails. And I wondered whether he found me attractive, for he, like Rock, never stared or flirted or made personal remarks like some other men, so I felt completely comfortable in their company. Maybe they are only attracted to women of their own species.
Obviously the woman with beautiful eyebrows has her eye on you, Palenko-but does that mean you have to proceed? You have discussed the weather. You have discussed the stones. Is it time now to select first gear and try to engage? Or is there a time when you say to yourself, OK. I have met the woman I love. That is enough. Bye-bye, end of story.
Andriy shovels the mush into his mouth, crunching on the chunks of almost-raw carrot, glancing up from time to time to check on the eyebrows. The rain is pattering intermittently on the taut tarpaulin, beneath which smoke swirls round the circle of faces. Windhover is seated next to Birch on the other side of the fire. Now her eyebrows are drawn together in contemplation. Such beautiful eyebrows. She is spooning the sludge into her mouth quite fast, and with apparent enjoyment.
In fact apart from the eyebrows she is not so attractive, he thinks. Her body seems shapeless and lumpy beneath its thick sludge-coloured swaddling-not really a womanly shape at all. Perhaps…? No, surely he could not be mistaken about something like that. Windhover does not return his look.
“This is nice, Heather,” she says, completely ignoring Andriy. “What is it?”
“Lentil and carrot goulash.” Heather looks pleased. “It could have done with some paprika.”
Dinner was the same tasteless underpants-coloured sludge as the previous meal, but this time it had pieces of chopped-up carrot in it. Another unpleasant thing is that this sludgy diet tends to make you fart, which was noticeable even out of doors, especially from the dogs. I declined Heather’s offer of a second helping, while trying to seem enthusiastic so as not to hurt his feelings, because, OK, he’s no Mr Brown, but he is very kind.
After we had finished eating, Rock collected our bowls and scraped the remains of the goulash into them-goulash, they call it! obviously they have never tasted the real thing!-and put it down for the dogs, who licked the bowls clean. In my opinion the hygienic arrangements at this camp are deficient, and I wonder why the authorities have not closed it down. There is nothing but a small stream for washing, and a much-too-shallow pit-lavatory, screened by a few branches, with a piece of wood to perch on above the disgusting festering nuzhnik of previous warrior dinners. Somebody has put up a scrawled notice saying Beware of splashback.
By now dusk was creeping up and the air was cool and damp. I took the bowls and went down to the stream to rinse the dog-lick off them (the others looked surprised-obviously as far as they were concerned, they were perfectly clean) and then I washed myself all over with Mrs McKenzie’s scented soap, because I knew tonight would be the night. Then I climbed the rope ladder up to the tree caravan.
The door was not locked. The caravan was much smaller even than the women’s caravan at our strawberry field, and rounded like an egg. There was no room inside for anything except a folded-out double bed. I could not see how clean the bedding was, and I thought it was better not to look. I suppose one advantage of being in a tree is that the dogs cannot get up here. On a low cupboard by the bed was a bunch of dried flowers in a jam jar that gave the cabin a pleasant powdery smell. Some ends of candles were stuck into bottles, and there was even a box of matches. I lit a candle, and straightaway the little shell was filled inside with soft flickering light. Beyond the circle of light, the leaves at the window shifted and shivered in the dusk. Storm clouds had banked up along the hilltops. Down below, I could hear the voices of the warriors talking among themselves, and the strumming of a guitar. I stretched out on the bed and waited.
For some reason I found myself thinking about my parents. Had my mother lain and waited for my father like this on her wedding night? Was it romantic? Had it hurt the first time? Did she get pregnant? Yes, she did. The seed that was planted inside her that night was to grow into me. I had grown up sheltered by the twined branches of their love, nurtured until the seed sprouted into a tree-Irinochka-that could stand alone. Had he still loved her afterwards? Yes, but only for a while. Temporarily. Provisionally. Until Svitlana Surokha came along. For the first time, I found myself feeling angry with my parents. Why couldn’t they just stick together a bit longer, their love still entwining and sheltering me, while I learnt my own first lessons of love?
I started planning a new story in my head. It would be a passionate romance, a story of enduring love, about two people who came from different worlds, but after many diversions found themselves brought together by destiny. The heroine would be a virgin. The hero would have bronzed muscular arms.
