12 - Going Nowhere

Come from a country that Canada doesn't like, and they make it impossible to get a tourist visa. Unless, of course, you're stinking rich. Apart from a passport, Elena needed to show the Canadian consulate, at least, ten thousand dollars -- in a Russian bank account -- along with various assets, real estate holdings and financial ties to Russia. That's before even thinking of getting at that pile of crazy-stupid, impossible-to-get documents her parents held hostage.

Engaging my ninja-ostrich powers of denial -- and a delusional confidence in my ability to survive the impossible or die-trying-and-then-what-difference-does-it-make-anyway -- we concentrated on the least complicated part of the equation: the money. Elena steeled herself to call a weird Uncle in Volgograd. Apparently, he'd given her a shedload of stock certificates out of the goodness of his heart, or the dirty laundry sack.

Kyiv's Independence Square photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-1] One of Meg's photos of Kyiv's Independence Square, taken from Globus's eastern terrace.

I caught dulcet snippets of contrite grovelling from her side of the conversation. Then, ominous silence.

Elena padded into the kitchenette. "He said he'd call back."

"I suppose he needs to confirm the transfer codes for your bank account?"

"I don't have a bank account."

My jaw dropped hard enough to bruise my chest.

"Do not look like that. Russians don't have bank accounts."

"I've never met anyone over the age of six without a bank account: Russian, pescatarian, episcopalian or otherwise. What's he going to do? Write a note to the Canadian prime minister, 'Dear Grand Nagus, kindly rest assured, I have vast black-market and money-laundering profits in safe keeping for Lenna's field-trip to Canada.'"

"Maybe." Elena glared at me through tears. "You told me to talk to him!"

"You told me he gave you a mountain of stocks."

"Gave to my mother! To buy for me and Dmitry a flat."

Outdoor shopping in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-2] Outdoor shopping in Kyiv

She'd forgotten to tell me that part, or that her mother held all her so-called assets. "Well, bollocks! Money, shares, whatever in someone else's account, sure won't get you into Canada."

Elena stared out the kitchenette window.

The phone rang, and she bolted from the kitchenette. Her tiny, mobile -- the one Uncle Kolya had the number for -- lay on the table. And it was not the phone that was ringing. Holy kapoosta! He'd rung the flat's land line.

There was a gutted whimper or two from Elena before she slammed down the receiver, marched to the kitchenette and grabbed the Nemiroff. "Mama went to him. I know it." She poured herself a recklessly stiff belt of the Ukrainian, pepper and honey vodka. An embalmed cayenne -- the mescal worm's fiery proxy -- having escaped the bottle during Elena's vigorous pour, spun lazy circles in her glass.

Kyiv Prokuratura with GESTAPO sign photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-3] A brave soul took it upon her/himself to provide the Prokuratura an appropriate moniker: GESTAPO

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Something was up. The gatekeeper didn't leave his hut at our approach. A sheet of semitransparent glazing slid aside. The guard's formerly amiable mug filled the opening. "Your detective friend doesn't work here any more. Go away!"

"We need a police report--"

"We don't give out police reports." The scuffed, acrylic panel snapped shut.

"Slag it. These poxy sods couldn't get a piss up in a brewery. Let's take it up the food chain!"

"What?" Elena looked at me, concerned.

"Go to their boss. These knuckle draggers must have a headquarters. Some place we can file a complaint."

"Complain about militia! In Russia?"

"No, here. In Kyiv."

"That is what I mean. Oye-yoy-yoy, you insane? Nobody does such a thing."

Khreschaitik avenue Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-4] Scenes from a Sunday afternoon on Khreschaitik

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A crumbling, Napoleonic barracks housed the police headquarters. There was no sign on the chief's door. No pompous, star and shield emblem. You'd have thought, given this was the office of the loftiest copper in Kyiv, someone could have, at least, dangled a big pine cone from the doorknob. A couple of rough, middle-age women -- hair bleached with industrial solvent, no doubt -- sat behind desks, sucking on gaspers.

"Eh-hem." Elena announced herself. As if they couldn't see us standing there.

"What!" One of the charmers snapped. "Who do you think you are? You can't be here!"

"We would like to see the chief of police. If you would be so kind." Elena said.

"No! Nobody sees Him. Get out of here!"

"But, my passport was stolen and--"

"Go to a police station. We don't handle crimes here."

Lenin and other sociopaths photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-5] Paintings of Lenin and other sociopaths are now enticing buys for the discerning collector of totalitarian talismans.

