A lost ‘Chapter One’ (2007)

What do we do with him now? Beyond us, the snow begins to fare in mixed dances across the windscreen and, up front, they seem to want an eight-year-old abortion. They never use those terms, of course. They pause and inhale (it’s the nerves talking) to elongate phrases like ‘take. him. home’ and ‘give the kid the special surprise’, while Yuri leans around, slowly, to stare at my hands. Like: I’m in the back seat, therefore the boy should be my responsibility. Like: I have a habit of stretching things out, don’t I? Don’t I? But, other than playing mother all morning, there is no real reason why I should be made any more responsible for his life or death.

Boris, too, has carefully followed Yuri’s eye line and now is looking at my empty hands. So, when we pause at some traffic lights, I open his door and I ask him to step out for a second. Onto the path. Just there. Over the snow. Satchel too. Music case. Great stuff. And we are off. Is it that simple? Yuri asks me. And I tell them that I see no reason to make it more complicated. We have everything we asked for. And the silver Merc SUV goes quiet, and no-one can think of a reason to stop or turn back. We’ve been preparing to kill him for so long now, putting ourselves into that position, it just feels odd to say goodbye, and so quickly. Any goodbye would be laced with a glance from shoes to satchel, then a brush of his fringe to imply “You’ll never know how lucky you are and how close we came” without actually saying it. It is best not to say some things.

Other things that have gone unsaid in my twenty-five years would include “Mother, I love you” and “Sir, I foresee the career paths available post-City Of Kiev Allied Orphanages to be, all evidence considered, somewhat restrictive. With that, I seek to conclude my tenure” but also, too often to really recall, “Get your feet off that kid’s neck!” So, I am possibly, today, playing some kind of catch-up. And a part of us does, no? Ghosts linger, when we let them. And the unlucky, the introverted or sentimental, or those who simply choose to avoid the now of their own hunger, eventually they become a sum of unsaids, quarter-bakeds and never-dids.

Me, I turn round to fill the back seat, and I watch the boy disappear. The bright green dot permits a steady flow of traffic to filter in behind us and then, suddenly, I cannot make him out. But until we join the slip road at the main beltway, right until the lamp turns red, he is still watching us, I know, his classy Italian padded jacket a little loose on him, borrowed from his big sister, or a gift he’d eventually grow into, I never got the answer. At unexpected moments he is identifiable against the final corner of a deteriorated, six-shades-of-grey apartment block with old, meaningless graffiti loping along one side. Then he disappears.

There was an old Crimean goat in the orphanage. Nobody respected him. Nobody even feared him, not in a jolt-your-system way. Compared to the more ruthless educators (being people who steered us to sit, half of a circle and six deep, in front of a television set), he was nothing more than a drunk joke with a sarcastic mouth. And I thought I’d got away with it. I really thought I would manage to avoid him. “This might turn you into a sensitive boy.” He pulled the vest out of my shorts and put his hand down the front, there on putrid store-room blankets, behind two sets of bolted doors, across a long and wet playground. “But that in itself will make you a wiser man. The innocent things get crushed, you’ll feel. Only the brutal appears to last forever. But, sometime, further on down the road in your life, you’ll miss the delicate. You’ll wish to plant a seed. One day, I’m sure, you’ll be doing this, with your own lads.” The goat turned me over, rubbing himself, and using some spit, he began. “Those who claim this wicked forget that if it was honestly wicked, it wouldn’t pass on like an inheritance, now, would it?”

That said, the man he had inherited from, he explained, eventually killed himself. Jumped off a bridge in Lviv with a rope about his neck. The night train hit him so hard that he ended up, they said, sitting on the road, back on the bridge beside his suitcase. Stupid bastard put the knot at the side. The goat turned his head, laughed out and swallowed some phlegm. If you want to knock a man cold you put the knot at the front. This he demonstrated by twisting his fist until it filled the bone v under my chin. Just there, it breaks the neck. Suddenly, he jerked my cranium towards him, a large and trembling hand on either side (it was then that I realised how much he was shaking and how his voice wavered too). If you want a man fully aware, spinning and crying and pissing till he suffocates, or you are a completely stupid bastard, you put the knot at the back. He tapped my nape. “They say the idiot just watched the train coming.” He chuckled again.

