5 - Hitting the Fan

Sirens wailed a weird crescendo. The fall of Valhalla? Blimey, had I slept through the Ring Cycle again? No. Hang on. Wait a minute. There's shouting, chanting, stomping, and no fat lady singing. Sure the cast of thousands makes sense, but sirens? Crikey on a stick! Was I ever at the wrong opera.

I groaned. Opened my eyes a crack. Gaped at a manky clock radio blinking 9:02 in the morning. Morning!? Blinding light poured in through an enormous window.

9am sunlight pours in through bedroom window, photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-1] Sunlight pours in through the Kyiv flat's bedroom window. This window proved to be a nearly perfect vantage point for demonstration watching.

"Meaaaag?" Something mewled under the duvet.

Sleep was no longer an option. I stuck out a leg. Found the floor. It was freezing cold; like someone carpeted an ice rink in cheap wall-to-wall. I squinted out the window, tearing up in the intense sunlight off snow. Snow!?

"Meg?" There it was again, "Shto sloochieless?" came from a human-sized bed-lump.

Communist party and friends march in front of the general prosecutor of Ukraine office photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-2] One of many well orchestrated, paid for protest-demonstrations in front of the Prokuratura.

The street below our flat had been invaded by a boisterous, flag-waving crowd swarming the Grand Prosecutor's Soviet-era fortress. "Lenna! It's some kind of riot." We'd been there a few days, but the thrill factor hadn't worn off -- yet. As for me, and apart from sleep deprivation, it was on the rise.

"Another one? Is it the coal miners, again?" Elena probed for my residual body heat then tunnelled deeper under the duvet. "Cold!" She moaned in Russian.

Two armies of exuberant youth converged on the Prokuratura. One of the mobs -- kitted out in matching red vests and communist party regalia -- waved the Soviet hammer and sickle. The other, wearing blue, flew the banners of a Kremlin supported party. This crowd was large, well financed, energetic and colour coordinated to boot.

Corruption in Ukraine's judicial system. An amateur protest at the Kyiv office of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-3] Amateur (unpaid) anti-corruption protest at the offices of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine.

"Nyet, coal miners aren't this well dressed, or behaved." I prodded the grumpy lump under the covers. "Lenna, you absolutely must see this! It's like a parade."

She shrugged, kicked and moaned but wasn't budging for yet another demonstration.

"Really! A bunch of them are red. Another bunch are blue." I kicked into my slippers. "I bet they'll merge into a vast purple blob visible from space. It's like some mass migration of politico-debeests."

The bed lump remained inert.

"Suit yourself. I'll be on the balcony." Camera in hand, slippers crunching through ankle-deep, crusty snow, I realised my photojournalistic aspirations.

Ukrainian Communist party supporters and Party of Regions supporters photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-4] Two staunchly anti-European integration parties: The Ukrainian Communist party and The Party of Regions', meet for a political demonstration at the offices of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine (Prokuratura).

Hundreds of chanting, shouting voices enthralled me. Crisp, newly screened banners flapped and sizzled in their own wind. Hundreds of boots clomped on icy pavements, while the air, a throat-raking twenty-below and hazy with ice crystals, left me gasping. I wasn't going to last long in my slippers and pyjamas, so I raised the camera and started shooting.

The last time I was in Kyiv, the Orange revolution had been unstoppable. But this time, even right below the balcony, something was either missing or didn't quite add up. Where was the rage, the conviction? I watched the armies of colour loiter in front of the Prokuratura. They patted each other's backs, swung their opposing flags in unison. Their snazzy, colour coordinated, matching vests with printed slogans and party trademarks, looked like a product launch. A pep rally, rather than a revolution.

Losing toes to frostbite wasn't worth it. Although impressive, the rallies were organised and paid for. Participants were hired for about a dollar an hour and got to keep those natty flags and spiffy togs. I have to admit it, the team spirit was somewhat contrived, but by crikey, it made for great photography.

"Lenna?" I called from the foot of the bed.

"What?" By then, she was gasping for the last dregs of oxygen in her fabric hidey-hole.

I took a long, slow breath. "Oh, Elena--"

"Meg, what? What is it?"

I sighed pathetically. "Oh dear," Another dramatic pause. "I've gone... blind!"

Elena threw back the covers. "Goss-poe-dee (god) what happened!?"

I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear. My spectacles were completely frosted over.

Elena tossed a pillow, groaning.

I caught it, laughing uproariously. I absolutely love that gag!

☸ ☸ ☸

You'd have thought we were kitting up for a trek to the South Pole by the time we'd layered on enough insulation to chase the fracas leaving the Prokuratura. Despite the mob's props and cast of thousands, we had a hard time keeping up. Finally, Elena came to a stop, grabbed my elbow and veritably cried, "Meg! Please, I can not go further." She claimed it was the worst back pain she ever had.

