Caring - High Rise

Caring, by Kate Jackson

How did I come to be lying on my back while clutching a batch of unposted leaflets? The lying on my back part was easy to explain. I had slipped on an almost invisible greasy film of vegetation coating uneven stone steps. The posting leaflet part was a much harder story, one I had not been ready to think about. A few weeks ago, as I waited for the tech repair man to fix my laptop, he asked me what I did. A simple question: “What do you do?” A question I dreaded being asked at social occasions, when meeting someone new. Even the gynaecologist at an uncomfortable appointment had asked about my work. So much seems to hang on the answer to this question. We are identified by our career, employment, job, profession – it is our badge of identity, that tattoo that is impossible to remove.

My response to the tech man was rather pathetic. I told him I didn’t really know. I had taken a deep breath and I explained that I had worked in Health and Social Care, come close to burning out before leaving. I said that I had taken a career break. But I was kidding myself. I had no intention of returning. Fortunately, the tech man was more inclined to talk about himself. He told me, if it made me feel any better (it didn’t), how he had almost burned out in the past when a large corporation squeezed his business out.

After slipping on the steps, and spending a few stunned moments on the ground, I sat up and checked myself for any injury. I was sore but my back had been saved from serious injury by my water bottle. When I pulled it out, I found a deep V shaped indent in the metal where it had struck the edge of a step. For months afterwards, I continued to use the bottle, grateful for its protection despite the fact that if it tilted over in my bag, water leaked from the lip where the paint had been chipped away.

I had been injured earlier in the day; a dog’s teeth scraping the skin on my right hand as I pushed a leaflet through the letterbox. In the early days I had been cautious when approaching houses with pictures of dogs and “Beware” written in large, bold letters below. However, it was rare to hear barking in these properties. At others there was no warning but a sudden cacophony of sound that assailed my ears, and a thud as the body of a jumping dog hit the door. I would cautiously leave the leaflet tucked under the outer flap, not wanting to risk losing any fingers. At one house a silent dog had caught me by surprise, grabbing the leaflet from the other side of the box, tugging it from me like it was a milk bone.

I had developed a good eye for the tougher letterboxes, the small brass fixtures that needed to be opened with force. My fingers marked with red weals, I would push and ram the leaflet, silently apologising for the crumpled state it would arrive in. Sometimes, when I pushed the leaflet through a loose box, I was overwhelmed by the smell of cigarettes, the strong, bitter scent of tobacco, or the rarer, sickly scent of cannabis.

I became systematic in my approach to the job. On the bus-ride out to the estate I would sit and fold leaflets in half. From time to time, I would stop to check my map, use a pen to highlight the properties I had visited. The estates were a tangle of cul-de-sacs and gennels, confusing my tired mind as the day progressed.

I noted the different homes, those with peeled paintwork on the window-frames, the yellowed net curtains. Gardens full of litter where I would be overwhelmed with the stench of cat piss. If the letter box was at eye level, I would glimpse a hallway, the bottom of a set of stairs, a jumbled row of shoes. I contemplated what it would be like to see a dead body lying on the hall mat, imagining a knife in the back, blood oozing, flies everywhere. Who would I ring for first, the police or an ambulance? And would I be a suspect? If I did find anyone, it would put a stop to me reaching my target of delivering 100 leaflets an hour.

Sometimes I would be overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu. I would recognise a stone hedgehog and tub of dead flowers on a doorstep, or a garden filled with gnomes and fairy lights and realise I had just redelivered to a handful of houses that I had visited earlier. Tiredness and my own wandering imagination would cause me to make a mistake and waste precious time. That and the layout of the estate with its intersection of meandering roads and gennels that ran between the properties.

From time to time, I would need to stop to roll my shoulders and stretch, to relieve the ache I felt in my neck, or search for a plaster in my rucksack to wrap around a nail where a cuticle had been caught one too many times by the stiff bristles on some of the letterboxes. Eventually I switched from wearing fingerless gloves to using thin full-sized ones to protect my hands. Finding a small play area, I might sit on a swing to drink water. I liked to be out in the open, to be able to see around me. Unlike my previous job, I felt liberated. Despite the cold air I loved being high up above the city, close to the edge of the surrounding countryside where many social housing estates had been built. I carried a small bag of bird food that I would sprinkle on the ground for house sparrows.