Speeding up with his activities, nearing conclusion, he then crossed both arms under me, circling my upper chest. “He was knees up.. and.. thumbing a.. lift.” Kissing down on the top of my head, he commenced towards a calm unload, whilst arching to scrutinise the cross on a Mennonite missionary poster high on the walls, the random drip-lines through condensation draped across the moon. The quick glance at the door and a sniff before obstructing a grateful exhale with yet another kiss. I recall, even at such a young age, wondering why he hadn’t just used his hand and a cloth. “Good lad.” What did he get from a human being at all? It wasn’t the conversation. It wasn’t looks, for what had he seen in the dark?

Mostly I remember the scuffles of a roach in the corner, and the draught. I’m not sure where it came from but it caught me on the left cheek and sent shivers across my shoulders. I distracted myself by thinking about the last family I split and ran from. The old, bowed lady and her endless fear of draughts. Alerted suddenly by a flame’s lowering or hesitation, she would track the windows, the behind-the-door areas, accompanied closely by the offending flicker. A strap-length of squashed paper or a scrap of worthless fabric on her hand, running wetted fingers in squares, plugging every fissure, wedging. “Good.” She would turn approvingly to me, speaking as if to a backward. “Safe now. A safe house for all of us.”

But the goat was wrong. I didn’t inherit a thing. Supervising the boy’s bath times, I confess that I had been a bit concerned about what my feelings might be, but I just remember thinking how boring kids’ bodies are, in truth. No: me, I want hot, fresh air and the sun. I want a dark-skinned, rolling Latina woman looking me right in the eyes (that’s what calms the soul, and that’s what is missing in Ukraine). Her expression will be.. well, let me think. Relief (have longed for this), soon knitting into vague worry (this is too much), pacified and surrendering (that’s what is missing in Ukraine. No-one surrenders, to anything), finally turning into something like the rapid onset of insanity. Then, of course, gently astonished flashes of worship. I’m a simple soul, but those would be good.

“When do we pop the cork?” Yuri asks the landscape. Not just yet. Not this week. I want the sun before I celebrate, if I ever do. To be honest, I’m starting to believe that I prefer the dream more than the reality. Maybe that’s been my problem all along, maybe that’s why I have a habit of stretching things out. Don’t I? The dormitory suburb of Troeshina, which is practically the opposite of the sun, slips past, further from the motorway with each peel at another elegant junction, till the world beyond the Merc starts to offer rough segments of snow-laden countryside. But, still, not just yet, I tell him, looking up at the skies. And the suitcase down there, medium-sized and as-promised, now replacing the boy’s feet? Well, every one-eighty flip of its handle sounds like sunshine to me.

“He’ll be fine.” Vincent checks me in the driver’s mirror, head pressed back into the headrest, profile seeking response. Do I give my feelings away so easily? I’ll never be brought back to work with these people, but the whole point of this exercise is that none of us need see anyone else ever again. I reach inside my jacket and finally apply the safety grip to the Carbine. We never had a church at the orphanage, the arriving missionaries and poverty tourists offered us their prayers and catechisms, their wheat germ, bran and gentle questionnaires, but I think I missed out on stained glass. Real ritual. Playing mother and closing down the Carbine is somehow the nearest I get to that.

More interruptions! “He’ll recognise us. He might be mute as mutton stew, but he can point a finger. That’s a fucking certainty.” Yuri seems to have a bug busy somewhere, but then he always does. And I’m sure that he has grounds for concern. But if it all goes as I have planned, and it has been, then that shouldn’t be an issue. Bath time, you see, was also story time. And I have become too good (as the old goat discovered, on a different dark evening, many years later, leaving a Lebanese takeaway in Donetsk) at reading faces.

