© Andy Szpuk
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He was restless by nature, always tapping his fingers. Always ready for action. But now, at the age of sixty-five, the doctors told him he needed to rest. He hated that. Because, the next battle was always the one he wanted so badly – his soul craved it. He’d never been any different. Whether it was to complain to a shop assistant about the price of bread, or to the garage mechanic about the cost of repairs to his car, he stared into their eyes and unflinchingly told them they were wrong or ripping him off. He didn’t always win, but he never gave up. But, in any case, he’d finally sold his car – he couldn’t drive it anymore, he hated that, but his eyesight was poor and his legs were weak.
At the age of seventeen, he’d lost his father, into the brutal idealistic arms of a Soviet regime that refused to allow anyone choices as it raced towards the creation of an equal society. His father was taken away, and never seen again. And so, Sasha became the head of the house, with his mother and three younger brothers to look after; he’d done his best to provide for them. But, it wasn’t enough for him. The loss, and probable death, of his father had burned a fire into him that was to blaze through him for eternity – he knew that even when he was dead, his spirit would keep burning.
So, he ran away, to the mountains. He left his mother and brothers behind, to fend for themselves, and he joined the Resistance, to try and free their land. At first, he felt some pangs of guilt for leaving his family, but the life in the mountains was one he embraced, and any regrets faded. He was accepted into the Resistance and was soon ambushing patrols with bombs or rifle fire. He had no idea how many Poles or Soviets he’d killed, but it was justified to him.
He remembered the first time he took part in an ambush. For hours one night, he and Alexey, the leader of their group, were crouched behind a rock, for so long his body froze and stiffened the way water turns to ice. So, when they heard the revving of a motorbike in the distance, they were glad to be able to stretch up and spring the booby trap Alexey had constructed – a tree trunk crashed down in front of the motorbike causing it to jack-knife into the air and come skidding down onto the road in a screeching, clanging howl like a box of knives thrown onto a stone floor, and as Alexey and Sasha ran down from their concealed position they saw the rider fallen onto the road, lying motionless. Alexey set to work removing any weapons from the soldier’s person, while Sasha stood over the other man, the pillion rider, with a handgun poised for protection, in a trembling hand. The man groaned and stirred, and in the time it took for Sasha to blink the man had grabbed his ankle in a leech-like grip. Sasha‘s balance deserted him briefly and he stumbled down onto one knee. With his other hand the man pulled a bayonet out of his jacket and, in a moment slashed open by a horror inside his head, Sasha’s finger pulled the trigger on his handgun, blasting a hole in the man’s neck, from which blood began to splutter. Sasha stood up and stared down at the broken soldier at his feet, lying in a puddle of claret. He didn’t sleep for a few nights after that.
That life, in those mountains, was like a magic spell – all the young men in that ramshackle Resistance army were intoxicated by a lifestyle so close to a natural existence that they didn’t want to let it go. They lived off the land, and were also helped out by the local people, who gave them food whenever they could. It was a true taste of freedom. And, they carried the fight. Always.
When the firestorms of World War Two arrived, the battles burned harder and stronger than ever, and death was always nearby, with the brutal Nazis a new, dangerous enemy.
Even when the war was over, they continued with their ambushes, on Polish or Soviet troops – anyone who wasn’t a Ukrainian was an enemy. But, without any warning, a time came when they were forced to leave.
‘Run!’ shouted Alexey as the mountain hideaway was attacked by a several units of Polish militia intent on removing the Resistance for good. They’d already cut their supply lines of food from local sympathisers by removing those families out of the region. It was a scramble. Sasha, and his comrades smashed through the undergrowth and somehow got away, they escaped the grasp of the Poles.
‘We’re finished. For now, at least.’ said Alexey, as they sat around a fire in the frostiness of a February morning in 1948. And so, they trekked across Europe, with their Kozak hearts and souls of steel. They’d been scattered, like the empty cylinders from a machine gun, and they’d tumbled onto the map of Europe.
Those memories lived inside Sasha so strongly, he was a fighter. Always. Forever. It was inside him.
As he sat and watched television, all on his own, in his little flat, he bristled as he listened to the Leader of the country. The voice, the delivery, the demeanour, all reminded him of the dictators from history, like Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. All of them were great speakers and supreme manipulators. But, this current Leader hadn’t embarked upon a programme of genocide, so was still inside legal limits.
Sasha had a lot of time on his hands, now that he was confined to his armchair in his tiny flat, and he spent a lot of time thinking about the state of the world. And, he could see, oh so clearly, how the shape of the future might become. It was ugly – distorted beyond any recognisable form. Because, the Leader was, with cunning, developing a form of social genocide to prevent ordinary people from having any power whatsoever.
He shouted at the screen, ‘You raise the fuel prices again?! So that old people like me freeze to death?! I’ve worked hard all my life. I don’t deserve this! And you expect us all to sit back and take this, without even a word in anger!”