An unspeakably well-dressed gentleman emerged from the inner office. I'm thinking the squawking and flying feathers alerted him to the highly unusual appearance of visitors. Nonetheless, his presence instantaneously transformed the office lovelies into something passably human.

Elena used the distraction to get a word in edgewise. "The crime already happened. The police won't give me a report."

"So what?"

"So, I want to speak to the chief!" Elena growled. I was impressed! Until then, growling and hackle raising had been my prerogative alone.

Black market kiosks in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-6] Acres of unheated but covered, black-market kiosks provide Kyivians with otherwise unattainable goods: cosmetics, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, electronics, entertainment, shoes, clothing, software, car parts, even financial services.

"Who do you think you are? Why should I let you see the chief!?"

"Tanya, Svetlana," the nattily attired gentleman called the receptionists by name. "I have just been with the chief. He is not busy." Then he breezed past the counter and ushered us into the chief's inner sanctum.

The air -- if you can call it that, given it would kill anything that breathed -- was thick with swirling cigar smoke. Deeper into the murk, a desk you could land a plane on, materialized through the smog. Then -- and this is where you'll want to imagine the theme from The Godfather -- Don Corleone leaned forward. A sickly shaft of light through the smoke and illuminated his face. "You never betray the family." Or that's what I expected. More than likely he said, "What is this! Who are you two?"

Black Market shopping in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-7] More black market shopping ops for the big shishkas (in the Mercedes) and regular sods (marsh-root-kah mini-bus), alike.

Elena ran through the McDonald's incident and requested a police report, or better yet, her passport back from the woman who stole it.

The chief reclined, sighed. Turned his hands palms up, like he had to carefully count his fingers. "What you have done is terrible. How dare you barge into my office, demanding that my officers participate in your depravity. Against your own parents! My heart hurts for your mother, for your family. I do not know how it is that you got away with this. Had I been there, you would have been on that train to Russia! At your poor mother's feet, begging her forgiveness all the way home."

Elena interrupted. "I have committed a crime?"

"Sadly, no. But Ukraine is very dangerous for people like you." He leaned forward. Looked the two of us up and down. I looked like something thawed from a glacier in my trashed, ice-age megafauna hide hoodie.

Ukrainian militsia in Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-8] The boys in blue polyester. Gatherings like this, Elena and Meg thought best to avoid.

Elena slumped. "He thinks we are gay." She told me in English.

"Or vegetarian." I added.

After a pause, so pregnant it might as well have been in labour, the chief switched to English. He told us, nice girls can't possibly love each other and to stop our nonsense and go home to our boyfriends. Satisfied, he sank back in his overstuffed chair and asked for our address in Kyiv.

Elena rattled off the Canadian Embassy.

The Chief went berserk. The two of us and the well-dressed man flew from his office, like teenagers from the liquor cabinet when the folks return early.

In the corridor, Dapper Man warned us to get out of town and do it quickly. Walking away, he added over his shoulder, "Make sure you aren't followed."

The Ukrainian Prokuratura building photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-9] The Prokuratura from Elena and Meg's flat. The watched watching the watchers.

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It takes special negotiation skills to get a police report in a former Soviet republic. I had become so well practised by then, I could have written a For Dummies book on the subject. I marched toward the central train station's police detachment, fixed a steely gaze upon the gatekeeper's hut, called out in a loud, clear voice, and offered a bribe.

Twenty bucks got us inside. The officer we hired for the police report, didn't give a rat's arse about the incident at McDonald's. He hunched over a desk in one of the interrogation rooms and took dictation from Elena. She would get out a sentence fragment. He'd raise a hand to stop her, then translate her spoken Russian into excruciatingly slow, longhand Ukrainian.

Elena could have told him anything -- flying saucers, alien abduction, getting mugged by her own parents: you know, ludicrously unbelievable stuff -- and he would have written it down. It felt like hours later, we all signed it. I bunged the officer a couple of twenties, and he escorted us off the premises.

Khreschaitik Boulevard Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-10] Khreschaitik Boulevard closed to traffic on Sundays, becomes an interesting, politicized and rather inebriated stroll by late afternoon.

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The Russian Embassy was draped in a huge banner for the environmentalist, Green Party of Ukraine. A nod toward a kinder, gentler Russia? A bizarre opposite colour statement about the Orange Revolution? Nobody knows, but that's where we ended up next.

Elena found the instructions for, replacement of passport, and started reading through the steps. Her face got whiter, her cheeks redder, eyes hollower. And then, "This is impossible! Let's go home." She needed dozens of documents, statements, permissions, references and letters.