The voices down below grew more animated and the guitar stopped. They were having a discussion, punctuated by bursts of laughter. Suddenly I felt the caravan lurch and sway in a most terrifying way. I sat up quaking. Typical, I thought, tonight-the night-the caravan will fall out of the tree. Then I realised the movement was the tug of someone coming up the rope ladder. My heart started to thump. A moment later, Andriy opened the door. He had a nervous smile on his face and a bunch of heather in his hand.
“I picked this for you, Irina.” He sat down on the edge of the bed, and handed me the heather, looking at me in that fixed, intense way. “You are beautiful like a green tree in May.”
I buried my face in the heather, which still had the smell of honey and summer about it, because I didn’t want him to see me grinning. On the scale or romance, I would say that was about three out often.
Then he lay down beside me on the bed, and started to stroke my cheek very gently. I could feel my body melting at his touch as he pulled me into his arms, kissing me with his lips and tongue, caressing me everywhere, and all the time murmuring my name. Mmm. Maybe seven out of ten. The candlelight cast one shadow of our two bodies-blurring, looming, wavering on the curved ceiling. When he touched me down there, the unexpected intensity of my feelings made me cry out. OK, at that point I stopped scoring. I don’t even remember him undressing me, but somehow our clothes slid away and we were naked together, skin against skin, on the bed. The candle sputtered out, and the canopy of darkening leaves closed in around us.
Suddenly there was a shudder of wind in the branches, and all at once the storm broke, heralded by a drum-roll of rain on the roof, then blasts of thunder and a pageant of lightning flashes all around us like a carnival in the sky. Our little caravan bucked and heaved on its sea of leaves. The rain hammered on the thin aluminium shell and from time to time a razor of light would slash through the darkness. I was really afraid that our tree would be struck, and everything would burst into flames.
“Don’t be frightened, Irinochka,” said Andriy, pressing me tighter against him.
And so we gave ourselves to each other that night in the storm.
Yes, it was very romantic. Yes, it did hurt a bit, but my feelings were so intense that I didn’t realise until afterwards how sore I was. Yes, I was worried about getting pregnant, but he produced something from his pocket that was rubbery and pink and smelt of strawberries. No, that was not quite so romantic, I admit, but it was thoughtful, and that also is a sign of love. Yes, he still loves me, because in the morning he went down on the rope ladder and came back with some bread and tea, and we spent half the morning lying in bed together talking about the future, and the places we would travel to after Sheffield, and all the things we would do. Then we made love again.
No, I am not the same person I was yesterday.
I AM DOG I RUN I RUN WITH MARY JANE IAM IN LOVE SHE IS A BROWN DOG FAST AND SLIM SHE HAS GOOD SMELL FEMALE DOG LOVE-HORMONES I SNIFF SHE SNIFFS ALL BOSS RUN AFTER HER BUT SHE RUNS WITH ME WE RUN IN STORM ANb RAIN WE RUN IN MOONLIGHT WE RUN IN SHADOWS I GIVE HER MY PUPPIES I AM IN LOVE I RUN I RUN I AM DOG
Next day, before they leave, Andriy and Rock climb up the beech tree to re-secure the caravan. One of the guy ropes snapped in the night, and the caravan is hanging at an angle, its axle wedged between two branches.
“That were a bit of luck,” says Rock, “or a bit of bad luck, depending on which way you look at it.”
“It was good luck,” says Andriy.
It is early afternoon by the time they get on the road. Irina is sitting in the middle again, her profile inscrutable, her eyes sleepy, as the bus winds its way through narrow lanes and grey-stone villages. He puts his arm around her, and she shifts and moulds her body more closely against his. Her hair is loose and uncombed. He strokes it back from her face and watches her smile. This girl-she is quite something. Yes, Andriy Palenko, you are one lucky Donbas miner.
“So what takes you to Sheffield?” asks Rock.
The sun is high in the sky, a wispy mist steaming from the hills after the rain.
“Sheffield? Is twin town of Donetsk. My town. Is very beautiful, I think?”
“Sheffield? Aye, you could say that. If you’ve got an eye for steelworks. Or you could say it’s not beautiful.”
“The coal mining is still going there?”
“No, that’s all changed. Used to be loads of slag heaps. Now it’s just got slags.” Rock pushes his glasses up his nose. “Barnsley were twinned with another town in Ukraine. Gorlovka.”
“I been there. Is also in Donbas region. Not beautiful.”
“Well, Barnsley in’t noted for its beauty.”