He watched the news on his television as the students battled with riot police, and he smiled. And then he’d shout some more. Sometimes his rants would continue for some time, the volume rising like steam from a kettle. The breath in his body was his last weapon, so he used it. His neighbour would bang on the wall, to try and stop him shouting. Sasha didn’t care. The battle was everything. There was always a war to fight.
His arrival in the land where men, and women, were thought of as free, was an escape, or so he thought. The year was 1950. The repression of the old country was way behind him, but never forgotten. He struggled to adjust to a land where he had choices. No longer did he wish to work for others, or for a faceless machine, which would suck his spirit away across decades of toil. He hated that. So, after working in factories for a few years, and volunteering for overtime whenever it was available, he saved up enough money to buy a small newsagents shop.
‘You’ve got yourself a little goldmine there, pal,’ said the estate agent, Ron, as he handed Sasha the keys.
‘Thank you.’ replied Sasha, forcing back a scowl. He had little to say to the sleazy, smart-mouthed money man, but he’d got the shop for a good price so was pleased enough.
It was his own little empire, with no one to answer to. He employed a small army of paper boys, and it ticked along nicely, with a steady flow of customers. Then, one day, she walked in. As she walked up to the counter, Sasha’s eyes were upon her. She was a dainty maiden, in a raincoat and headscarf, with an umbrella in one hand, and with a face like a painting, like an image fixed on canvas, so serene.
‘Ten number six, please,’ she said, her voice rising and falling like a sweet melody. And he found himself in a completely new battleground, as he tried to reach inside her heart. Every time she came into the shop, he’d be grinning at her and making small talk, all about the weather, or about music – she was a big Elvis Presley fan.
Her name was Kathleen, a young Irish girl, and Sasha found himself thinking about her more and more. He bought a radio and found a place inside the shop for it, and he tuned in to the popular stations, to hear the sounds that she liked, so he could talk to her about them.
Well, Sasha and Kathleen became acquainted in the way a young man and his girl did in those days, and they married in the spring of 1960.
They shared many years together, but despite their happiness together, they were not blessed with children. Kathleen spent her time working for various conservation groups. To her, the outdoor life was one to cherish, and so she did. Nature whipped winds around her ears, or poured cloudbursts of rain onto her, but it was of no discomfort to her. She saw the weather as part of the miracle of creation. Every day, Kathleen threw herself into a landscape and nourished the land, the hills and the trees.
On Sundays, Sasha would close the newsagents early, and they’d go out together, whatever the weather. It was a relief for him to get out into the countryside after being cooped up inside his newsagents all week. He was earning a good income, but it was like being in a prison in his newsagents shop. So, on Sunday afternoons he’d be out in the hills with Kathleen and it always brought back strong memories. Of those days when he was a freedom fighter, living in mountain hideaways and firing bullets at the enemy. The trouble was, he didn’t know who his enemy was anymore.
On weekdays, he’d sit in his shop and listen to people as they came in to buy newspapers and to complain about the world in general. When the local council planned to build speed humps along his road, he wrote letters and he campaigned against it, but they put the speed humps in nevertheless. His command of written English improved and developed and he got letters published in the Evening Post at least once a month, fighting one cause or another. But the machine was difficult to break. One or two successes were claimed by him – he campaigned for more street lighting in his area, and for a pedestrian crossing. It earned him respect in his neighbourhood, and in the years that followed, he was often approached for advice on all kind of matters. It was a role he adopted gladly, and he was invited onto committees frequently to spearhead one campaign or another.
The pages of his life turned and those chapters flew by like shots from a rifle. Kathleen and he lived their lives side by side, in unison, but almost separate at times, he as a small businessman and committee member, and she with her preservation work in the countryside nearby. One evening he came home late from a committee meeting to find her wheezing and spluttering in her bed, which was unusual.
‘Are you all right my love?” He enquired, perching on the edge of the bed.
‘I-I’ll b-be fine,’ she croaked. He brewed up a soothing mug of hot lemon and honey and tucked her into bed, and then he went back downstairs to read though some letters, and to write some.
The following morning he left the house early to open up the newsagents, and he took her up a hot cup of tea and a couple of slices of toast before he left for the shop. The daily work routine was just as usual. He unwrapped bundles of newspapers while listening to the radio, and smiled when he heard She Loves You by the Beatles and he thought of her, and in that moment his love for her was pure and whole. The twenty years they’d been together seemed to have flown past like the song of a nightingale – she was his precious flower, his divine delight.
That evening, on his way home, he bought her a bunch of flowers, and was relieved he didn’t have any committee meetings that evening, so he could spend some time with Kathleen, and make sure she was all right.
On his return, he climbed the stairs, with the flowers still in his hand to find her lying motionless in bed, and as he approached her side of the bed, he gasped. Her pillow was soaked in blood. The flowers fell in a heap as he tried to rouse her. He clattered down the stairs to the phone and called an ambulance. She was rushed into hospital, and straight into intensive care. Just moments after the ambulance pulled away from the house, Sasha backed his Volvo off the drive and weaved through traffic to get to her side.