"This is a consulate, right? We need to speak to a consular official."

"Nobody will talk to you."

I felt for my wallet. It was dangerously thin. The Russian lass had a good point about our being listened to. "But we have to try."

The consular officials were a couple of men in a dingy office off the foyer. They prattled on, finishing each other's sentences like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And like Shakespeare's beloved characters, they turned out to be just as useless. They stuck fast to the list of required documents, finally concluding that nobody in the entire history of Russia had replaced a passport, anywhere, but back home in Russia.

And then, they threw us out.

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Elena suddenly needed a world map. "A destination, Meg! I need to know where we are going, where I can go." She handed the clerk several Ukrainian hryvnias.

In Kofe Hauz at the Globus Mall our new map became an impromptu tablecloth. Ukraine was a cinnamon roll sized, amoebic shape. My coffee press occupied the Black Sea. Poland had been invaded by sugar packets. Bright red gloves obscured Western Russia, and Canada might as well have fallen from the edge of the world, seeing as it dangled off the table somewhere near the floor.

Kofe Hauz in Globus Mall Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-11] Kofe Hauz in Globus Mall's above ground atrium.

I pointed at a narrow strip of Russia between eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan. "I know what we'll do. This is brilliant. We cross Russia here, go overland, hitch-hike, blend in, slip into Kazakhstan unnoticed, and then make a beeline for China."

"China?" Elena raised her seriously over plucked brows.

"Yeah, China. They have snake-heads: human smugglers, they're getting people into Canada all the time." I left out sinking boats, disease, death, starvation, drowning, arrest and internment in Canadian concentration camps, and then, forced repatriation to China. I mean, no point dwelling on the negative, especially when it's all you've got to go on.

"China, it is not so close. Not small to cross." Elena lifted the eastern edge of the map. "It is huge. So also is Kazakhstan! And you speak Chinese?" Aye, she has a special way of raining on the best of parades. "You think they won't arrest us crossing Russia to Kazakhstan? Oye yoy yoy, choomeechka, it is impossible. Why so far? Maybe Poland is better?"

Typical losers at the Globus mall photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-12] Globus Mall's atrium gawkers. Usually men, stupefied by boredom.

"I suppose it's easier to get to." I glanced around for eavesdroppers. I was pretty sure that a couple of toughs were watching us. It felt like absolutely everyone was. "And it just might work. We'll buy some winter clothes and serious hiking boots. Sneak across the border in the dead of night."

"And then, what?"

I lifted my mug from Norway, slurped lukewarm, designer coffee. "We'd be in Poland, but we'd be illegal. And come to think of it, we still couldn't go anywhere."

"Maybe a passport, I can get one there?"

"How? Buy one?"

"Yeah, buy one. Meg, what choice do we have? My country won't give me passport." She stared at a mystery pastry she had big eyes for when we ordered. "What it would cost?"

"A lot! Besides that, it's seriously criminal."

"But jail in West is better than mental hospital in Russia." Elena stabbed at her pastry with a plastic fork.

It drove me crazy! Did she think I was made of money? "Just eat it. You ordered it." I had night sweats over every euro or hryvnia we killed along with time. Counting every kopeck and cringing inside when she scanned display shelves and pointed at her stomach's desire. "They would only put you in jail long enough to send you back to Russia."

She impaled the overpriced, mini carbohydrate-cow-pie through its crown of fluorescent jelly. Then, she started spinning it like a top. "Meg, I hate that because of me, you are stuck here."

"Oh for dog's sake, give me that!" I snatched the pastry. I'd have to eat the poxy thing, or it would end up partially gnawed on, wadded into a paper napkin and stuffed into a pocket to rot. I sure as hell wasn't wasting it. "I'm not stuck. Neither are you." I took a bite, the pastry was horrible. I wondered how many RPM it would go before flying apart and killing someone at an adjacent table. "We will get out of here. Soon. Besides that, it's not like we have an alternative."

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Percherskaya Lavra photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-13] Kyiv's Percherskaya Larva a close by retreat for Elena and Meg.

Leaving the Pecherska metro station, it was a sure bet we were being followed. We shoved our way up the escalator and out onto the public square. Blowing snow provided some cover, but the square was deserted. "If that guy was following us, and we don't high-tail it, we're sitting ducks."

"Ducks!? Meg, what ducks?"

"Forget it! I'm just weird." A clot of pedestrians had almost cleared the Kutuzova Boulevard crossing. I grabbed Elena and ran to catch up. Nearly there, a white Lada, its tyres snarling on the ice, fishtailed through the red light, straight toward us.

corner of Kutuzova and Lesi Ukrainki photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-14] The corner of Kutuzova and Lesi Ukrainki. Where Meg got hit by a car.