“I been in Sheffield once before. And I met Vloonki, who is noted for his wisdom and good heart. When we get to Sheffield, we will ask him for help.”
“The ruler. He is blind, but he sees everythings.”
“Aw! You mean Blunkett!” Rock jumps in his seat and his glasses slip right off his nose and skitter across the dashboard. As he leans to grab them, the steering wheel lurches sharply and the bus swerves, skids sideways and bounces off a boulder. “Bloody Blunkett!” Rock pinches the nose-clip on his glasses to tighten it.
“Why he is bloody?”
“Class traitor. Sold our birthright for a mess of posh totty, in Jimmy’s immortal words.”
Sold what? Who is this Jimmy? Before Andriy can ask, Rock calls out, “There she is!”
They have been winding slowly upwards for a few kilometres through a wild steep landscape of bracken, peat and rock, more sombre than the sandy heathery plateau of Nine Ladies. At the top of the rise the road levels out, and just as it starts to dip they see a city spread below them in the valley, a dense cluster of buildings in the centre, glinting in the sunlight, thinning out to untidy scatterings of ugly new developments crawling over the surrounding hills.
“This is Sheffield?” Irina’s voice is cold.
Andriy’s heart shrinks with disappointment. Definitely this city is not upon a hill.
Nor is there any bougainvillea. The leafy outer suburbs soon give way to ribbons of bricky terraces as they near the city centre. Rock pulls into a side road where many of the houses seem abandoned, their curtains drawn, their front gardens full of rubbish and weeds, and plastered with To Let signs. How has Vloonki allowed his city to become so neglected? There is a distant taint of steelworks in the air that reminds him of home.
“Nowhere to park in town. We’ll walk from here. I’m meeting Thunder at the Ha Ha.”
They follow Rock through a urine-stained underpass up into the town centre. The storm has chased away the clouds, and the day is hot and bright again. Here the surroundings look neater, and the traffic has been diverted to make a pleasant quarter. Busy crowds throng the pavements, and there are shops, market stalls, even some new and stylish buildings. This is still not as he remembers it, but it is better than his first impression. Andriy’s spirits rise. Fountains-yes, there are fountains! And a square with a formal garden full of waterfalls, overlooked by a big Gothic building that seems vaguely familiar, and a modern citadel of glass and steel that should have been a palace, but sadly turns out to be only a hotel. He takes Irina’s hand, twining her fingers between his. She smiles and points. “Look!”
In the fountains a horde of raggedy children, stripped down to their knickers, are running and splashing through the water. Just like Donetsk.
I AM DOG I AM WET DOG I RUN I PLAY IN WATER WOOF SPLASH RUN IN THIS WATER IS DREAM OF MY PAST-TIME PUPPINESS HERE ARE CHILDREN WET CHILDREN THEY PLAY WITH ME WOOF SPLASH RUN I AM HAPPY THEY TOUCH ME WITH SMALL WET HANDS GOOD DOG THEY SAY I AM GOOD DOG MY MAN IS WATCHING I RUN TO MY MAN I SHAKE WATER ON HIM SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE GO AWAY WET DOG SAYS MY MAN RUN AND PLAY I AM HAPPY I RUN I PLAY I AM WET DOG I AM DOG
On the edge of the square is a cafe with tables set out in the sunshine. A very tall girl with cropped blond hair runs towards them, and gives Rock a hug. His nose comes just about to the level of her breasts, which are small and firm and barely covered by the straps of a faded orange vest. She too has a dog on a string.
“I’ve got a few things to do,” says Rock. “Got to surrender missen to t’ vile clutches oft’ missus. I’ll meet you back here at six o’clock.”
Irina announces that she too will take a look at the shops. Andriy watches her vanish into the crowd, Dog padding along behind her, still wet from his splash in the fountains. Then he reaches for his wallet and takes out a piece of paper. He needs to find a telephone.
I was thinking about Natasha in War and Peace, how she and Pierre have their blazing moment of love, and all her beauty and passion flow into him, and all his intellect and strength flow into her, and they face the world together from their glorious tower of love. When you read it, tears will come into your eyes, I promise, unless you have a heart of stone. And then, after she has found the one, the passion slowly dissolves into a gentle everyday love and she becomes a solid housewife, devoted to their four children, and interested in household and family matters. I wonder whether the same thing will happen with Andriy and me. Already I can see the first signs. For example I noticed today that Andriy needs some new underpants. The ones he is wearing will soon be in the same condition as the warrior underpants. This is not appealing in a man.
