7 December 2012
Home, Where Birds Won’t Fly by Lauren Pearce
Home, Where Birds Won’t Fly by Lauren Pearce (17)
Chernobyl was only the name of a small power station north-west of Kiev when my parents left the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. Up until the winter of 1984, they have lived perilously close to what is now known as the ‘zone of exclusion’ in the small town of Prypiat, a settlement established in 1970 to house workers of the power plant and their families.
My father was one of those workers: a junior technician fresh from Moscow University working directly in Reactor Four, the very same reactor that landed on the front page of every newspaper in the world two years after his resignation. He was an intelligent stubborn, liberal man, perpetually affecting a public distaste for the way the USSR handled nuclear power and the numerous ideological and technical faults in their system—especially in his native Ukraine.
My mother was a woman of literature. Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, all names which were mentioned in our house more than those of my grandparents. She was Russian by birth, but had moved to Prypiat to work in the town’s library. Her feelings towards the government were never as passionate as my father’s, and whenever I asked her about it, she wavered on melancholy. On reflection, I think she did, and still does believe in the old Russia: Tolstoy’s wine-sipping, French-speaking aristocrats; a troika dashing through Red Square with merry bells jingling; Karenin, Zhivago, Raskolnikov. She thought of Russia as regal palaces and quaint country homes, contrary to my father’s view, more akin to KGB victims lying under two feet of snow in an amusement park.
They found one thing to agree on, and that was to leave. After twenty-seven years to each of them, I guess they were sick of trying to fight it all; lured by the free-world’s promise of wealth and endless success for all. It was for my sake, apparently, though I can’t imagine immigration would have been easy with a six-month-old in tow. That is where their narrative always ends. My father begins work at the newly built Lucas Heights reactor outside of Sydney and my mother has the troika snatched out from under her once she begins teaching in an Australian school.
In thirty-two years of life in Australia, I hadn’t even considered going to Prypiat, or the Ukraine at all. My parents only retained bits of the language, I never bothered to learn it at all. We ate Australian food, had Australian friends, jobs.
My eventual return was due to business, not pleasure.
I went home for the first time in 2016. Journalists from all over the world converged on Chernobyl to cover the thirtieth anniversary of that fateful day…
* * *
‘There are only a few Vladimir Lenins left in the world. One in Budapest, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. There’s also a bronze statue in Seattle, in the United States. Make of that what you will.’
The forty-something woman sitting next to me had history coming out of her ears. Her flow of conversation had not stopped since we left Kiev three hours ago. I had made the unfortunate mistake of asking her what she did for a living. She had proceeded to tell me that she was a ‘go-between historian’, working out of the University of Sydney, Melbourne and occasionally the Far-Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. She was a doctor—that’s what her business card said—Dr Sonia McDouglas, PhD. Not the kind of doctor that could be useful in some kind of medical emergency. European history, moreover, Slavic history, language and culture was her game.
‘There’s a statue here, In Prypiat, apparently,’ she mused. ‘They say that people still live here, you know?’
‘But, wouldn’t they get sick?’ I asked her.
‘They do… most of the time.’ she trailed off.
After a period of silence, she spoke again, ‘You look a little Slavic yourself. Pole? If you don’t mind me asking…’
‘Australian… of Ukrainian extraction,’ I told her. ‘My parents moved out of Prypiat to Sydney in ’84. I was about six months old.’
She looked at me and grinned. ‘So you’ve come home?’
I shook my head. ‘Doesn’t feel like home. I don’t speak the language, everything here is so strange. And isn’t this part of the world meant to be cold? It feels about forty degrees in here.’
She still seemed amused by me, ‘It’s summer. Even Eastern Europe gets to have a summer.’
We sat in quiet again. Behind us were two male journalists, joking with each other in what sounded like Russian. My new friend laughed quietly at their punchline, while I stared out the window at the pine forest dashing past.
Almost half an hour past before she mumbled, ‘I know one. I know someone who lives there.’
* * *
The flock of journalists poured off the bus, and joined the growing crowd standing in a small park, around my friend’s Lenin statue.
‘Lonely ol’ Lenin…’ she mumbled. ‘In his famous “I am a leader, intellectual, and your new god” pose.’
The bronze statue did indeed reflect a deity. The bald figure held his coat with one hand, and with his chin held high, reached out to us with the other.