***

Snow! Boris Orbelian fails to shield his eyes and receives more than one flake in them as he scans the pale froth rummaging above the city. Eventually, he learns, they drop from his lashes like tears, float around him like cinders, bouncing defensively, fighting the ground but rolling past in spirals whichever way he walks. Which way?

He looks back along the avenue and decides that, although it was not the heart of town, at least it had people and a few shops and some lights. The SUV, noisier than any of his father’s vehicles, had now gone and the slant up to the motorway was too precipitous. And, really, home should be his goal. Where, exactly, was it? He makes a short sigh and angles his right arm though the relevant satchel strap, hoisting it to and fro till centred on his back. His jacket is undone, a blind spot for him, and, carrying his oboe case, he begins a quick and distressed walk.

Anyway, as he spies the best trajectory to avoid uneven fingers of ice, what would they be saying about him now? “Still no Boris?” “Where is he?” “He’s old news.” “I’ve heard he’s coming home.” “I’ve heard he was hiding at home.” “I’ve heard that the police broadcast wrong things just to play with the captors’ heads.” “Then they wouldn’t announce he was sitting eating biscuits under his bed, then, would they?”

Boris, being that way, is not particularly aware of his own solitude as he passes along the deserted avenue. Eventually, though, he is interrupted by the sight of someone trotting down some steps, turning with an abrupt cough and coming closer. A grey-bearded man in a neat, heavy coat and scarf, who fails to notice the boy but stoops to attend a sloppy shoelace and then to raise his face. “I heard he turned himself into a hole. A human hole.” Boris falters for an instant. “What do human holes eat?” Some avoided eye contact, mainly to assess the chance of impending eye contact, appears to guarantee that passing the old man is defined by the depth and constancy of its eye contact.

Suddenly, Boris feels the need to appear older, more at home on this street. He raises his head and walks with greater resolve, even haught. “Bunking off?” The man mutters to him. “You’re thinking adults just choose to be what they are.” He sniffs his irritation.

As they pass, Boris at some speed, the man catches his knee with a grip that encircles it, managing to halt him. “I knew a boy who bunked off. He spends the night sleeping in spilled meds, an empty bottle of winiak spinning on the floor.” Boris watches the apparition in the snow come to some kind of conclusion. “Uh-huh. Yes indeed. You’ve got it all sorted out, haven’t you? Big pink ribbons for me.” After a lot of silence, he lets go of Boris’ knee, stands and walks backwards through curtains of snow. Boris decides he needed a plan should, God forbid, any worse encounter come his way. Looking around, he leans to the nearest car, parked as they were in a packed row to his left, and he places his hand on the door handle. Then, looking up at the closest window to his right, he rehearses his strategy -“Papa, hurry up!” Clearing his throat, he tries it, this time inserting some anger into his voice, anger which would add authenticity to the scenario and would also project, at right-angles, onto a perceived threat. “Pa-pa, hurry up!” Easy. He even had the accent. The scheme would be feasible anywhere along the avenue, he estimated, right up until the preceding set of lights, and then the people.

But the lights looked a long way away. He feels paused like the video game level he’d been stuck on, when the call came to leave for lessons. ‘Guts Pagoda’. He examines each vehicle that passes, wondering if they’d be returning. Vincent, who’d been driving, was the type of figure that children rarely notice. Vincent was just distant. Yuri, by contrast, couldn’t shut up, barking a frustrated tone that Boris was not used to hearing. No-one, not even the most upset teacher, had snarled like that. Sometimes Boris wondered what language Yuri was educated in. The other one, well his job seemed to be stirring Vincent into action and shutting Yuri up, rising to his level. He was funny.

Not for the first time, Boris asks himself if he had somehow, somewhere in the dark of night, willed the abduction into being. Despite everything, the ‘nappers, they called themselves, were fun (he’d expanded his vocabulary for one thing). “Papa, effing hurry up.”

