7 - Worlds Collide

Her cheeks were as red as her tiny mobile. It looked like she was trying to crush it. "Ah, Lenna, you OK?"

"It's from my best friend, Tanka." She muttered, perched on a stool beside me at the custom salad bar in Mandarin Plaza. "She says to me, 'I feel now, as if you are dead.'"

Elena Vaytsel and others are shocked by something on Kyiv Ave Kreschatik photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-1] Kyiv's Kreschatik Street was closed to traffic on Sundays, turning the city's main street -- including Maidan (independence) Square -- into a huge, human arena. The experience was often dazzling, and more often than not, shocking. Here, Elena and bystanders are photographed experiencing one of those moments.

"Your best friend told you that?! Crikey, what did you do to her?"

"What do you think? I told to her that I left Dmitry and do not want to go back." She took a furtive glance over her shoulder. "So, Tanka phoned to my mother to side with her."

"Side with her?"

"Give her sympathy. Offer help."

"That's crackers! As in, mental. This is your best friend? Did you tell her you were happy?"

"She said, I can't be happy if I make others unhappy. That I am egoistical. Terrible, what I am doing, what I have done." Elena gave it a think. "Done to Dmitry. To my mother. Done to my relations. To my friends, to her." Elena trailed off, already composing a reply on her mobile. Thumbs flying over the minuscule keypad with the dexterity of a micro sushi chef.

"Hold the phone!"

Political rock concert in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-2] Political rock concert in downtown Kyiv

She cocked an over-plucked eyebrow, "I am!"

Then, she was right back at it. Thumb whacking the keys inches from her face, eyes crossed, nostrils flared. She was starting to scare me. "That means, stop! You're going to dignify her indignation with a reply? You're dead to her. Forget her."

Elena got that deer-in-the-headlights look.

"It's like this: someone doesn't want to see you happy, then they don't really love you. Ta-DA! Problem solved -- forget about this Tanka, or whatever she's called."

"I should not answer to her?"

"What can you say that you haven't already?"

She stared at the mobile.

"Really! You need to convince your friend, you aren't a horrible person? I think what you need to do, is forget about her."

The salad girl -- a suspiciously blonde, Ukrainian maiden, right down to the embroidered apron -- gently interrupted. Our takeaway, ten-kilo, all-vegan, ultra-deluxe, was ready to go.

"Dee-ackoo-you." I parroted the Ukrainian word for thank you and passed her my credit card.

Elena cringed at my bungling attempt at Ukrainian. Truth be told, I think she lives in a perpetual state of shame around me.

Kyiv Mandarin Plaza entrance marquee photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-3] Mandarin Plaza's entrance marquee, Kyiv

☸ ☸ ☸

"Da! On the way, Mama!" Elena ended the call. As usual, we were running late.

Frankly, it was Elena doing the running -- like a mistress to her lover. A creepy mad dash to Kyiv's central train station. As for me, I was reluctantly in tow.

The metro shuddered to a tooth-loosening stop. The doors wheezed open, and the usual metro stampede commenced. I knew we were waltzing into a trap. Crikey, it was so blatantly ham-fisted, it had to be a sneering message in itself. Kind of a, if you're stupid enough to fall for this, you deserve what's coming, statement. Over the previous week, the telephonic abuse tapered off, and then, out of the blue, Elena promises me, "Mama is sorry. She is coming to Kyiv to meet you and to wish us well."

Common sense screamed at me, "This is wrong!" But so what? Abandon Elena and run like hell? Play all passive-aggressive and add to the ocean of hurt she was diving into?

At half-past ten, falling snow made it darker outside than in the metro station, itself.

Kyiv's Central Train Station Metro station surface entrance photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-4] Kyiv Train Station subway entrance. Not taken at the time of the assault.

Clots of protesters milled about half-heartedly waving Soviet banners. Those not leafleting disinterested passers-by hopped from foot to foot, attempting to save their extremities.

Kyiv Central, like most Soviet train stations, consists of miles and miles of switching yards, maintenance sheds, factories and even power plants. From this steel lashed landscape, sixteen tracks serve passengers. A cement, barn-like monstrosity -- and the myriad of incongruous additions it sprouted over the years -- provide a terminal for the human cargo. Dragged along by a semi crazed Russian, the feeling that I was trapped in Kafka's nightmare was stronger than ever.