That’s what was in my mind as I set out to find the street of shops and market stalls we’d come through earlier, because I had noticed they were selling such items-sexy styles in interesting colours, not the universal dark green baggy type you get in Ukraine. And some very small ladies’ knickers made of lace. I thought if I could find my way back to that street, I could have a look. But somewhere I must have taken a wrong turn, for I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings which seemed to be a commercial district, with redbrick office buildings and only a few cafes and shops, none of them selling clothing, but cleaning products, stationery, office equipment and other useless stuff. I must have been walking for almost half an hour, getting increasingly lost. The wet dog was following me, sometimes running on ahead, sometimes lagging behind or disappearing up an alley, sniffing at pissy lamp posts all the time in his disgusting way.
The sun was still hot, but the shadows were lengthening on the pavement. There was nobody on the streets here, and a one-way road system, so the few cars were going quite fast. The dog had disappeared somewhere and I was on my own. I was trying to work out where I had gone wrong and find somebody I could ask the way when I noticed that a large grey car was crawling along beside me, and the driver was staring at me and mouthing something. I ignored him, and he drove off. At the corner of the street a blonde woman was standing smoking a cigarette. She was wearing ridiculous satin shorts and high-heeled boots. As I hurried towards her to ask for directions, the car pulled up alongside her and the man wound down his window. They exchanged a few words and she got into his car. Hm. Obviously I didn’t want to hang around in this place. So I turned and tried to retrace my steps, walking quickly, when another young woman came sauntering up the road towards me on spiky high heels. She looked familiar. I stared. It was Lena. She spotted me at the same moment.
“Hi, Lena,” I said in Ukrainian, reaching out to take her hand. “What you doing here?”
“What you think?” she said.
“I heard about the accident. The minibus. I was so upset. Was that at our farm?”
“I don’t know what you talking about,” she said.
Close up, she looked even younger. She had grown her hair a bit, and put on white powder like a mask and a smear of very bright red lipstick that accentuated her babyish pout. It was smudged at the edges, as if she had been kissing. Her black stockings and high-heeled shoes looked absurd on her skinny legs. She looked like a child who had been trying on her mother’s clothes and playing with her make-up. Apart from her eyes. There was nothing childish about her eyes.
“How are the others? Tasya? Oksana?”
“I don’t know.”
She had stopped, and was staring straight ahead, over my shoulder. I turned and followed the line of her gaze. She was looking towards the forecourt of an office block, where a number of cars were parked. Right at the back, half hidden behind a white van, was a huge black shiny four-by-four. I must have walked right past it.
I felt a terrible sick feeling rise up in me. My heart started up. Boom. Boom. Run, run, shouted my racing heart, but my feet stayed rooted to the ground. I looked at Lena, but her eyes were completely dead.
There is a telephone box at the top of the square, near to the cafe. Andriy fumbles in his pocket for change, puts a couple of coins in the slot and dials the number on the piece of paper. There is a series of clicks, followed by a long single tone. What does that mean? He dials again. The same empty tone. He listens for a long time, but nothing happens. A blank. He was half expecting it. He sighs. This is it, then. His journey’s end. Vagvaga Riskegipd. A blank. Ah, well.
A middle-aged woman is sitting at a small round table on the pavement outside the cafe. He shows her the piece of paper.
“Oh,” she says, “that’s an old number. You have to dial 0114 instead of 0742. But you don’t need that, because you’re in Sheffield. You just put 2 before the main number.”
He fishes a pencil stub out of his pocket and she writes it down for him.
He tries again with the new number. This time there is a ringing tone. After several rings, a woman picks up the phone.
“Alloa?” She speaks in the same broad regional dialect as Rock.
“Vagvaga?” He can hardly control the excitement in his voice. “Vagvaga Riskegipd? Vagvaga?”
There is a moment’s silence. Then the voice on the other end of the phone says, “Bugger off.” There is a click, followed by the dialling tone. He feels a stab of frustration. So close, yet still so far. Was that her voice on the end of the phone? He can’t recall her saying anything at all to him that night. How old would she be now? The voice on the phone sounded crackly and breathless, like an older woman’s. He resolves to wait a few minutes and try again.
When he goes back into the square the same middle-aged woman is still sitting at her table, drinking coffee. She has been joined by a friend, and their shopping bags are clustered around them on the ground. On impulse, he approaches her once more with his piece of paper.