WhoOOo. An abrupt peak of sirens causes Boris to step behind a frosted estate car to observe two police vehicles flicker past in the direction of the motorway. They were who he needed. Maybe. But he somehow felt the need to put independence to the test, to stretch these two weeks to their limit. He was sure that, given adventurous space to breathe, primordial skills would blossom in his reflexes, recreating him from the boots up, with all the robustness of the feral. The siren went, and then there are shadows.

Shadows and a tight hand on his shoulder. “Who are you?” Voices high and youngish. He turns, expecting the black or blue of a uniform, but -two youths. One watching the marked vehicles join the motorway, pleased, forming an imposing snowball between leather gloves. The speaker, immediately filling the foreground, leans closer to take Boris’s collar, face blooming in disgust. “I said..”

Boots-up! Strategy. Boris grips and begins shaking the adjacent latch of an estate car, then throws his other hand as best as he can between the boys, and up to the nearest window — “Papa, effing hurry. Now. Goddamn ass, shit!” (all but the key expletives were lost in the wildest chain of vehicle alarm honks that Boris had ever heard).

“Way to go!” One boy laughs, turning to examine the apartment window, where the sudden appearance of a weighty and livid man, topless but for a napkin about his neck, inspires his cohort to plaster the glass firmly with the snowball. “Yeah! You heard what he said. Ass-shit!” The lad advances forward, till he is almost below the opening window, to put the claim to the car-owner a third time, both words underlined by spreading palms in an affront of collapsing slush.

The napkin is off, and Boris, who, for seconds now, has been running down the avenue, finds himself not escaping, but leading some kind of charge.

***

Behind some trees, somewhere off the E17, Vincent Slaminski is leaning his head through the window of the parked SUV and pushing out his tongue. However hard he tries, he simply can’t seem to catch a snowflake on it.

“Do you realise what a punched moonie you look like?” Yuri Spektor, relieving himself behind a monumental-looking oak, seems somewhat disgusted. “It’s a good thing I’m only taking a leak or I’d think you were offering me nursing assistance. No. Wait. I think you are inspecting my root. You are. Why, Vincent, I didn’t realise. I have to tell you now — there are certain things I just don’t do. You know? Certain excessive aspects in your sexual psyche I will happily turn down a ticket for. By the expression on your face, dear friend, soon to be lover, I would guess that you are happiest in those places. But we are to comprise if we are to wed, sir. The successful wedding is compromise, as is the futile life.”

Vincent Slaminski tries not to laugh and continues with his quest.

Yuri zips up and flaps his hands. “Jesus, made it. Thought I’d walk away with an icicle in my hands. A dickcicle. Bobbing atop a gilt and glass bridle. A harangue to those impatient for passage.”

Vincent rubs his face clear. “You’re a grade A poet, Yuri. The pissing poet.”

“The pissing poet. I like that. The boy stood on the burning deck. If only he’d had me. We’d have wrapped things up in a haiku.” As he makes his way over some rocks to the car, he lights a cigarette. “Say, that’s what I’m gonna do. A snug little poetry club down the Univeristyetskia. Neurotic girls in sailor’s hats exploring their own souls. Being sensitive is a great way for a man of a certain age to hang. Pull a few tourists, and who’s gonna bust a cultural ambassador? I’d be a martyr like Solzhenitsyn. They’d have my face on a t-shirt. Watching the world float by from a jug rack is the best future I can think of.”

Vincent observes him, then the sky. “We were just discussing the sun. Don’t you want to see it? Like once. Before you die?” Vincent smiles.

“Fuck the sun.” Yuri draws hard and watches the returning smoke fold inside an undulating funnel of steam. “The whole world is in Kiev. Just in miniature. You only need to stand closer.” He turns his back on the vehicle and seems in deep consideration for a second. “Leather-face drunks and beached sea lions. No-one understanding a word. Fuck the sun.”

No-one talks for a while. Vincent, dear Vincent, and your slips of the mother tongue. Before you die. I can almost see the phrase oozing under the surface of Yuri’s mind. So Yuri, being Yuri Spektor, is now weighing up whether or not we might have been discussing something darker than sunlight.