I hated the tall blocks of flats, worrying about who I may encounter on the stairwell. In the summer the blocks often smelled of stale cooking and sweaty bodies. Here too I would worry that there was a dead body, although I had never smelled one, as the stench coming from the flats could be overpowering. It was a relief when I was not able to gain access to some blocks. Others, where residents were not security minded, had entrance doors wedged open with a brick or a piece of wood. Resigned, I would quickly climb to the top landing, my boots a dull thud on the concrete steps, then work my way back down. As I posted leaflets I witnessed small vignettes of peoples’ lives – the sound of children playing, or of a daytime soap on the TV, or of a couple arguing. Some of the people I met on my round would talk to me: a man repairing his motorbike chatting about the weather, another mulching his raised beds telling me about the vegetables he was growing.

If I was lucky, after a couple of hours delivering, I could call in at the community centre to eat my lunch and use the toilet. Sometimes when I was working, the centre was closed and I had to go into the woods to pee. In winter, when the leaves had fallen, it was harder to find somewhere sheltered and I was constantly on the alert for dog walkers as I squatted between the silver birch trees and brambles. There were no cafés in the area, only takeaways without toilets. Even if there had been a café, I would not have wanted to use my earnings to buy a drink, and I would only end up needing to pee again later.

For almost a quarter of a century, long before my walks up and down tower blocks, I had listened to the problems of others, taken in their misery and fear. I had lost count of the number of secrets and traumatic events that had been shared with me. I felt like a priest hearing confession. I had come to realise that each confession was like the heavy, black brick I had learned to pick up from the bottom of the pool as a child during swimming lessons. And I carried these bricks around with me in my bag. As the years progressed, the bag had become heavier and heavier.

I had supervision with an experienced senior colleague. We would talk through tough cases, those that were problematic, where there were sticking points in my practice, new ideas I could try. There was rarely time to acknowledge good practice, success stories, achievements. And I found it difficult to talk about the impact this was all having on me.

I had started my career working with older adults who experienced poor mental health. Over the years I had empathised, soothed, calmed troubled minds. I helped survivors to explore what had happened and how they were coping, what other things they could try that may help. I watched them increase their skills, move on in their lives, not be defined simply by the horrific events they had experienced. Eventually I felt as though the experiences of others were defining me. No amount of supervision, yoga classes or breathing exercises were going to help. Their tales of every kind of abuse possible had worn me down, taken away layers of my skin, eroded my defences over time until one day I felt stripped bare and exposed.

My body had shown the first signs: the migraines, difficulty sleeping, muscles seizing up, stomach problems. Then my mind faltered. My concentration waned. I would sit with service-users, listen and contribute. But when writing up my notes, I was fearful that I had not fully assessed or analysed the situation. I questioned if I had reflected appropriately during the appointments, if plans of care were service user led, and not some creation from years of experience that I had churned out automatically. Would a service-user feel able to tell me if I was wrong?

By chance I read a journal article about the need for self-compassion. It focused on how the things we did away from work were important. We only feel at home when we are not at work. I realised how alienating my job was. As well as the trauma at work, I was surrounding myself with more trauma; the repeats of ‘Prime Suspect’, as well as more recent programmes – ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Bridge’. The documentaries on TV about health and social care services that reflected my own situation at work. I changed my habits, started re-reading books from childhood, yellowed copies of “The Wind in the Willows” and “The Secret Garden”. I read more nature books, books about the environment – James Rebanks writing about his farm, John Stempel Lewis writing about his meadow.

And still, I could not be open in supervision. I never liked talking about myself. I could not see the point. On training courses, I failed to understand why everyone had to take it in turns to say what their favourite film, book or ice-cream flavour was. What did our tastes have to do with how many compressions to use in community resuscitation, or which fire extinguisher to use if the wastepaper bin in the office was alight? Team building days were a source of dread for me. At the end of the day nothing changed. Goals and tasks were added to endless sheets of flipchart paper. Flipcharts that would be put in the cupboard back in the office and forgotten about. Some staff loved these days, eager for the next one. An excuse to have a day away from trauma and misery. I would feel resentful that my workload had to be put on hold.