By the time he got to her, she was wired to all sorts of machines and flat out in her intensive care bed. He sat with her. For hours. Until the darkest hour of the night, when with his head swirling and his heart full of a bubbling rage he stood up and called to a passing doctor.
‘Hey. Doctor. I need to talk to you.’ Sasha took purposeful strides towards the doctor. ‘What can you tell me about my wife?’
Immediately sensing he was faced with a man who would not be satisfied with flannelling of any description, the doctor extracted the medical files and read through them.
‘Well sir, it appears your wife is very poorly. On arrival here, she had emergency blood tests and a scan, which should be available in the morning, but her general medical condition is not so good. You look exhausted. I suggest you go home and get some rest and come back tomorrow, when we’ll know much more.’
‘I’m not leaving here until I get some answers.’ replied Sasha. And so he sat back down and waited. He dozed in the chair, occasionally waking up and stretching his neck from side to side to ease the aches that came to his muscles. Or when someone, from a nearby bed, cried out for the nurse and jolted him back to reality in the shadows of that hospital bay, he would stir and look at Kathleen lying motionless, radiating loveliness even in that deepest of sleeps. He wondered if he kissed her on the lips whether she might wake up, just like in the fairytales his mother read to him as a boy, when the handsome prince rescued the princess.
Barely a day had gone by when he hadn’t thought about his mother and brothers back home, and whether they’d survived the war. He was never able to go back, and part of him was too scared to even think about returning. Even when the Berlin Wall came down and Communism collapsed, he was so afraid of what he might find that he couldn’t bring himself to travel back to his home in Ukraine. Because, despite the courage and the strength in his soul, he knew he’d been a coward to leave his mother like that.
It made him the way he was. He had a stare that was cold like stone, and he knew how to use it. And inside him a fire roared. And he’d become a man of letters, eloquent and graceful in his use of language. He could deliver an argument with the impact of a bazooka blast, but also with the measured tone of a poet.
These were some of the thoughts that flowed through him as he waited.
Dawn came eventually, with rays of gold piercing the darkness, and bringing light to the day. Sasha stood up from the chair and stretched, and paced up and down the bay. As soon as he saw the nurses congregating around the nurses’ station, he strode over.
‘Can I speak to someone about my wife, please?’
A nurse looked up at him from a pile of papers on the desk,
‘Of course, of course sir. Let me take a look at her notes.’
The nurse sprang up from her seat and pulled a file from a nearby trolley. She flicked through a few pages and then, frowning, looked up,
‘Your wife’s test results are back from the lab.’
Dimly, Sasha recalled a fellow coming onto the ward in the early hours with an armful of large folders and refilling the trolley.
‘So?’ he replied.
‘It’s bad news. She has lung cancer, and it’s spreading through her body. I’m sorry.’
She placed the folder back in the trolley, rubbed him on the arm, and walked away. He didn’t want to believe it. At that point, he could’ve taken the folder out of the trolley and looked for himself, but he didn’t want to. Remaining motionless, he breathed deeply, his heart pumping like a geyser inside him. Returning to his chair at her bedside, he reached across and held her hand, never taking his eyes off her.
For two weeks, he sat there day and night, to be with her. Every two or three days, the nurses would peel him away from the bed and send him home to get himself cleaned up, but he never stayed away long.
Until the nineteenth day, when she drew her final breath. Again, he was peeled away from her by the nurses and she was wheeled to the mortuary. She was gone.
He found out not long after she’d died that it was probably the cigarettes that killed her. Those discounted cigarettes that he bought for her from his wholesaler – they were the murder weapon – and he was the murderer.
Even though he’d never smoked in his life before, he started there and then. Slumped in an armchair, her armchair, he sat and puffed away and watched as the smoke billowed into the air like a ballet dancer in a slow arc of motion. It was the armchair where she’d sat and smoked her way through a pack of cigarettes most evenings, writing in journals or reading books. With the smoke around him, he wasn’t alone, her spirit was with him, he couldn’t let her go.
Within a year he’d sold the newsagents, and their house and found the little flat that was just enough for him. But, it wasn’t long after he moved when he had the first of a series of heart attacks. They flattened him. He could hardly walk, and by the time a few more years had passed he was so weak he could barely move. He still smoked though.
But, it got to the stage where, because he’d fallen a few times, and been found by neighbours, he’d been persuaded to accept carers from an agency recommended by the Council. What made him angry though, was that he had to pay for it. After all his years of working hard and paying tax! It was all wrong, and flames surged in his blood whenever he thought about it.
He looked at the clock and took a long pull on his cigarette. It was eleven. He was expecting the Social Worker at any moment. To come and tell him how much he was required to pay for the services he’d received. Well, Sasha was prepared. He was ready. He knew exactly what he was going to say to the Social Worker. He would tell him to GO TO HELL!