“No luck?” She smiles at him.
“What is this name?” he asks her.
She looks at him oddly.
“Barbara Pickering. What did you think it was?”
He stares at the paper. Ah. His twenty-five-year-old eyes see what his seven-year-old eyes had not seen: Roman script.
“What is mean bugger off?”
She looks at him oddly again.
“That’s enough. Bugger off now, will you?” And turning her back on him, she resumes her conversation with her friend.
He had meant to ask her for some change as well, but now he can’t. He goes to the telephone again and puts a pound coin in the slot.
“Alloa?” the same woman answers.
“Barbara?” Barr-baah-rrah. Barbarian woman. Wild. Untamed. An incredibly sexy name.
“She’s not here.” The voice hesitates. “Was it you that called before?”
“My name is Andriy Palenko. I am from Ukraine. Donetsk. Twin town with Sheffield.”
“Oh,” the woman says, “I thought you was some nutter. Barbara’s not lived ‘ere for years. She’s up in Gleadless now. I’m ‘er mum.”
“I met her many long times ago. I was first coming to Sheffield with my father for Ukrainian miners’ delegation.”
“Were it that big do at t’ City Hall, wi’t’ Ukrainians? I were there too. By, that were a night!” A cackling sound down the line. “All that municipal vodka!”
“Is she still live in Sheffield?” Andriy asks. Then he blurts out the question that has been on his mind ever since he had arrived in England-ever since he knew there was such a question to be asked. “Is she marry?”
“Oh, aye. Got two lovely lads. Jason and Jimmy. Six and four. Do you want ‘er new number?”
“Yes. Yes of course.”
He takes out his pencil stub. She says the new number slowly, pausing after every digit. Andriy listens, but he doesn’t write it down.
I turned to run, but Lena was blocking my way. She had a horrible smudged smile on her face.
“Be careful,” she said. “He has gun.”
How could this be happening in an ordinary street in England in broad daylight? Even as I looked the door of the four-by-four opened, and there stood Vulk, grinning at me with his yellow teeth, his arms outstretched in greeting. I could see no gun. If he had one, it was hidden in his pocket. Should I take a chance and run? In the brilliant slanting sunshine his dark backlit outline seemed like an apparition-a tubby grinning nightmare. I felt the same impulse of frozen panic. He started to walk towards me up the hill, quite slowly. His shadow slid before him on the pavement, hard-edged and squat. Behind me I could hear Lena muttering something. If I ran, would she try to stop me?
He was coming closer. “My darlink little flower.” He had taken off his jacket, and I could see the dark circles of sweat on his shirt under his arms. I thought he was panting for breath, then I realised he was whispering, “Loff, loff, loff.”
I backed away, barging into Lena, and that is when he got out the gun. I stopped, transfixed. It was grey, and so small it was hard to believe it could do any harm. He didn’t point it at me. He just held it in his hand and played with it, twirling it on his finger, his eyes set on me all the time.
Then I noticed something at the bottom of the street, behind Vulk’s back-people, movement. Suddenly, there was Dog racing towards us, bounding along four paws at a time, and a few metres behind, red-faced and breathless, was Andriy.
Dog is barking frantically. Andriy shouts at it to be quiet, but it jumps up, scrabbling at him with its paws, whining and tossing its head like a mad thing. Andriy picks up their bag and follows it up into the street.
It is half past four. The pavements are busy with shoppers making the most of the last hour or so until closing time. The dog runs ahead through the crush, weaving in and out between people’s legs, then stopping to let him catch up, barking in an urgent, purposeful way. Now his heart is jumping about behind his ribs, because he realises that Dog is desperate to take him somewhere, and that Irina has been gone for over an hour. Dog crosses a busy road and turns up a side street between tall brick buildings. The crowds have disappeared, and they are in a quiet business neighbourhood, heading south-west away from the town.
Another right turn brings them to the foot of a long rising street of anonymous workshops and offices. One side of the street-the side they are on-is in bright sunshine; the other side is already in shadow. A hundred metres or so up ahead of them are three figures. Even as he races towards them, Andriy is taking in the whole picture. Nearest to them, with his back turned, is Vulk. He is walking slowly up the hill, waddling in that slightly splay-legged gait of people who are carrying too much weight in front. His bulky form fills the whole pavement. He has taken his jacket off and is wearing a dark blue shirt, tucked tight into the belt of his trousers. His ponytail straggles down between his shoulders. In his right hand is a gun, twirling casually over his forefinger. A few metres in front, facing them, stands Irina, motionless, her mouth open in a silent scream. Behind her, also facing them, is Lena, wearing black tights and a ridiculous pair of high-heeled shoes. Her lips are a scarlet gash. Her face is expressionless, completely blank.