I questioned where my disenchantment came from. I knew I would always struggle. Offices would always be crowded and noisy, a cacophony of migraine-inducing sounds. Carpets that would have helped to absorb some of the sound of half a dozen people on the telephone were expensive and needed regular cleaning. There were rumours of us having to hot-desk, or even hot-base – carrying our laptops around with us looking for a building with space to be able to write up our notes, plans, assessments. Most people were preoccupied with where they would keep their mug and emergency pot-noodle supplies, paracetamol or spare tights, or if there would be an adequate number of parking spaces. As a team, we relied on being able to seek each other out to discuss concerns and risks, on being able to have a dedicated duty worker for back-up and support. Meeting each morning to discuss and share jobs, deal with crises, sickness and absences was vital. If we lost our base, we would lose the level of responsiveness we had, and risks would increase.

We had debated security and safety constantly. Endless discussions about keeping safe, buddy systems, calling in between visits to say we were safe. Eventually, we were given alarms that were connected to a central control. If we were at risk, we could trigger the alarm and the police could be alerted to respond if needed. A few of us would use the alarms religiously. Others left them in the bottom of their work bag or in the glove box in their car. I had been accosted by an angry parent on a visit, his face red and distorted, fists banging on the bonnet of my car as he shouted and swore at me about news he had received. I had pressed my alarm but, I was later told, not for long enough for it to activate. People at the bus stop nearby watched in silence. No one intervened or came to my aid. Time stretched out. Seconds felt like hours I had never understood the term ‘time stood still’ until that day. I remained outwardly calm; inside I was cold with fear. Then, just as quickly as his anger had arrived, he turned and left. Trembling I drove away, conscious of the people at the bus stop watching me. My then manager had been sympathetic to a point. She sent a standard letter saying abuse and violence would not be tolerated. But she expected me to continue to work with the family, although I felt physically sick at the thought. I was too shocked to tell her how I felt.

My performance reviews were glowing with praise for the quality of my work and commitment. Other aspects were picked over. I was puzzled at a review when the manager had told me I needed to contribute more to our weekly meetings where we met to discuss cases in more detail. There were often people who attended who were silent, experienced staff who had skills and insight but did not share these with the team. There were interminable arguments about how the minutes should be recorded. There was frustration that the same concerns about the same families were voiced repeatedly but plans drawn up were never followed. Others at the meeting spoke too much: irrelevant, repetitive, or inappropriate comments. Holding on to my criticism and the frustration I felt, I would speak in careful, measured tones, to try and help others reflect. With my efforts a parent described as being “over-involved” became a loving parent, frightened and bemused, who needed advice and information, not criticism and exclusion. An irritable, exhausted father was supported to speak to an employer, to have his working hours reduced.

My manager was always very direct when she spoke and acted. On the mornings she joined us, she took control of the team’s diary and job sheet, making decisions about who did what. She was autocratic. At my review she insisted that I spoke very little. Before I could respond to her criticism, she had typed into the review document: “Objective 1- to participate more in meetings”, I watched the curser blink its way across the screen. And so it continued, each objective filled in without discussion. I remember thinking that although these were my objectives, I had no say in them. What was the point? The following day a copy of the performance review arrived in my inbox for me to sign, which I did. The manager moved on. The next manager signed the objectives as completed at the next review. My new objectives became based on targets and statistics.

I was becoming a machine. I also sensed that all my efforts to reach a part in my career, to specialise in a specific area were coming to nothing. The manager did not understand my work – or was choosing not to. There were statistics he had to consider, targets he had to reach. He focused on numbers and quantity rather than quality and evidence-based results. My vital work, and that of others too, was becoming less of a priority. When I spoke to my partner about leaving, he said I should do something I enjoyed, that we could manage financially, that my health was important.

On what later turned out to be my last day at work, I had met with a carer. She spoke about the impact caring had on her. We discussed the need for her to consider her own well-being. Afterwards, sitting in the car before driving back to the office to type up my notes, I was overwhelmed by the thought that I needed to heed my own advice. My empathic GP wrote a sick note. I handed in my resignation.

