Finally I have a sensible and serious travelling companion for my visits to the front line. It comes in an unlikely guise: a tall, attractive and slender lady called E— who doesn’t at all look like the kind of person who enjoys studying maps of free Donetsk Oblast or bedding down in underground cellars while the missiles and shells explode outside and above. Nevertheless she duly met me this afternoon, at the appointed hour, in a coffee shop in Lviv’s Old Town not far from where I live, and she studied the map I presented to her with a pretension of intensity although she admitted that she does’t read Cyrillic so precisely what she got out of it I don’t know. Nor does she speak a single word of Ukrainian or Russian, except the very badly pronounced Ukrainian word for “thank you” but that’ll do. She has enthusiasm, charm, wit and apparently a great tolerance for the bizarre. These are all qualities you need in a war zone. After explaining our destinations and various logistical details to her, including the sounds of various types of missile and air defence systems, I asked her whether she had any questions. She replied, in her crispy elegant accent, “only one: am I going to die?” I said I thought that extremely unlikely. She seemed happy with that answer and therefore we are now travelling companions on the Lviv-Kramatorsk express, departing on Monday.
She seems like a reasonable and kind person, and not too needy. Naturally we’re going to be spending 20 hours together on some cramped dumpy Ukrainian train in second class, so we’re going to need to be pretty tolerant of one-another. She asked whether she could smoke in an underground bunker. I replied, “yes okay, but not next to the gasoline tanks”. She told me last night “I’m not going to sleep with you”. I appreciated her honesty, but if her words are taken literally I have no idea whether that is correct. It is impossible to predict the accommodation quality in our underground bunker accommodation that my friend seems to have arranged for us. We might well be sleeping right next to one another, fully dressed, in the cold and damp: hardly a romantic encounter. Anyway we’ll see. The proper rule is always the same: plan well but be flexible, because anything might happen once we alight from our train with our one-way ticket to Kramatorsk; it’s an asylum out east and you just can’t predict until you arrive.
After we enjoyed our lattes and pastries in a sophisticated Lviv delicatessen, we went to my apartment to see how she fitted into one of my two lead breastplates. She seemed concerned that it might look lopsided under her hoodie. I told her not to worry about that. This isn’t a fashion parade. The important thing is to tuck your clothes into your trousers and jam the breastplate down your front so it doesn’t fall out. Then we spent the afternoon shopping in a military clothing stall. She put on a military helmet for the first time, admiring herself in the mirror while the shop assistant tried to adjust the chinstrap. We got there in the end but it took a lot of fiddling around. The shop assisting, speaking decent English, explained to her that it is shrapnel resistant and will also take a handgun round but not a rifle round. She seemed not in the slightest bit concerned. She also bought a fluffy winter military jacket, which makes her look electric in a military fashion kind of a style. We agreed that it’s a little like shopping at Harrods, and the prices are about the same, only the style isn’t quite the vogue for Dover Street Wine Bar.
Then we turned to the vexed issue of patches. I explained that two were essential: one making it clear you are a foreign volunteer (there is a specific patch for this), so that the Military Police know exactly who we are and why we are there, and they don’t think we’re soldiers; and the other being a British flag patch, because the United Kingdom is extremely popular amongst the Ukrainian military as being their most vocal supporters and, right now, one of their largest financial supporters as well. We couldn’t find the patches we wanted, so we had to wonder up and down the grotty alleys of Lviv’s outdoor market amidst all the knocked off Chinese military rubbish put up for sale there including things such as Russian trench boots of the kind I already possess. Rumour has it that a number of Ukrainian soldiers sell their own uniforms in or to the tradespeople at these markets and its’ generally poor quality stuff. We couldn’t find what we wanted, but we did in Rynok Square, the notorious veterans’ shack in the middle of the square opposite the Pravda Beer Hall that sells every sort of tacky souvenir imaginable including Vladimir Putin toilet paper and Vladimir Putin door mats of which I have donated one to my parents. They had all the right patches, and even sold us more than we wanted, including an “SBU” patch which I now proudly sport of a new rust-coloured jacket perfect for fighting in Iraq but not much use in the Ukrainian winter.
The SBU are Ukraine’s internal security police, once notorious as having been infiltrated by the FSB, their Russian equivalent, but now having been comprehensively purged under the leadership of President Zelenskiy and instead becoming far more professional in their legitimate task which is to hunt out Russian spies and traitors in Ukrainian society. I intend to wear my new SBU patch on my jacket in Mano’s Bar this evening, just to watch the horrified or amused reactions of my fellow crazed drinkers. Thankfully they all know me now well enough to realise that this sort of thing is just my bizarre sense of humour and there isn’t actually an SBU raid going on in Mano’s Bar. In any event, an SBU flag patch certainly isn’t something I will be wearing on the train to Kramatorsk, because not everyone might share my dark sense of humour.