“Stop!” shouts Andriy. “Stop!” He is fumbling in his backpack for the gun. Where is it?
Vulk turns. He sees the dog and Andriy running towards him, some five metres away.
“Too late, boy,” he sneers. “I heffit. Go back.” He raises his gun.
Andriy stops. In that moment of hesitation, Dog growls, bares his teeth and launches himself forward. He has picked up such a speed in running that as he summons up all his strength for that final jump, he appears to take flight, his heavy muscled mass hurtling towards Vulk like a missile-straight at the gun. Vulk pulls the trigger. Dog howls, a long keening howl. He seems to tremble in mid-air as blood bursts from his chest in a crimson shower, then he falls, but still with so much forward momentum that he crashes down onto Vulk, knocking him backwards so that his head hits the pavement with a crack, the huge bleeding dog on top of him, whimpering to its death. The gun falls from his hand and skitters across the flagstones.
Irina has turned and fled, ducking into an opening between two office buildings. Andriy lunges for the gun, but before he can reach it Lena steps forward and puts her foot on it. She bends down, picks it up and points it at Andriy.
He doesn’t argue. He runs. As he rounds the corner into the same narrow sunless passageway, he hears a single shot behind him.
I will always think of Dog the way I remember him that last time, flying through the air like an angel of vengeance, stern and black, his teeth gleaming like rapiers. I looked into his eyes before he died. They were deep, velvety brown, and unfathomable. I had never noticed before how beautiful they were; for even an angel of vengeance has pity in its eyes. After that I forgot about his awful pissing and sniffing and eating habits, and all I remembered was the way he looked at me when he took flight. I often wonder what he was thinking. Did he know he was going to die?
Andriy was so upset, he wanted to go back for him, but I wouldn’t. I said he was dead, and there was nothing we could do to bring him back. I just wanted to get away from that place as fast as I could.
A few minutes later we heard the wail of sirens and caught a flash of blue lights at the end of the alley. We found a gateway behind some bins that opened into a car park on the next street, and we headed away in the opposite direction, not running but trying to walk normally, trying to look as though we were just a young couple out for a stroll. Andriy had his arm round my shoulder, and I leaned against him. We were both shaking. I realised Andriy must have been frightened too. That was strange, because you always think that men are fearless-but why should they be?
We walked round and round for an hour or more. This Sheffield-it wasn’t at all as Andriy had described it, palaces, bougainvillea and all that stuff. Nor were there any workers’ sanatoria or communal mudbaths. It was very ordinary. The shops had put their shutters up and people were going home. The roads were clogged with traffic. And maybe down a side street, somebody was lying dead. It could have been me.
“Where are we going?” I asked Andriy.
“I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
I kept wondering about that last gunshot. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Most of the time we stayed off the big roads and walked in the side streets, which were empty of people and still hot from the sun. You could feel the heat coming out of the bricks like an oven cooling, the trapped air heavy with dust and fumes. We walked, I don’t know how long for, until we stopped shaking and our feet hurt and we started to feel hungry. In the end we found our way back to the cafe. Rock wasn’t there, of course. We were more than two hours late.
The afternoon shoppers were gone and the place had filled up with young people, eating, drinking, smoking, talking, the clatter of cutlery and their shrill laughter bouncing and echoing off the hard surfaces so loud that my ears rang and my head started to swim. I realised then how hungry I was. We bought something to eat, I can’t remember what, only that it was the cheapest thing we could find on the menu. We looked so shabby and out of place, me in my strawberry-stained jeans and Andriy in his Ukrainian trousers. The girl who served us was Byelorussian.
“Are you looking for a job?” she said. “They’ve always got vacancies. It’s all Eastern Europe round here.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“No,” said Andriy.
“We haven’t decided,” I said.
She brought us some portions of ice cream which she said were for free.
“Is there a phone anywhere?” I asked Andriy. “I want to phone my mother.”