Hoods and collars pulled up, Elena set her sights on the terminal's main entrance. "Come on!" She yanked me toward a row of doors labelled CENTRAL. The wind was coming up fast. Micro-flurries whipped blowing snow into a veritable blizzard. It lent credence to my misguided assumption that meetings and joyful reunions ought to take place indoors during life-threatening weather events.

Elena skidded to a stop. "Eta Mama!"

We were only halfway to the terminal. I squinted through blowing snow, saw nothing. "Move! It's freezing."

Elena resisted.

Then I saw it, a lone, hydrant-like figure. Way, way out in the distance. Waving stubby, outstretched arms -- Up. Down. Up. Down. Bloody codswallop! An inflatable yeti? Animatronic amusement park clown? The Michelin man? Whatever it was, it was out there all alone, surrounded by windswept passenger platforms.

"What the--!? Is that her?"

"Maaaa maaaa!"

I nudged Elena toward the terminal. "She can meet us inside. Where it's not snowing! And there are, you know, people." It was like trying to uproot a mighty oak.

Kyiv's Central Train Station passenger terminal, main hall photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-5] Kyiv's Central Train Station passenger terminal, main hall

"No! Mama wants to meet us. We go to her."

Elena hauled me toward the western pedestrian tunnel, an unheated passageway beneath the tracks. We skidded along on patches of ice we couldn't see in the anaemic daylight oozing down the stairwells.

Mama appeared in silhouette at the bottom of one.

Elena rushed toward her. "Mama, oh Mama--"

Mama shoved past her daughter. She turned her back and started swinging her arse at me. Damn, that was weird!

An Ankylosaurus encounter in a pedestrian tunnel was absurdly disarming. Bloody hilarious, until a crazed vagrant launched at Elena from another stairwell.

I figured we'd been jumped by a strung out junkie. Thought he'd take our dough and leg it for a fix. But no, this dosser had Elena in a body lock and was dragging her deeper into the tunnel. What I assumed was Mama, held me off with her arse, swinging that big bahookie like a wrecking ball while screeching, "Go away! Go away! Go Away!" in Russian.

Elena yelled from the mugger's embrace, "Meg! It's my father!" Then she tried defusing the situation with pithy niceties. "Lovely to see you. This is Meg. Have a nice trip? Can we show you around? Thank you for coming."

Anti-Europe protest at the Ukrainian Central Election Commission Building on Boulevard Lesi Ukrainky photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-6] Pro Russian, anti EU supporters. Generally, not the kindest, happy-go-lucky, warm-and-fuzzy sort of mob.

The mugger yanked Elena around, kicked her feet out from under and dragged her away. "Meg! Go home!" She screamed. "Something is wrong. Father never goes anywhere! Please, Meg. Go home!"

"Home?"

Mama whirled to face me. "Go away!" Then to Elena, "Shut up!"

Fired up, Papa twisted Elena's arms and slammed her into the wall.

It didn't silence her. She wanted me out of that dark tunnel devoid of witnesses. Out of harm's way. "Home, to our flat. Please, Meg, I'll be all right. They just want to talk, then I will be back home."

Russian leaning supporters ready to bust some heads photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-7] Those supporting closer ties with Russia weren't a kind, open minded, fun loving, bunch.

Elena's plea tore at me.

Papa dragged her deeper into the tunnel, yanking at her hyper-flexed joints every time she spoke. Mama was getting hoarse, but still swinging and shrieking to beat the band.

"Meg, go home! You need to go. Wait for me in our flat. I will be--" Elena choked, pain taking autonomic priority.

They were beating Elena to get at me! I was frantic. For two weeks I watched a determined but fragile -- and absolutely terrified -- human being come into her own. Cram as much discovery, freedom, and even expression into every second she had. How could they do this? They were family!

My getting out might mitigate the violence. I turned and ran. Elena's screams hollowed me out. I hated myself for bringing this nightmare down upon her. Follow your heart. Steer your own course. Stand up for yourself.

It was absolute bollocks! What had I done? If only. I wanted to lie down in the snow and freeze to death. If only I hadn't come to this wretched train station, maybe Elena wouldn't have either. If only I hadn't come to Kyiv. If only--

Anti-Europe protest at the Ukrainian Central Election Commission Building on Boulevard Lesi Ukrainky photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-8] Pro Kremlin, anti-European integration protest in front of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission Building on Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard.

