Fragments from a War Diary, Part #179
This afternoon I came face to face with my God. Tired and sick and bored of sitting in my square box hotel room on my own, coming to terms with my agonies and my miseries and my boredom and my tedium and my anxiety, so I decided to walk back to work. So I slogged down the stairs from my fourth floor hotel bedroom with its funky designs on the walls and its late breakfast that runs until 1pm, and I poked and prodded my bruised kidneys and my bruised ribs, and I figured I was ready for that 15-minute slog up the cobbled streets to my military kitchen. And I staggered a little, and it was biting cold, and I didn’t want to do this, but I made it. The Ukrainian flag flying outside was a little limp, and I wondered where everyone might be, and I felt a little pathetic after four days of bed rest driving myself crazy in a little box room, slugging down sleeping pills and pain killers to try to cope with the agony of rolling around in bed with bruised kidneys bumping against the hard mattress. God what a nightmare these days have been. But the staff in my current hotel have treated me with courtesy and a smile.
I got to the kitchen. It was icy, frosty hell; but still those Ukrainian ladies who had checked me for tissue damage when I fell in the squat toilet on Tuesday were still there, smiling, chatting and chopping and peeling carrots in the kitchen. The usual squad, informally run by an American man I much admire, S———, were out front under the awnings in the sub-arctic weather, chopping squash. And inside the garage, the old gang I know, in slightly warmer climes due to the proximity of warm bodies, were chopping apples. I was feeling a bit groggy by this point, having hiked up that hill while feeling under the weather, and all the rest, but hell this was going to be a piece of self-medicated physiotherapy because I wasn’t spending another day in bed rolling around in agony. So I found myself a seat - a simple, plastic seat, amidst my fellow workers, and I got to work chopping apples and I did this for some four-and-a-half hours and I felt good about myself. It was hell if I am frank. I am weak. I cannot stand for long periods. I cannot bend over. I kept slipping with the knife and I thought I was going to cut open my own fingers. But I got on with it. And I felt good about that, knowing that there are cold and starving soldiers on the front line risking their lives every minute and every hour of every day and relying upon what we are doing.
And then I had to use the restroom. It was an ordeal. I had to open that grimy brown iron door, tread carefully down those steps, pass the vast glass bottles of gherkins, and turn round windy corridors covered in grime. And there it was: the squat toilet, facing me, bare and naked, like an old enemy, its deep hole staring me blankly in the face. There was water and grease and slime and sharp edges and concrete corners at every angle, and the toilet was just inviting me to slip again and to injure myself yet more severely. I was having an existential moment, facing off my old foe, as Holmes faced Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls. I dare you, said the toilet: come, use me, and fall into my fangs, forever devoured.
Of course it was not like that. The important point is that I had a relatively constructive day, without violent interactions with primitive Ukrainian lavatorial facilities, and I felt that I had added something to the war effort. I felt good about myself, although now, having returned home and almost in bed, I wonder about the wisdom of what I did. I may sleep badly tonight; there are torturing pains in my side, and I do not know how much agony it will be to lay in bed or how easy it will be to get to sleep.
This evening, before coming home, I met my good friend P——, a decent conservative American man of Christian convictions that we find rarely expressed in modern Europe. He is older than most of the international volunteers here, and he exudes decency, exhibiting an understanding of this conflict nuanced by his comprehensive study of history and his careful dissection of events. Above all, having served in the military, he understands that War Is Hell and he perceives, as do I, that those men serving in the Russian trenches are not inhuman monsters undeserving of our sympathy but instead just another set of victims of this cruel tragedy, a play imposed upon Europe by a monstrous dictator in the shape of the Russian President. We must win this war, and we will, and very sadly this means that the vast Russian Army must be defeated and therefore yet more Russian soldiers must die. But none of this should naturally come as a pleasure to any of us. It is a horror and a nightmare that all these people on both sides are dying.
In my favourite bar, I met a man called R———, about whom I heard much but this was the first time I had clapped my eyes upon him. I didn’t know what to make of him, and I am uncertain as to his motives. These are issues to be adjudicated over the coming days and weeks. He seemed charming and swanky, which is what I had heard. Let us see how his ethics play out; because we need ethical and decent people to support Ukraine in this bitter and prolonged struggle. If he proves himself worthy of these qualities, then I salute him. Otherwise no.
And then finally, just before I retired to my imminent slumber, I heard from my favourite person in Lviv, S———-, a kind, generous and wonderful person who will devote some of her time in the next day to giving me a tour of Lviv’s beautifully ornate and archaic churches. And then we might - we just might - go to the Opera in the next few days. Shshsh: don’t tell anyone. I’ve already bought her a ticket. I hope she accepts. If she does, then we’ll be sitting together on the front row: the best seats in town. I didn’t tell her we’d be taking the best seats, the centre front-row Stalls, and you shouldn’t either. Keep it a secret from her, okay?