Fragments from a War Diary, Part #169
As I signed off from writing my diaries yesterday evening, I realised that of course I had no food in my kitchen and I could barely stand up. In wartime Ukraine there is no door-to-door delivery service (or if there is, then it is no use in the pedestrian Old Town where the front door to my building is a giant steel grated affair with no concierge and requiring a special key - and no of course there is no buzzer to let people in), so I reconciled myself with the fact that notwithstanding my wounded state I would be forced to go out. Lying in bed is extremely uncomfortable right now, and it is easier to stand up. So I staggered down my Soviet-era stone staircase, one step at a time, determined not to have my legs crumple under me and make my problems even worse. And of course, once out on the cobbled streets, the natural place to go was my favourite English-style bar right opposite my apartment where I could perch more or less comfortably on a bar stool.
For some reason, probably deeply ingrained in my psyche and my youth, I never feel more comfortable than when I am sitting on a bar stool in a bar. I don’t even need a drink in front of me. I just feel comfortable sitting on a bar stool. It is also by far the most comfortable place for me when I am currently recovering from my painful but by no means life threatening injuries.
A pleasant lady came to sit next to me. I could sense she wanted a drink and a chat, so I offered her both. I asked her how old she was. She asked me to guess. I told her I thought she was 30. She looked crestfallen. In Ukraine, youth is everything for a woman’s sense of beauty and you ought to be married off as soon as you can: a social more quite different from that in the West, where it is perfectly acceptable to be in your mid-30’s and unmarried as a woman. This is a cultural difference that will need addressing with a contemporary and effective Ukrainian feminist movement. Anyway she told me she was 18. I told her I was 48. She was happy to talk to me. I learned she has split up with her boyfriend, who is away at the front line. She is a kind, sparkly, intelligent lady with a long way to go in life and who already speaks multiple languages. Actually the bar I have found is full of young intellectual people and I see already that they are going to form the backbone of a new class of Ukrainian intelligentsia as they grow older. That is why I find it so engaging to speak with them all. They may be young, but they have their hopes and aspirations and views about the war and they fall in love and then they are heartbroken, just like the rest of us.
What this diary entry is really about is the kindness of strangers. This young unknown and sympathetic lady could see that I was injured and was happy to talk to me and ask me whether there was anything I could do to help. I sent a message to another dear friend and asked him whether he could bring me a bag of groceries. He arrived from the shop with coffee, cheese, meat and Bovril: that wonderful British wartime beef drink that people of my parents’ generation remember so vividly. Some other friends showed up in due course, and asked me how I was doing. I could barely make it to the bathroom at the end of the hall, and I was visibly exhausted, but I could sit on my bar stool if not turn my neck and head very far. My colleague with whom I am travelling to the front line shortly is in good spirits, and we talked about our impending trip which I was worried I might have to cancel but now I think it will be alright. Although I slept badly last night, waking up in pain, I am getting better. I managed to get into a bath this morning and - more importantly - get out of it. The prospect of seeking medical attention seems unlikely; doctors will not visit private houses in wartime conditions, and I don’t think I will be able to get to a hospital - with all the bureaucracy that will involve - until I am feeling better to move long distances which should be a day or two.
As you can see, I can still type. I am half thinking of going to the bookshop right opposite my front door this afternoon, but my movements are visibly strained. Sitting here and writing is about all I am good for. I am terribly bored; I have agonising pains shooting up my back and what I really want to do is to go back to the kitchen and chop some more vegetables. But somehow I don’t think I’ll make it today.
Last night the evening ended up with the charming young lady wanting to take me to another bar that was still open. Probably having had one beer too much to drink, and ignoring the fact that curfew was imminent and temperatures were close to zero, I agreed, in my injured state, holding my bag of shopping tentatively in my hand. Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. I stumbled over the cobbles, a five minute walk that felt like half an hour in my state of pain, to discover that there was some commotion at this other place which probably shouldn’t have been open anyway. They wouldn’t serve us and my new friend stayed smoking in the freezing street while I had to retrace my steps over the cobbles, shooting pains in my back and my ribs all the way. I staggered up the stairs and bolted some sleeping pills to knock myself out. All these pain killers and gels aren’t doing any good.
A friend has offered to come over this afternoon. Another friend is writing to ask me how I am, as I write these words. All sorts of people want to know I am okay and are looking in on me. This is the kindness of strangers, because three months ago I didn’t know any of these people at all and now I do and they are looking out for me in a difficult time. This is what the wartime spirit does for people: it pulls us all together, Ukrainians and foreigners alike, as one. It is a wonderful elixir of common spirit for us all, and alas seldom replicated in civilian life.