13 - Getting the Hell Out of Dodge
No gouged death threats or bullet holes in the door. No bombs or booby traps waiting inside. Just the pong of wet laundry rotting in the machine. Astonishing, but true: a domestic goddess, I am not.
We crept through the flat, lunging for light switches, cringing at closets. I was desperate: "That car, it was a random thing, right? Happens all the time in places like this?"
"No. Never has it happened to me!"
"I mean, you don't think they were after us, personally?"
"After what you did to their car, goss-poe-dee, Meg!"
I rubbed my eyes, took a breath. Counted to ten -- in Russian, for that extra calming effect. "Forget it. You're right. They're narked because I, for no reason whatsoever, went mental and attacked their car. Nothing to do with Mr. Creepy on the metro, or your scary uncle, or your psychopathic mama."
"How can you say such things about my mama?!" Elena was quick to tears at the best of times, but say just one thing about Mama Dearest, and it was World War Three.
☸ ☸ ☸
In the kitchenette, Elena gobbled up blue stilton like it grew on trees. I was in the living room, nibbling on dry toast and dealing with email when what sounded like a drunken brawl erupted in the stairwell.
"Holy kapoosta! We've gotta check this out!" I scrambled for my camera.
"Nyet! Crazy, are you?" She had a point.
Instead, we crouched in the vestibule, listening as doors on the floors below us got kicked and pounded on. Followed in short order by the furious occupants threatening a little kicking and pounding of their own. Unsettlingly, the fracas was ascending. The lads were closing on us. Words became easier to make out. Vile Russian equivalents for prostitutes, homosexuals, female dogs of questionable breeding. Aye, they were looking for us!
Elena went white as the driven snow. The gentlemen callers worked their way from one door to the next. So far, no one in the building grassed us out, or maybe they didn't know who in the hell we were.
Then, a new sound keened its way onto the scene. Distant at first, but undeniable about the time doors near ours were getting pummelled. "Someone called the cops!" I snarled.
"So what? Those men out there might be the militsia." She used the local nomenclature for the boys-in-blue-polyester. "Just be quiet."
"Right! Our friendly, personal Sherlock probably sent them to shake me down for his chocolates-and-wine-for-his-girlfriend fund."
"Huh? I guess." Elena looked at me like I'd gone full-on, transient-ischemia aphasic. "What if they break the door, Meg?"
"Not a chance! This door's overstuffed Pleather over steel. Crikes, it might bend, but I don't think it'll break."
"But they are criminals!"
"I only hope it's criminals out there and not the bleeding militsia! Besides, the fucking filth scares me a lot more than eejit thugs."
"But you kicked their car! I saw what you did to it. They can kill you for that."
"Yeah, but the coppers know I throw money at the slightest provocation; like some Pavlovian, money drooling poodle. I can hear them down at the station, 'Hey lads, we need chocolates and wine for our prossies. Go scare a few bob out of that Americanka and her tom.'"
"Poodle?" Elena gave me a weird look.
The sirens went silent. A loud-hailer shut the belligerents up. Furtive mumbles and frantic shuffling vanished into the background murmur of lower-floor occupants carping to the cops. We waited, knees and foreheads together, hands on each other's shoulders. Silent. Barely breathing.
"What now?" I whispered.
Elena shushed me.
Blue flashers reflected from the Prokuratura. It felt like one hell of a thunderstorm brewing over a wheat field.
Then, jackboots on our landing. Mumbled insecure ribbing. Forced laughter, and, Ding-dong. I was pretty sure it wasn't Avon calling.
Elena stifled an inhalation eep!
A couple more, ding-dong's and even a foomf-foomf-wheeze of a knocking attempt on our ridiculous, overstuffed door, before the militsia -- we think -- moved on to the next stupidly, upholstered door.
☸ ☸ ☸
I dug out the deputy vice consul's terrifyingly official, Government of Canada business card. Dialled her direct number, and waited. I was desperate to talk to someone who might actually understand more than sixteen-percent of the words I uttered.
"What? You are still here?" She spoke with an I-can't-believe-I-gave-you-that-number inflexion.
I told her about the stairwell storm troopers.