She glanced over to some of the tour guides, who were arguing over a route to take the journalists on. The uniformed men who had followed us off the bus were on the opposite side of the statue, sneaking in a smoke-break before the tours began.
‘You ready?’ she asked.
‘People will see us,’ I glanced around. Most reporters were either taking photos (Lenin was a popular subject), setting up cameras and microphones, or pestering guides about the radiation levels in simplified English.
‘Nonsense,’ she began to push through the crowd, ‘Come on.’
The streets had grown a life of their own. Weeds grew like shrubbery in a jungle. The pavement had cracked and buckled over the years, and roots had begun to grow upwards through them.
‘Don’t pat the dogs around here,’ she told me. ‘They’re huge, and they eat the wolves in the forest.’
I cringed, and changed the subject. ‘How do you know… I didn’t catch a name—’
‘Because I didn’t give you a name. You’ll see. There’s a story that needs to be told here, and you’ll be able to tell it better in a four-page feature than I will be able to in an academic paper.’
The largest apartment buildings were a few streets over. Large white, egg-carton looking things. We walked past a few, before we came to the last, sitting on the corner. Outside of it was an intricate stenciled image of a stylised Gorky timidly handing a script to Stanislavsky, who was red-faced, and yelling at actors on a stage. The image was captioned in blocky Cyrillic handwriting, which of course, I couldn’t read.
I had seen it before. My parents didn’t take a lot from Prypiat, but they had brought a black, A3 sized photo album. One photo was of a new employee at the plant, still in his work uniform, standing with the local librarian’s assistant, hands still covered in spray paint, in front of the mural. He had an arm around her shoulders and she was showing off her new engagement ring for the camera, smiles spread wide across both their faces. Especially his—like he couldn’t believe his luck. I don’t remember a time where he had ever looked that happy.
‘Something wrong?’ the historian asked me. She had stopped in the doorway of the block.
‘My parents painted this…’
She walked over and examined the cracking mural, before chuckling at the caption. ‘They seem like funny people.’
‘I think it was when my Dad asked my Mum to marry her, I don’t know for sure. I never asked about it.’
‘Something you can do when you get back.’ And with that, she opened the door of the apartment block for me, and followed me in.
‘Alexei?’ she called tentatively into the musky hallway. She called something else in Russian, and waited for a reply.
‘Doctor?’ a reply came back in English, ‘is that you?’
The floor of the corridor was severely water-damaged. Most of the paint had peeled off the walls, revealing the cracked plaster board underneath.
I looked up to see a gaunt man, somewhere in his fifties, with light blue eyes and greying hair, eyeing me off suspiciously.
‘Alexei, this is… uh…’
‘Darya Irinova,’ which was the first time I had used my patronymic instead of my surname in a long, long time.
* * *
‘You said no reporters. You said, “Alexei, I bring no reporters to you, ever.”’
She had given him a box of cigarettes. He had frantically lit one as soon as he had got his hands on it, and now once again had his lighter out, lining up the next.
‘I know, Alexei. But Darya is my friend from Australia.’
‘You don’t even know her name!’ The sudden effort made him cough. I pulled my water bottle from my bag, and offered it to him. He pushed it away.
‘Why do you still live here?’ I asked him, mindful of the fact that we only have five hours in the zone of exclusion before the build-up of radiation in our bodies became dangerous. ‘You must be crazy,’ I joked.
He mumbled something through a plume of smoke, and I looked to the historian to translate.
‘If only,’ she told me. ‘Alexei, tell her what you told me. You said you wanted to tell your story. Now you get to.’
He rolled his eyes, ‘If she annoys me, you both leave.’
He had brought us back to a large apartment room on one of the top floors. I sat down in the chair across from me, praying it wasn’t a rat’s nest, and rested my notebook and recorder on my lap. ‘Why don’t you start from the beginning?’
‘What beginning, time?’ he asked, sucking another long drag down.
‘Alexei…’ Sonia cautioned.
He took a deep breath. ‘In 1986, I was school teacher in Minsk. We didn’t hear much about what happened here. I had a wife and son, two years old. I got a call, from the army. Everyone has to do military service, and I was being sent to little town near Kiev for mine. Six times the pay if I left the next day. Two weeks there, then I came home.’
He took another drag, maybe because he was an addict, maybe just to steady himself.
