Eventually they arrived in their tired Mitsubishi, waving and smiling as their hosts gingerly lowered the Ukrainian flag. But they still held it upright with freezing fingers, their arms throbbing. A bitter wind was blowing, vicious in search of victims. They had to wait just a little longer to finally greet their visitors. They moved stiffly to the side of the road and with frozen faces tried their best to smile.
For the last couple of hours Peter and Claire had been standing by the road less than a mile from Dover’s port, waiting, flag in hand and often aloft. They were to host a refugee family of five until the war was over and Mr Putin had been put back in his box. Olga had been very keen to take up the offer, posted on Facebook. She had been drawn to pictures of the large rooms, of which there were many, and to the niaivity of the questions Peter and Claire had asked about their situation in Ukraine. For two hours the Ukrainian flag had bounced and swayed for every silver car that approached Peter and Claire along the three lane carriageway. Occasionally drivers would honk their horns in support, not necessarily appreciating what they were looking at. Overhead seagulls swirled in lazy arcs, coasting the wind as it tore at the landscape. The scrubby hedges at the foot of the cliffs surged forwards and back, forwards and back, tracking the wind and the urgent traffic.
In a silver car with Ukrainian plates, heading away from Claire and Peter, a new argument was getting underway. Ivan was struggling to focus on driving on the wrong side of the road and keeping up with the rest of the traffic. It was not easy and his small pale body was shaking, terrified. He clutched at the steering wheel in hunched concentration and did his best to ignore the urgent artillery his wife fired with such intensity. “Where can they be? Are you sure you turned the right way out of customs and immigration?” This last a slightly confusing demand. Ivan had listened to his wife at each step of the way, he had followed Olga’s waving arm as she relayed instructions coming in from Peter via a messaging app. His only certainty was that he had followed her instruction. Ivan’s body quivered and his brain was locking up, tangled with stress, exhaustion and fear. Ivan was responding only the movements of the road and of his bossy wife. He followed as she pointed at the way she wanted to go. He was a colourless automaton. He saw only grey tarmac and her flailing hand.
But they were going the wrong way and after driving for over an hour Ivan took a bold decision. He finally ignored his nagging wife and stopped the car at a petrol station. With immense patience and tones of normality he told the children that no, we aren’t there yet. “We are in England,” he said “but we must find the friends, the English people, before we can say we are there”. So small and yet so huge. Ivan sighed and looked down, and reached to take the phone from his wife. He scrolled up and carefully read through the many messages. “But it says here we should have turned left and headed west, not east?” Olga nodded in agreement, “but you don’t know. You don’t listen. I was pointing. I was showing you the way. You are a fool.” And she folded her arms and started muttering justifications to herself, harumphing and pushing herself deeper into the carseat. She was nursing something pinched and small that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. In the back, the little girl was starting to whimper again calling for another bag of crisps, another fizzy drink. She was ignored, eventually gave up and went back to the Youtube cartoons on her phone. The teenage boys momentarily roused turned away and went back to sleep. As quietly as possible Ivan and Olga continued to hiss and spit until Ivan turned the car around and set off back towards the port. The arrogant greens on the early leaves of the roadside bushes were screaming at him too. But Ivan fancied their spring song was blotting out the sound of Olga’s ranting and his daughter’s whines. He took comfort in the grubby browns and taupes, in the incipient growth, the life. Full of new possibilities the colours on the fragile shoots shifted with the light. Perhaps he was moving with them forwards, ever forwards and away from the fear. Or perhaps the fear was moving with him.
As Ivan moved forwards and Olga continued to bludgeon him with words, Claire and Peter were immobile with cold. “We can’t just wait and wait? Where could they possibly be?” Claire nudged at her husband’s shoulder as he struggled to check his phone once again and to keep the flag upright. “Stop nagging. They’ll be here. There isn’t anywhere else for them to be, if they followed the instructions.” His irritation barely hidden, he thrust the flag into his wife’s chilled hand, and dragged numb fingers across his dripping nose. “I’ll try another message.” The two of them stood irritated and disagreeable, resenting the two hours of waiting plus the two more hours driving to Dover. And back again. They generally managed to avoid spending so much time in each other’s company and this day was turning into a trial. Sullen sighs and sporadic unintended huddling against the cold punctuated the tedium. Exasperation and ill-concealed annoyance: “He’s gone the wrong way. Turned right instead of left and he was heading for Ramsgate. How hard is it to choose between left and right? How hard to follow signs to Hastings?”