"Look! You have got to get out of Ukraine. You have a valid passport. You have an open, return plane ticket. What are you still doing here?"
"I'm not leaving Elena." I waited for a response. I waited some more.
Finally, "Meg, you are in a very dangerous situation. All the consulate, the government of Canada, can do, is look out for you. It is up to Russia to look after your friend."
I was silent.
"Meg, still there?"
"Uh, yeah? Sorry, I was thinking. You're right. I-- ah, we need to get the hell out of Dodge."
"Kyiv. Too much telly as a kid."
"Be careful. You know they run identity documents? Commercial carriers: the train, bus, plane. Anyone leaving the region -- Kyiv, in this case -- gets identified, recorded, reported."
I did know that. Hadn't really given it much thought with just about everything else going wrong. "Fucking brilliant!" I muttered, slapping my mobile shut. "Yet another obstacle to get over, around, or crash right into."
☸ ☸ ☸
We couldn't waltz from the building, laughing at big shishkas, spitting olive pits at posh cars: you know, our normal routine.
Mind you, we indulged in one last hurrah. A fond farewell to our Prokuratura neighbours. In the wee hours -- after packing only what we could carry -- we lined up all our liquor bottles along the foundation of the Prokuratura's closest corner. They weren't all empty. So, cheers to whomever found the liquid remains of our life in Kyiv.
Elena went first. I watched her in the murky darkness, disappear up a snow-dusted side street. Blimey, it was the second time she'd fled her home in as many months. I forced a cough to clear the lump in my throat. The flat was empty, cold. Hostile.
Our mad, crazy, wild, love and interaction within its walls brought the flat to life. But Elena wasn't coming through the bizarrely upholstered door with forbidden foodstuffs ever again. I wasn't either, but that didn't matter. I was the one left behind, feeling the cold, afraid of the silence. Looking at all the things that used to be a part of us, cast away -- abandoned.
Splitting up: taking separate routes into town, seemed sensible. Ah bollocks, what did I know? I was making it all up as we went along. Elena caught a bus to Arsenal: a metro station off our usual route. I took a random walk in the opposite direction, flagging down a ride when my surroundings looked unfamiliar.
☸ ☸ ☸
It was still dark when we reconnected and emerged from the metro in the heart of Kyiv. I looked around for a bank. "We need a cash machine. You recall seeing one in Mandarin Plaza?"
"I do not know what is this machine."
"ATM, an Automatic Teller Machine, a cashpoint?" I was incredulous. "A bloody hole-in-the-wall?! Aye, if there's one anywhere, it'll be there. Let's go."
I felt like a crazed coach tourist making verbal love to a fruit machine. "Come on. Come on. Come on! Baby needs new shoes. Lucky sevens. Lucky, lucky, lucky." I air-kissed my TD Canada Trust bank card, thinking it was the last time I'd ever see it, and fed it to the cash machine.
Booop! Then, "Language: Rooskie, Ukrainska, English." Flashed on the screen.
"Holy kapoosta! Maybe it's going to work! Maybe we're actually going to be okay." I punched in my code and requested an inordinate amount of cash.
The machine offered up my daily maximum limit.
"Score!" I fist pumped with whatever hand wasn't poking YES on the touch screen. It even asked me what currency I wanted. I was tearing up, getting misty, watching those sixty, gorgeous US twenties clog the dispenser.
Despite the lifesaving, cashpoint windfall, I was in rough shape. We'd been up pretty much all night and under the kind of pressure given to spawning really high atomic-weight elements in super-massive stellar explosions. Worse, I hadn't had a hit of caffeine in twenty-four hours! It was full-on migraine headache time, if I didn't get a fix, and get it fast.
"Aaaarrrrg!" Bars, restaurants, every bloody one of them was closed. Apparently, high-end dining doesn't rise and shine with the junior executives of new Kyiv. But I could see them. Just outside, Mandarin Plaza, alighting from their limousines and taxis; all freshly pressed, groomed and caffeinated up. I hit the call button for the lift. If our favourite executive-class grocery was open in the basement, I would buy a jar of instant, and bloody eat it with a spoon.