‘They gave me two different uniforms. Field stuff, and a formal uniform, like we were officers or something. With a peaked cap. I liked the second uniform, I didn’t wear it while I was working, only on an evening.’
‘Why did you go?’ I asked.
He looked at the historian, and switched to only using a few words in English. She translated for me: ‘When the motherland called, you went. It made you feel like the Soviet heroes you see in the war movies. You were doing a grand service to the state. And I didn’t know what it would be like. Even when I got there, we were just shoveling dirt.’
‘Removing the top layer. And taking the shingles off roofs. We would take the top soil off on Monday, then get a call through from the plant, and have to go back and take another layer off on Thursday. Two days in they told me that I would have to stay a lot longer than two weeks.’
He spoke through the historian, ‘Six months.’
‘Were you paid for all the work you did?’
‘Every second. My wife wrote to me and told me that they listed all of the men from Minsk in the newspaper, and called us heroes.’ He paused, ‘That was when I started to get worried. She sent the page to me. They said that we were heroes that were willing to ‘sacrifice ourselves for the Great Soviet state.’ I was a teacher, I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what radiation could do to the body. I didn’t think it was that bad though, we weren’t warned.
‘Some of the other men in my unit were from Minsk. We would sit outside of our tents at night, wearing our officer hats, drinking, and talking about home. We all had kids, that was one thing I noticed. They didn’t ask anyone who didn’t already have children. I might have wanted to have four of five more, they didn’t know that.’
He lit a third cigarette, stamping out the other, ‘They didn’t ask me if I wanted more children. Just if I had any.’ He sighed, ‘Anyway…’ he said bitterly in English, ‘I was sent home after six months, and given card with total measurement of rotogens from where I was working each day, divided by the number of days I worked. It didn’t seem like much, because was measured from inside the officer’s tent.’
‘Was that all you received?’
‘Apart from my pay and a slap on the back, yes. I arrived back home on my son’s third birthday. Came home in that stupid dress uniform.’
He paused, ‘Alex liked the hat. So I gave him the hat, because I hadn’t been able to buy him a present yet. It was too big for him, but he wore it everywhere, told everyone he met that his father was a hero. A year after that, my wife gave birth again.’
‘Boy or girl?’ I asked. Afterwards, I wished I hadn’t.
‘Girl… though you wouldn’t know it if you looked at her. In the books Americans write about Chernobyl, they show the kids missing arms and toes. That’s what people in the West want to see. It’s clean, neat. They never show you what it looks like when a little girl is born without a mouth. Or a belly-button…’ he closed his eyes. ‘My wife couldn’t look at me after that. As soon as I came back, I had been ‘different’, students used to call me one of them—a “Chernobylite”. But she didn’t change until our little Kristina died. After that, she looked at me like I was a walking nuclear reactor. I was poisonous.’
‘We don’t have to—’ I began, but he held up his hand, and spoke again in Russian.
‘No less than four months after that, while we were still grieving, Alex started feeling sick. We took him to the doctor, who told us that he had a tumor on his brain.’
The historian got up and walked to the window, sniffing quietly. I sat cemented in my place, unable to move, or speak.
‘It was the hat,’ he told me directly, in English. ‘I killed both of my children.’
She still had her back to us, but I thought I heard the historian sniff again, a little louder this time.
‘She left me, or I left her. I’m not sure. I started to drink, lost job, and travelled around Soviet Union for a year and a half. It was too hard to leave and go somewhere else, so I came here. I’ve been here for twenty-six years now.’
‘But why?’ I asked, watching his cigarette burn unchecked, waiting for the ash to fall to the floor. ‘Why here?’
‘I lost something here. Either I will find it, or I’ll die here, like maybe I should have in the first place.’
The ash fell from the cigarette, and drifted towards the floor.
* * *
The historian and I walked down the stairs with Alexei. ‘Make sure magazine does not mention my name.’
‘Of course not,’ I told him.
He stayed in the doorway, and the historian and I walked out onto the street. I stopped in front of my parent’s mural.
‘My mother always wanted to direct plays. What does it say?’ I pointed to the Cyrillic.
‘Gorky is saying “Don’t argue, boys. The director is always right.”’
We walked down the street, and I thought of Alexei and his wife, and their son, born the same year as me. Their family wouldn’t have been much different from my own. All of us from the land of snow which sweltered in the summer.
‘What did you think?’ she asked me.
‘It feels a bit more like going home now.’