The minute she said “Hello? Irinochka?” I burst into tears, and I had to pretend to be sneezing because I didn’t want her asking what I was crying about. It would only upset her. I just wanted to hear her voice, like when I had a nightmare as a child and she would tell me that everything was all right. Sometimes all you need is a comforting story. So, still sniffling, I told her everything was fine, except that I had caught a cold and the dog had had an accident, and then she wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing warm clothes, and which dog, and what kind of accident, and why I had left that nice family, so I had to make up another lot of lies to keep her happy. Why did she have to ask so many questions?
“Irinochka, now I want to ask you something.”
I thought she was going to ask me who I was with, or when I was coming home, and I braced myself to make up another story, but she said, “Would you be very upset if I found a new boyfriend?”
“No, of course not, Mamma. You should do whatever makes you happy.”
Mamma! My heart flipped over inside me like a big wet fish.
Of course I was upset. I was upset and furious. You turn your back on your parents for one moment and they get up to all sorts of mischief!
“That’s wonderful, Mamma. Who is he?”
“You know I told you about that nice elderly couple who moved in downstairs. And they have a son…”
“But I thought…”
“Yes, we are in love.”
First my father, now my mother!
When I put the phone down, I found my hands were shaking. The fish in my chest was flapping like mad. How could my parents do this to me, their little Irinochka? Outside in the square, dusk had come, but it was still warm. Andriy was standing waiting for me, leaning with his elbows on the balustrade, watching the fountains, his outline supple and muscular, despite his awful trousers, one curl hanging like a brown question mark on his forehead. He smiled. Just looking at him made my body start to sing.
Would Andriy and I love each other for ever? Love, it seems, is quite a slippery, unpredictable thing-not a rock you can build your life on, after all. I wanted it to be perfect, like Natasha and Pierre, but maybe that’s just another story. How can love be perfect, if people aren’t perfect? Look at my mother and father-their love didn’t last for ever, but it was good enough for a while, good enough for Irinochka, that little girl I used to be. Of course when you’re a child, you want to believe your parents are perfect-but why should they be?
“How is your mother?” asked Andriy.
“She’s all right.” I smiled. Yes, he wasn’t perfect: he talked in that funny Donbas way, and he was moody, and he thought he knew everything, despite being riddled with out-of-date ideas. But he was also kind-hearted, thoughtful, courteous and brave, and that was good enough for me. “You know, Andriy, I discovered something just now. My parents don’t need me any more.”
We leaned side by side on the balustrade, watching the fountains, and I started to think about the story I would write when I got back to Kiev. It would be a love story, a great romance, not something stupid and frivolous. It would be set against the tumultuous background of the Orange Revolution. The heroine would be a plucky freedom activist and the hero would be from the other side, the Soviet East. But through his love for the beautiful heroine, his eyes would be opened, and he would come to understand the true destiny of his country. He would be very passionate and handsome, with bronzed muscular arms; in fact he would be quite like Andriy. But he would definitely not be a coalminer. Maybe he would have a dog.
In the cafe, somebody popped a champagne cork, and an eddy of noise and laughter carried into the stillness of the square.
“Andriy,” I said. He looked at me. His eyes were sad. A shadow had fallen across his face. “Are you thinking about Dog?”
“Don’t be sad. You have me now.”
I reached up and twined my finger into his brown curl, and pulled his head down for a kiss. Yes, definitely the story must have a happy ending.
You have survived many adventures, and now you’ve reached your destination. You have escaped death a couple of times, and you have won the love of the beautiful high-spec Ukrainian girl. So why is your heart grumbling away like an old Zaz, Andriy Palenko? What’s the matter with you?
He listens to the young people drinking in the cafe a few metres away-they live in a different world. Maybe he and Irina could stay in Sheffield and find jobs for themselves, and maybe he would even go to college and train to be an engineer. He would buy a mobilfon, not for doing business, but to talk to his friends, and at weekends they would come to a bar like this, and drink and laugh. But he could never be one of them. There are too many things he would have to forget.
She thinks it’s because he’s grieving for the dog, and she reaches out her hand to stroke his hair and whisper some little sweetness into his ear. Well, yes, you will miss Dog; there will never be another dog as superb as this one. But it’s not just Dog. There’s a special sadness at the end of a journey. For it’s only when you get to your destination that you discover the road doesn’t end here after all.
“Come on, Andriy! Don’t be sad!”
She beckons. He follows her into the square. She skips down the steps, where water is cascading through stone channels and dozens of fountains are spurting like geysers out of the ground. There is no one there apart from a couple kissing on a bench. She takes his hands and pulls them around her back, pressing herself against him.