I looked at the plaza's passenger drop-off choked by a throng of expensive saloons spawning those aforementioned junior execs, all redolent of coffee and pricey man-scent. Luckily, a few regular motors stood their ground amongst the metallic bulls.
I set toward a sound looking, nondescript, light blue Opel. A non-scary driver sat, reading the paper.
"Meg?" Elena called out in my wake.
"Come on. Let's go."
"Right now? To Odessa!? Choomeechka, you crazy?"
"Not yet, just dangerously caffeine deprived. Listen, it's now or never. We have got to go!" I had been to Odessa, was reasonably familiar with it. It has a seaport and seemed as good a place as any to go to ground and buy time. "We can get coffee on the road." I knocked on the Opel's passenger window. The driver signalled us into the car. I eased into the front. Elena climbed in the back.
"Where to?" The driver asked, without taking his eyes off the newspaper.
"Uh, huh. Train station or airport?"
"The town centre. Around the Opera." I knew it well, a touristy area teeming with snooty hotels. It was the one place I had a chance of blending in, disappearing. Going dark.
"Odessa!?" He folded the paper, slapped it on the dash and glared at me. "Are you going by train or plane?"
"No, you misunderstand." Elena leaned forward. "We need to get to Odessa, and we would like to get there by car. Can you drive us, and if so, for how much?"
We'd discussed this too. Probably at three in the morning while stuffing suitcases and thrashing out a viable escape-from-Kyiv-without-getting-topped-or-nicked plan. I spelled out what the consul told me to a pie-eyed Elena, "With all intercity public transport: planes, trains, coaches, and donkey carts running identification, we go in a private vehicle, or we're taking a bloody long walk."
He put the car in gear, sped from the herd of idling Mercs and Bimmers, careened around a corner, pulled into a loading bay and killed the motor. "Odessa is very far. A thousand kilometres, certainly. Very expensive to drive there." He spoke to me in simple Russian.
"It's about six hundred kilometres. How about two hundred dollars." I said.
"Go to the devil! That won't buy petrol, and I need to drive all the way back, and this is my brother-in-law's motor." He'd reverted to completely colloquial Russian.
I got maybe fifty per cent from his words, but a hundred per cent from his tone of voice. "Ahhh, Lenna, you can join the conversation any time."
Driver bloke zeroed in on my language. I visualised his Terminator-like heads-up display: English detected. Money!
I raised my offer. "Fine. Two fifty. Cash. And we go now."
"What are your names? You are Americans, yes?"
Elena chimed in. "I am Russian, my--" she hesitated, "girlfriend is from Canada."
"Don't tell him that!" I groaned.
"Girlfriend?" She asked.
"No! That I'm from Canada. It's fucking embarrassing." I turned to driver bloke. "And no names."
"Bladt, you are on the run or you would take the train." Ah hah, the bloke understood some English. "Maybe you murdered someone. Maybe drugs. I don't care, but I need something for my risk. I don't know what you two have done."
I upped the offer. "Three hundred, that is it, or we find another car."
Elena popped the back door, stuck out a Doc Martin.
"OK lady, three hundred in American dollars, and I want to see it. We get pulled over and it is everyone for himself. All I know is you missed your coach or something." He handed me a card. "My name is Andre."
Elena got back in. She translated Andre's instructions for my benefit. Switching to Russian she added: "My name is Alexis, and this is my friend, Natalia. Nice to meet you, Andre."
I rolled my eyes and thumbed fifteen twenties from the concealed wad in my pocket, showed them to Andre, and off we went.
☸ ☸ ☸
At the flat, Andre pulled over to get our luggage. We waited in the car, watching bemused passers-by gaping at the platoon of bottles lined up along the Prokuratura.
Elena's suitcase was first in the boot, followed by moaning, grunts, a string of expletives, and then, a colossal impact that lowered the saloon's rear end nearly to the road. "Ah, that would be my suitcase." I grimaced.
Andre got behind the wheel, fuming. "Have you stones in that bag? My back could have been broken, then what?"
The car spun and pulled out. Elena stared back at the bottle festooned corner. I knew she was crying. I managed a couple of pictures before-- bollocks on a stick, I had tears in my eyes too.
[[ Updated Apr 23 15:47 GMT ]]