I shoved Elena to the kerb a microsecond before the car's grillwork buckled my knees from behind. My arse crumpled the bonnet with more than enough leftover momentum to bounce me off the windscreen and onto the road.

I landed flat on my back. Winded and hugging my knees, I watched in photographic detail, the passenger door leave its frame. Without thinking, I pivoted off my shoulders and pistoned my feet toward the opening car door. My gloriously heavy, clod-hopper, wedgie tall-boots impacted the door squarely. It crumpled like a beer can at a faculty barbecue. From the screaming, I figure it got the guy's fingers. Like lightning, I was on my feet, scrambling for the pavement.

Elena was frozen. I yanked her back to reality. "Run!"

She lurched into a sprint.

The Lada's RPM red-lined. We didn't watch it mount the pavement, but the sickeningly expensive crunch it made was a good indication that should the vehicle survive, it was coming for us. The punks in pursuit had urban geography on their side. The wide pavement was hemmed in by a palisade of buildings on one side and the boulevard on the other. An ideal alley in which to mow us down.

Meg Aitken is a vehicle passageway is post Soviet Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-15] Meg loiters in a typical vehicle passageway through a building.

An opening into a typical Soviet courtyard lay dead ahead. We lateralled right, ducking through just in time not to be roadkill. The Lada skidded past. Where to? No idea. We weren't hanging around to find out. The so-called courtyard was a vertical sided crater, walled off by several abutting tower blocks. Those buildings, like the one we lived in, were accessed by stairwells. For any given unit there was only one way in, and only one way out. Communal, exterior doors at the bottom of each shaft are usually heavy, steel and self-locking. I scanned one door after another, desperate to see light leaking out around its edges -- a sign it had been left ajar.

The sound of hollered threats and jack-boots pounding pavement ricocheted around the courtyard.

A sliver of light. "Yes!" I whirled, slammed into Elena. "Don't shut please-please-please!" I got my hand between the door and its frame, and flung it open. We flew through into the stairwell, pulling the handle hard behind us.

Crash! The door slammed and locked. Whump! The skinheads piled into it.

Blimey, those blokes were majorly narked! And the expletives could've put a longshoreman to shame. Russian, Ukrainian, English, even some unbelievably filthy French. They were going completely berserk on the other side of that door.

I pushed Elena toward the stairs. "Go!"

"Where?"

"Up! Just climb." She took off. I plunged into the lift, punched every button it had and leapt out. How long the outer door would hold; how long before some idiot let the shrieking meth-heads in; how long anything!? I had no bloody idea. I was making it all up as we went.

Soviet residential construction photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-16] This landing between floors in Elena and Meg's pod-yest stairwell is typical of this ubiquitous architectural feature of Soviet residential construction.

We stopped climbing five or six stories up. Chests heaving, throats burning. It sounded like the skinheads had given up, or gone into silent ambush mode.

"Well, what now, my dear?" We were up a stairwell with a couple of crazed lunatics down below. "We've been treed."

"Treed?"

"Yeah, treed, like ramblers chased up a tree by a bear."

Elena sat down on the landing. Her forest-green Doc Martin's rested on the step below that. The floors above might have been abandoned. The only source of light was an eerie, mercury vapour glow oozing in through filthy stairwell windows. Hugging her knees, she asked, "So that we not are treed, what to do?"

"I have no idea." I eased myself down beside her. Everything was starting to hurt. "I guess, we wait until they're gone, then leave, one at a time."

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Kyiv Prokuratura at night photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-17] The Prokuratura is lit by sodium vapor in this shot from Meg and Elena's flat.

The Prokuratura loomed over us. Sodium vapour light lit everything in extreme contrast, electric-orange. Ah, home, sweet home.

Elena punched in the key code, hid behind the heavy exterior door and pulled it open. I stood off, watching for ambushers. Nothing. Just our own familiar stairwell. We crept up the stairs, peering around corners. None of the absurdly upholstered, front doors burst open or sat ajar. Muffled squawking from TV sets leaked into the stairwell along with the usual sounds of domestic bliss. Our own tufted vinyl door was locked and apparently untouched.

Neck muscles tightening, I inserted the key and turned it.

Rediculous doors in post Soviet Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 12-18] Tufted vinyl over armor (steel plating), adorns the outer doors of many a post-Soviet abode.

[[ Updated Apr 23 15:35 GMT ]]