Snow was falling when I packed up my workspace and left. Heavy snowflakes that disguised the landscape and confused my eyes on the drive home. It was as though the snow was blotting out my past. There was no leaving party organised, no drinks in the pub. There were no speeches. My manger responded to my resignation letter with a few lines of thanks for my hard work and dedication. He did not ask if there was anything that might change my mind, if any support could be put in place or changes made that might help me. I did not immediately withdraw my name from the professional register, and I continued to pay my union fees. It took 12 months of telling myself I was just taking a break before I admitted to myself, and others, that I was not going back. I asked for my registration to end and left the union. I later sold the textbooks I had collected over the years.

Voluntary work helped me. Conservation work on nature reserves, helping a charity that was trying to tackle people who were socially excluded. Richard, who fixed me up with leaflet delivering, was passionate about reaching people. He spoke of areas where services dismissed residents as “hard to engage with” as if this was their own fault. He believed that services needed to try things differently, to offer something that was wanted, not what services felt was needed.

Months after leaving I met with ex-colleagues for a meal. They had hardly seated themselves at the table before the questions began. What was I doing? How was I spending my time? Was I bored? Did I regret leaving? I was exhausted by the end of the evening. Perhaps they thought I was a recluse, that I spent my time in bed, hiding under the duvet, watching “Loose Women”? Afterwards at home I wondered if they thought I never saw or spoke to anyone. My partner said they needed to feel justified in what they do, to rationalise continuing to work in those conditions. He suggested they wanted me to have regrets, to make them feel better. He thought they were envious. I felt sad. I had little in common with them, now we no longer shared work. Perhaps they had concluded that I had left because I was lacking in something and not up to the mark. Today, seeing me confident with my decision, happy with my choices and lifestyle, they may have misgivings. It was as though I should have a sense of guilt for leaving.

Shortly after I left my job, a friend said she was surprised, she thought I cared. I told her I left because I cared.

Kate Jackson is a new writer from Yorkshire. Following a career in health and social care she is focusing on creative writing, often writing about her experiences.
Image: Jimmy Chang, photohunter, ‘Apartment High Rise Building’, Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication.

A Marathon of Russian Roulette, a documentary play by Kateryna Penkova

Translated by Helena Kernan.

In the morning the planes started flying.
How can that be?
Well, I thought, they’ll fly around a bit and that’ll be it. We’ve got school in two hours, work.
The first strike came at half past four in the morning, nearby.
We legged it to the school to hide.
I looked at the building’s panels – they’d crumble quick as a flash and we’d be crushed.
We went back home.
Nightmarish shelling. A sea of soldiers setting up equipment. They were already asking some people to leave their homes.
But for some reason I was certain that they’d shell for a bit then stop. This was Mariupol, after all. We’d seen it all back in 2014.

I left Donetsk when it started there. Escaped with my two children. My ex-husband’s on the other side.
I was just very afraid. He’s so domineering. He’s so high up in Donetsk that he could have killed me and got off scot-free. All the guns were pointing at me. He used to threaten me and kick me out and keep me in the cellar.

So, there we sat. Waiting for it all to end. Planes were flying. So low they were right above your head. The building was shaking. Terrifying. We had no more electricity, water or gas. Bitterly cold. We all slept in the corridor in puffer jackets.

My friend rang – ‘Come over and charge your phones, we have electricity’.
So we went.
Everything was screeching, booming, flashing, exploding.
We shouted to each other but couldn’t hear a thing.
My friend’s street was much quieter. Like a whole different world.
There was water and electricity. We charged everything: power banks, phones.
She put us up – ‘Stay the night’. We put the kids in a room, a closet with no windows.
A small one, the walls are thick there.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The little one fell asleep at last.
We calmed down almost immediately – water, light, warmth – we could relax.
Everyone had bedded down and I was lying there on my phone.
They say that if you hear a whistle the shell isn’t coming for you, it’ll pass by.
But there was silence.
I looked up and like in The Matrix…
A shell burst straight into the flat… through the window.
Slowly, for me it happened slowly.
Shards of glass, chunks of plaster, so much dust, so much everything.
It seemed to me that the building swelled up then deflated again.
The shell flew in and I thought that I could stop it, grab it, catch it with my bare hands. Because it was flying towards… Towards the room where my child was.
I jumped up and ran.
I looked, she was whimpering, concrete on her head, you couldn’t see shit, there was a cloud of dust. I had only one thought – please let her head be intact. At home she used to sleep with her pillow over her ear. And that saved her. I looked – phew, seems it’s in one piece. Then my elder daughter said, ‘Mum, her legs’.