“Enjoy your thongs.” Yuri turns. “Kooks with overbites and no immediate family. A pupil for my six inch guru. That’s what a lover should be.” Smiling again, Vincent leans over and turns on the radio. A baroque motet, voices step their ‘Hallelujah’ up and down through interweaving tonal ranges. He picks his phone out of his pocket and holds it till it receives.

Yuri glances around. “We’re contactable again, yes? We’re clear?” Someone had to say it and it might as well be Yuri, but there will be no reply. We’re never clear. Never through. Through will be when we forget. I’d say that being able to forget is what separates novices from pros.

“I reckon so.” Vincent is reading a text message while Yuri turns to look at me. He’s been the mouthpiece, the barbed head, the field commander and the engine, but it took mother here to pull the trigger on the transfer. Somewhat hopefully, they sent a retired priest. (“Christ protect you.” The kid climbed from his knees while we flung the delivery case on the back seat, both of us watching the folds of his cloak filling up with red wells, after his final wail had split the empty metal works in two. “Anything happier to add?” Yuri didn’t even get a chance to dust him off, for he sunk faster than anyone wished. “What’s up? You’re nearly home. Can’t you smell the cooking?” No morality as reflection, no simulacrum of an inexplicable intimacy spreading into his eyes. “Um. Cherubim pie.” It’s a supplementary delusion.)

Vincent coughs and reads as best he can. “some1 fancies u, ring me 2 find out who it is”

“It’s worth a turn.” Yuri exhales again. “At worst it’s Interpol, but I’d be optimistic.”

Optimistically speaking, Yuri should know. As an Afghanistan veteran with bodily symmetry, luck must live near him. Vincent Slaminski, on the other hand, is family. Don’t ask whose family, but he is. He isn’t a night club commandeering embarrassment, a pole dance wrecker or the wrecker of such wreckers. He isn’t a sibling-slayer, just a nephew. In his favour, I’d offer.. Well, I’d say that he’s always there. Look around for someone to hold an exit and Vincent is there, a fragile smile on his broad and intuitive face. He has a passivity that you expect to require some endless prompting but never does. And he makes a convincing park keeper. “Come in, 6 By 6. Where are you?” He says, looking as if his LCD will magic up the big, decommissioned KrAZ in white and khaki.

Yuri begins walking around a little. “Give it to midday, then I’m consolidating my gain share and escalating the issue.”

“Where to?” Vincent has a genuine curiosity. “The abduction ombudsman?”

Choosing Your Abductee, for dummies. One: wealth or access to wealth, the simplest being familial. No-one is doing this for their health. No-one is doing this for politics. Politics is the wrapping of intelligent people into pointless packets. Two: opportunity. A presence in the public eye can render any abduction more complicated than is necessary. That said, the youngest child in a family remains a token, warmly disregarded while mum and dad hone the heir, having long established a sense of a core unit. Some vestige of liberalism can be pushed into the endgame, the dreamer. A funkier prep or elementary, a trippy au pair pushing an eight-year old, an eight-year old, to oboe lessons. Three: an honest fear of the police, or the opportunity to manufacture this. The hardest thing to time right and to accomplish. Know people is all I can say.

Yuri draws a hand around the trees and snow. “Absolutely. Why not? I don’t have the personal bandwidth for show stoppers.”

Vincent chuckles. “It’s a results-driven big picture. But sometimes touching base can help us ‘lessons learned’ around any ‘blame culture’.”

Yuri stops beside my window, where I have begun a light doze. “There’ll be no blame culture.” He says, feeling gradually for his revolver. Then he notices a pair of police vehicles speeding past along the main road. “Somebody’s eager for their backhander. Somebody doesn’t even trust the launderette. What’s the world coming to? Where are those fucks?”

“The infancy of Sat Nav will be the death of us.” Vincent’s comment leads to Yuri adjusting his belt again and checking in on me.

“Hey, mommy, missing your little boy?”

“I kinda do.” I smile easily, and close my eyes again.

Post-ghost. Medium.

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