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McDonald's was about half full. Diners, weather refugees, students and the unspeakably hip would have seen a crazy woman and strung out dosser dragging a shattered woman up to the second floor. The diners quickly made room but nobody left. This was better than TV!

Papa spotted a hastily vacated corner table and steered Elena toward it. Without letting go, he swept errant chips, condiment packs and wrappers to the floor, then shoved her into a flimsy plastic chair. She was hemmed in between two walls, the table, Mama and himself.

"We're all spent out. Buy us some food." Mama said.

Insolvency and starvation didn't add up for Elena. Especially as she was pinned down, going nowhere and not particularly peckish.

"Get some food." Mama repeated.

Puzzled, Elena reached slowly for her handbag.

Mama snatched it from her. "Father will go with you." She dug through the bag, pulled out some cash and shoved it into her daughter's palm. "I will keep your bag and coat, in case you try something."

Elena didn't know what kind of trap she'd blundered into until she and Papa returned with McTreats for the happy family. Smirking, Mama gave back the handbag. Elena yanked open an internal zippered compartment, found her tiny mobile, palmed and pocketed it with relief.

Then, the deepest, inner compartment of her rugged travel bag, the secure, hidden pocket for her most prized possession was open! She would never leave its zip open, not even a millimetre. That's how she knew she was fucked. Her passport -- inconceivably hard to get for a Russian -- was gone.

"What now?" Mama sneered. "Do you consider us at all?"

The nicked passport beat back decades of indoctrination. "I just want to be with Meg." The words were out, before her brain screamed a warning to just shut up.

The blast came from her suddenly reanimated father. "Oh, how stupid! She wants to be with Meg! Shut up about this Meg! I will not hear of this sickening depravity, ever again! Can you not see? She is a criminal. Yes, a criminal! Your sweetheart, queerest Meg is a criminal. We will report this green snot to the Ukrainian police, to the Russian militia, to Interpol! Got it?!" Glaring at Elena, he slid a sheet of paper from a tattered satchel.

Elena saw the grainy photo of me and my favourite coffee cup. Knew they hired a snout to hack her email. "Yeah, so?"

Papa thrust the page toward her. "So, your beloved is a criminal!" His tobacco stained fingers crinkled the paper.

That these two people might actually be insane and very likely dangerous was starting to cross Elena's mind right about then.

The page continued to crumple in his jittery grasp. He jabbed it closer to her face. "Well, what do you think of that?"

"You printed her picture. It means nothing!"

"It means you will not be with her!" He erupted.

"Oh, yeah?" Elena dropped fast. Arching her back and rolling from her chair, she hit the floor scrambling for the furthest wall before either Mama or Papa knew what was happening. Up against a glass curtain wall, Elena gazed outside at the unreachable world she'd been dragged away from. Then her hand found something in her pocket. Her mobile! A split second later, it was speed-dialling my number.

Kyiv's Central Train Station exterior layout photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-9] Kyiv's Central Train Station exterior layout. The passenger terminal is to the left, the subway station's surface entrance is in the middle of the frame. Between the passenger terminal (on the left) and the subway station entrance (in mid frame), is the entrance to the western pedestrian tunnel, blocked from view by people and objects. The McDonald's restaurant, where Elena was held, is to the right. Not taken at the time of the assault.

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Hundreds of feet below the Palace of Sports, ramming a bow wave of stale air into the station, the Pecherska metro train decelerated. Nothing felt real. I was sleepwalking through a nightmare. Desperate to get back to our sunny flat, a cup of tea, a chance to think the situation through.

The crowd surged toward the braking train, converging on its doors. I held back, tending to let the commuters battle it out before I hopped aboard at the last second.

That's when my mobile rang. Repeaters underground? Yeah, no kidding, those post Soviets really take their mobile tech seriously! Elena's number on the display. The doors hooted. I ignored them. Missed the train. "Lenna, I'm worried. Is everything--"

"Meg, I am here! McDonald's. They are holding me. Near the station." Sounds of a scuffle. Then a scream. "Meg, Meg I love you!" And then, nothing.

Seeming endless Kyiv subway escalators photo elenameg.com

[Image 7-10] The deep Kyiv subway is accessed via seemingly endless escalators. This is just one that leads to a landing and then another. There can be several escalators and landings to reach the surface.

[[ updated Apr 22, 19:16 ]]