Claire smiled, fully aware that left and right are often interchangeable, particularly in times of stress and anxiety. “They don’t speak English, so you can’t expect them to be able to tell between what says Ramsgate and what says Hastings,” she said with an ill-concealed sneer. Another hour passed but then “Look, surely that has to be them?” Claire, now quite ashen with the cold was pointing a crooked finger at a slow moving grey car. It was hugging the side of the road, leaving the weeds and grasses undisturbed and upright, their shadows intact as he passed. The driver was hunched over and the woman passenger was staring away from him at the traffic hurtling by. She was wearing a headband of large blue and yellow silk flowers and when she finally noticed Claire and Peter she pasted on a dazzling smile and started waving frantically. The children came slowly awake and waved as well, wide eyed dead faces, sallow skin, vacant eyes.
A couple of hours later they were seated around the kitchen table, the room warm and the air scented with Green Ash logs burning gently in the fire. Daffodils and forget-me-nots unseen in the darkened flowerbeds and loud in vases on the window sills. Floral flags for their guests. Peter looked at the scene with a self-satisfaction bordering on the smug. They were finally here, finally safe. “What a journey you’ve had,” he said with a pompous, almost prideful tone. Claire sipping her homemade elderflower cordial nodding, equally pleased. As if they had even the slightest idea of what these people had been through. No one spoke. The family looked from one to the other, waiting for someone to Google translate what had been said. They were each somewhere elsewhere still, isolated and alone, rerunning snapshots in their heads of each of the 66 days they had been on the road. Endless images of tarmac and traffic, of anonymous fields taking them further and further from home. Lost pictures marking time and running through their brains without pause.
In front of them was an inedible meal of English food, food which Claire had thought would be comforting and tasty. But they could only barely eat the sausages and some of the potato. The sausages tasted strangely aromatic and had a fat, coarse texture. Sausages should have just a hint of pork flavour and be smooth and soft. They should be a dusky orange, not blackened and red, and in need of dogged chewing. And they should not be contaminated with some sort of thick brown liquid as these were, along with much of the fluffy mashed potato and what might once have been onions. The onions were translucent and brown at the edges, instead of being crisp and fresh and sharp. The peas, an excess of green on bright white plates, they all pushed aside.
Finally Google translate might have expressed their hosts’ attempt at polite and welcoming conversation. They nodded and smiled small shy smiles. Aliens in another strange land. Claire moved the large vase of expensive lilies and early roses to one side, regretting with a certain smallness of spirit that these additional flowers were so little appreciated. She had seen this evening, this arrival, as a celebration. She wanted the flowers to signal her own personal welcome, in addition to the yellow and blue. Something wasn’t quite right though.
“Do you like flowers?” she ventured and, after an age in which a couple more bites of sausage were reluctantly choked down, Olga nodded vigorously. But she had been unimpressed with the chaos of the Kent countryside, its constant shifts, the madness of all those different plants and trees. She did not want this desolation of bellowing vegetation, jeering at them and which they could not comprehend as they passed through the unknown landscape. She wanted to see boundless fields of wheat and potatoes, sunflowers, a landscape uniform, steady and reliable. Safe. But that was gone. “Tomorrow we can show you the garden, when it’s light, when you’ve all recovered from your journey.” “Yes” Peter chipped in as Google took over and the five lost Ukrainians focused on yet another impenetrable tomorrow. That they would have recovered from their journey was unlikely.
Claire was sure a garden could cast a healing spell. Despite the fact that these people had virtually no English she was looking forward to involving them in the garden and to enjoying its nurturing power on their behalf. The family had travelled a slow and circuitous route from Chernihiv in north eastern Ukraine. The City of Legends on the Desna River, encircled by hostile Russians hungry for destruction. The family had travelled via Poland, Germany and France. They had been on the road for over two months and Ivan had had some idea that they should treat the trip as a sort of holiday, not flight from war. Every day his country was shattered and smashed anew and every day took them further from their lives. But he was convinced they were moving closer to even worse terrors he could not name. The shades and shadows of the unknown held him tight.
For the first two weeks none of the visitors left their bedrooms. They stayed draped on their beds watching their phones, searching for news, sharing with their friends, sleeping. Claire and Peter had chosen to leave them to settle in their own way and in their own time, but that they would choose to remain indoors had not occurred to them. After a couple of weeks the boys ventured out into the garden, kicking a ball they had brought from home, disconsolate and lazily. After a few minutes they went back indoors, away from the energy and growth, away from the greens and the yellows and the blues. Away from the serendipity and grace of new life, thrusting into the light.