“Even though it was very exceptional, Andriy, still it was only a dog.”
He holds her close. She is lithe and warm in his arms.
“Rock and the warriors dedicated their lives to saving some stones, Irina. You could say they were only stones, but it’s what they represent. As their Jimmy would say, victims of global capitalism.”
“Is the dog a victim of global capitalism?”
“Don’t be stupid. You know what I mean.” Sometimes her frivolity is irritating. “My father died…”
“But you are still alive, Andriy. Why don’t you think of that sometimes?”
“Of course I do. And then I wonder why it was me who lived and not him.”
“But you didn’t kill him, Andriy. Do you think he would want you to be always miserable, and brooding about the past? The future will be different.”
He shakes his head.
“…your underpants are like the warriors’.” She giggles.
“And so what if they are? You are always so mesmerised by superficial things, Irina.”
“No, I’m not.” She splashes her hands through the fountain, spraying a wave of water at him that wets his shirt.
“Yes, you are.” He splashes back, soaking her hair.
“And you talk like a Donbas miner.” She dashes handfuls of water at his face. “Holy whiskers! Devil’s bum!”
“And what if I do? Should I be ashamed of that?” He rubs the water out of his eyes. “Now you sound like a bourgeois schoolgirl.”
“And what if I am?” She gives him a shove that sends him stumbling backwards into a jet of water. Her eyes are shining. Rivulets of water are running down her cheeks. In spite of himself, a grin breaks out on his face.
“If you are”-he splutters, snorting water out of his nose-“I will have to re-educate you.” He grabs her wrist, and pulls her towards him.
“Never!” She lunges forward for another shove, slips on the wet stones, and slides into the fountain. As she grabs at him for balance, he slithers and tumbles on top of her with a splash.
“I will start now.” He holds her down and covers her in kisses. “Bourgeois schoolgirl!”
“ Donbas miner!” She wriggles out from under him, pinning him between her knees. “Riddled with Soviet-era ideas!”
“You think you know everything. Well, you don’t.” She flicks her wet hair at him. Her clothes are soaked, clinging to the curves of her body. This girl, if he doesn’t keep a cool head, she will drown him.
“Show me something I don’t know.”
“Here!” She presses him down on the stones, straddling him and pushing her tongue into his mouth. He gasps for breath. She is surprisingly strong, and as slippery as a mermaid. Water is everywhere, in his eyes, in his nose, gushing in shining torrents out of the ground.
And as they wrestle there in the jets of foaming water, a shadowy black dog appears out of nowhere, a mature, handsome dog, running through the spume, barking and splashing with them. Above their heads, stars are dancing on the inky floor of the sky.
But, oh, the water is so cold!
I am writing to fill you up with my newses for today by the Grace of God I have received a telephone from my sister who with your help uncovered my wherebeing. And I feverdly hope one day my dear friend you will return to this place called Richmond which is not far from the beauties of Croydon where I await you with beatings in my heart also the beauteous Irina for I hope you two are now joined up in Holy Matrimony.
My sister was full of questionings about my life in the dwelling of Toby Makenzi and his roilsome parents and she rejoiced to hear all has turned out benefficiently and we are blessed with daily manifestos of His Goodness. And I have given up my Sinful Curiosity of canals and turned towards rivers for I have become a Fisher of Men.
Each day at eventide the Pa and I together descend upon the river bringing with us the rod and red bucket of the Mozambicans and we spend two hours or more in contemplation of the slow moving waters of the Times. And sometimes in the evening when the river darkens in its mystery the power of Love is so great that I am minded to open my heart and sing. For the sunset upon these waters is beauteous to behold being tinted purple blue with delicious rosy cloudlings (though not as beauteous as the sunsets of Zomba) and I am confounded with admiration for His artistry. And through the mystery of our long conversions upon the riverbank the Pa himself has started to walk in the Way of the Lord and has abandoned his whisky drinking and blaspheming. And sometimes it has befallen that fishes come upon our rod. And now the beauteous Ma who prepared so many feastings of fishes for us has started to abandon her previous godless vegetarian ways and the practice of yogurt and is also coming into the Joyful Kingdom. Sometimes at eventide she walks to the darkening river with us to share our contemplation. Also that good mzungu Toby Makenzi for whose friendship I came into this land he has become a follower of the river. And I pray feveredly that before long the opiate will fall from his heart and he too will become aquatinted with Love.