I glared.

"I am sorry. Really, I am! Something is wrong with my back."

"Maybe you slipped a disk?"

"I need to sit."

"Sudden onset osteoporosis? Blimey, shall I ring for an ambulance?"

"An ambulance! You crazy?" Elena tried to relieve the pressure on her crumbling spinal column by leaning on a low rock wall. "This has happened before. I need to stop. Lie down. It is not from slipping on a disk."

"From what, then? Heavy lifting? Extreme sports? High G launch to orbit?" Bollocks, the demonstration was getting away.

"University examinations." She groaned through gritted teeth.

"Exams! Are you taking the piss?" Another group of protestors, these ones in bright yellow, were setting up near a circus-come-grocery-emporium. Yay, the morning wasn't a complete flop. "Sitting for exams wrecked your back?"

Pora (About Time!) protesters setting up in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-5] Pora! - About Time! protesters set up for a chilly demonstration.

"Yes, I guess. I could not do more." Elena winced, the wall-lean wasn't helping. "It got better, some days after."

"OK, let me get this straight. You finished exams, and your back got better?"

"No. I failed everything. This is why I am not a psychologist. But my back, it got better after that."

"Flopping out of uni cured your back?"

"It made my mother happy." Elena paused, sucked air through her teeth. "She wanted me to be an architect, with her. My back, it got better after that."

I had no way of knowing anything about the barrage of threats and abuse she'd been fielding from back home. Elena kept it to herself, afraid I'd be on the first westbound flight from Boryspil if I knew how bad it really was. She had, however, assured me all would be made right by a letter she secreted before leaving. A heartfelt missive telling her parents that she was happy and living as she wanted without casting shame upon them.

Pora (About Time!) protesters setting up in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-6] Pora - "About Time" preparing for a demonstration in the deep cold.

I hadn't read psychology, or even failed out of it, but Elena's excruciating back pain was suddenly making disturbingly weird sense to me. "Right, we need to get back to the flat. I think you need to have a wee talk with your mother, tell her about that letter you stashed."

She flashed me her signature, practised-to-perfection, deer-in-the-headlights look.

"Really, you have to tell them. At least, tell them you're OK and what your plans are."

"I do not have any plans. All I thought about was getting here, to you, to Kyiv. Oh Meg, I have no plans to leave."

"They have to know. You owe it to them. To you!" I was running on Western dogma: regurgitating all that sacrosanct love, support, respect and family-ties programming. You know, that deep conspiracy to look all loving and normal, I told you about earlier? Well, that's what I was bringing up like a salmonella sandwich.

"They won't let me have this." Elena waved a mitten around.

"This, what?"

"You! Kyiv! Everything! My own life!" She stood, her pain mysteriously forgotten. "They will not let me have any of this."

I inhaled, froze a nostril shut, backhanded it with a down-filled mitten. "They can only take from you what you let them. You must tell them what is right for you."

☸ ☸ ☸

View from Elena and Meg's kitchenette window in Kyiv, photo elenameg.com

[Image 5-7] View from Elena and Meg's kitchenette window into the typical Soviet courtyard formed by a palisade of nine-story panel-buildings.

I put on a kettle of oily tap water, unfolded our tiny, kitchenette table then pillaged the mini bar sized fridge for biscuits and ultra-high-fructose jam -- Elena's favourite. I loved our flat's kitchenette. Loved it for its surreal smallness and unapologetic simplicity -- a playhouse for grown-ups. Elena loved it because it was ours.

"Want a two-ninety-two with your tea and biscuits?" I hollered.

Elena shuffled into the kitchenette. Apparently, her spinal column was once again a tube-sock of doorknobs and broken glass. "What is a tuna-tea-tune?"

Took me a while to twig. "Ah ha! Two-ninety-two! That's an analgesic with codeine."

She sat, picked up her mobile and carefully replaced its battery.

It looked like she was committing suicide by hand grenade. Of course, suicide is a conclusion, a resolution, an ending. This, on the other hand, was taking a crowbar to Pandora's box.

Text after text downloaded to her mobile. "New message, New message, New message--"

"They don't know yet. I know that they do not want to know." Elena's hands shook. "When my mother reads that letter they will know."

"Come on. Take a nice, deep breath, and then, ring her her up. Want me to leave?"

"It does not matter. She will not let me to even say to her this terrible thing about me. I am a good daughter. I am to be a good wife and mother. This is all I am allowed." She started to thumb the tiny keypad. "Oh Meg, this will be very bad."

[[ updated 17 June, 21:19 GMT ]]