Ivan and Peter worked together on the paperwork for registering the family with the local doctor and getting National Insurance numbers for the adults. It was slow work and Ivan’s enthusiasm to start a new life in England feeble at best. His eyes turned away from the work, looking out of the window for echoes of the soothing views that had been his comfort in Chernihiv. There he would look out from his desk in their flat, staring at the swaying treetops of a distant park. Black in winter, green in spring and summer and golden in the autumn, their movement was endlessly restful to him. But it wasn’t the same here. There was too much chaos in the shapes and miscellany of the view and he could not stare away the grey space that filled his head. Dreary acknowledgements and the bureacracy of a situation wherein he had no control were engulfing Ivan and there was no distant swaying parkland to soothe him. “It’s so very green, it hurts my eyes,” he mumbled as he turned away.
His mind was in darkness. In the darkness he was always driving late at night sipping Red Bull and eating crisps as his family slept safe in the back seats. All around him was black and the empty landscape left only the road for him. He had only to make the decisions to brake or accelerate, to change lane, to speed up or slow down, to windscreen wipe or not windscreen wipe. In the emptiness these decisions were the limits of his new world and when the light showed changing contours Ivan was soon lost in dread. His decisions and choices, the awfulness of change was carved into the landscape as he passed ever further from his home and all that he had known.
At the dining room table Ivan’s soft sandy hair, too long and in need of washing, clung tight to his high brow which was creased with anxiety. His sparse red beard camoflaged grey pasty skin peppered with small wounds and burgeoning spots. Chewed fingernails and a watchful gaze, he waited in vain for the garden and this new landscape to give him some meagre solace. Anxious that Olga stays close by, Ivan is restless without her. He loves his wife to distraction but unbidden suspicions that he could not fully trust her, shame him. And the endless nagging was exhausting. She was sitting with them at the table, Google translate at the ready as Peter went through the endless forms. Olga, big boned and with the same porkfat pasty complexion as her husband, was bored with the formfilling, wondering only when they could go to London and when the promised money would arrive from the local council. She knew it was promised. Peter had said so. She looked forward to spending it on a trip to London and some new clothes. Conniving and charming, she smiled rosy smiles in answer to every question and reminded Peter that she wanted to have Universal Credit although she wasn’t entirely certain what it was.
Outside the rain drizzled the garden, amplifying the yellows and blues and greens, the flowers and plants beginning to call back a little louder to meet Ivan’s yearning gaze. Olga was blind to the tidy flower beds, the multitude of spring colours. It was too early, too bright for these shades. They were too different. They mocked her, left her feeling more alone, more distant and foreign. She turned away. She wanted to shop and drink and to replicate what they had lost in their own space. She was bored with her hosts and their careful, methodical organisation. Distain and impatience; the surety that this country they had come to was inferior in all respects, from the awful food to the weather and the untidy landscapes. Peter was droning on again. “So now we need to submit these forms and we can start working on the school applications for the children.” Olga nodded enthusiastically, “yes, school, yes.” The children wouldn’t be such an annoyance, if they were in school all day. Someone else would entertain and feed them. Someone else, anyone else. “And then you will be able to look for work, get your lives on track. Maybe by then the war will be over.” The translation produced vigourous nodding from Ivan and a small scowl from Olga, but Peter saw only the nodding and beamed back with equal enthusiasm.
Claire was out in the rain picking herbs for lunch and Olga watched through the rain glittered windows, a condescending smirk on her face. Claire came in with potatoes from the shed which she was offering with some pride. “From the garden last summer”. Olga called the children so that they could see these miserable English potatoes. The boys of 13 and 15 and the pallid little girl of seven came into the kitchen hovering behind their mother to stare at the potatoes in the basket. There was no meaning, no relevance, no connection. None understood why they needed to look at potatoes. They understood their mother’s distain for the meagre selection as she muttered and gestured at the vegetable patch. Claire took this as a question, laughing back that “yes, we grow our own potatoes”. The older boy translated immediately for his mother. But this was surely nothing to be proud of. Olga pasted on a patronising smile and nodded.
She left the room and reappeared with a packet of seeds, using Google to explain to Claire that as there are no beetroots in England, Claire might like to grow some. Holding the packet in her hand, Claire smiled broadly and gestured to a basket on the windowsill, full of seed packets some open and some still closed waiting for their season. Claire tucked the Ukrainian seeds into the batch for April and showed Olga a packet of English beetroot seeds. Olga stared at the picture of beetroots on the packet. It was almost the same image as the one on her Ukrainian beetroot seed packet. But not quite. It was an imposter, a fake. They have no beetroots in England. She knows this. And Claire was surprised to see slow tears welling in Olga’s hard grey eyes. They stood at the kitchen door as the rain fell slowly reaching deep and nurturing into the soil and all that dwelled there. They watched a robin hop from the wheelbarrow onto the greenhouse gutter. They watched as the robin cast tiny shadows in the early spring sunshine. They watched as shadows disappeared and reappeared with each urgent movement.