What do I remember about bleeding?
There are two types: venous and arterial.
Venous is a stream of dark blood.
Arterial is a fountain and bright red.
For venous bleeding you need to use a compression bandage and raise the limb. For arterial you need a tourniquet a bit higher up, and then what? Then you pray.
Because while you’re figuring out how to apply the damn tourniquet, the fountain will… run dry.

I bandaged her legs as best I could.
No signal. Shock. What to do?
We got dressed quickly, got ready as best we could.
We ran to another building. Somehow found internet connection. I messaged all the group chats.
I messaged Typical Mariupol, gave them the address – a child is wounded.

The police came, giving each other the jitters. They nearly shot us because it was dark, who knows who could have been there.
‘A child is wounded,’ I shouted.
Then they came closer, looked at us – ‘We’ll take her.’
‘She’s eight years old. Where will you take her? My elder daughter’s still in the basement.’
‘Either stay with the elder one or come with the younger one.’

I went with the little one, of course. And my eldest stayed put. We dashed through horrific shelling. We got to one hospital – they didn’t open the door. Either no-one was there or they didn’t hear us. One of the policemen shouted into a loudspeaker. The door stayed shut. We went to the emergency hospital. They took her. What’s going on? I just don’t understand. Soldiers were hugging me. They surrounded me:
‘Oh no, it’s a child.’
‘Stay strong, Mama.’
I don’t understand, I don’t understand anything.
Out came a doctor. I was shaking, my hands trembling. It was agony to look at him. I was so afraid of his face…
And he said, ‘People don’t survive wounds like that. At least they don’t walk away with both legs intact. We removed this. It was a millimetre away from an artery. A little curved cone. It’s not shrapnel. It’s the tip of an artillery shell. Maybe a ricochet. I don’t know. It went through one leg and got lodged in the other. Here in the soft tissue. I don’t know how that’s possible. We just got very lucky.’

After the operation they took us to Hospital No. 3, to the trauma unit. And we slept soundly until morning.
That was 8 March. When it all started.

Sound of an aerial bomb falling.

The shockwave was just… It knocked me off my feet, even though we were quite a way from where it landed. But the shockwave got us.
The drywall shook, the windows were blown out. I grabbed the little one, twisting round so she wouldn’t get hit. She had stitches, tubes, all of that.
I dropped to the ground, turned over, shielded her. A man was running, shouting, ‘My child’s on the first floor!’
Soldiers, doctors… everyone was shouting.
‘Everybody to the bunker!’
It wasn’t far. You could see it from the window. But I went to pick her up and had no strength to lift her. And I needed to take the bags and her bed-pan. Because how else could we stay in that bunker? It was cold and dark. Such fear, such adrenaline. A soldier dashed up, grabbed her and ran. I snatched the bags and followed.
I looked and saw wounded pregnant women running. A sea of crying children.

We ended up there. The hospital was destroyed. But they set up an emergency unit. And people were arriving amid the shelling.
They simply threw some people out on the street, because they knew that they would die. There was absolutely no way to help. If there was nothing left. Barely a head left. No arms or legs. Nothing left at all. Just a stump lying there. I didn’t think people could walk or live with those kinds of wounds. They were crying, begging, ‘Please don’t abandon us.’ They crawled out of that hospital. It was just a horror film.
It turned out that the only doctors with us were two trauma surgeons. And that was it.

There was one 15 year-old boy called Sashka.
The doctor shouted to me,
‘Hold the torch! Shine it into the wound!’
I couldn’t watch them cutting into a person… a child.
I knew that I had to help. But I couldn’t. The smell, the blood, the flesh.
They gave the torch to a guy and – bam – he fainted.
I watched and thought, Jesus, he’s only 15. Same as my eldest.
He was looking at me, going,
‘Will I survive? Will I survive?’
I grabbed the torch, my hands were shaking but I held it and said,
‘Of course. Of course you’ll survive. Don’t go anywhere.’
We couldn’t even count the holes in him. They were poking around for four hours.
We turned him over, he was a mess. You could have stuck two fingers into his neck. My whole hand would have fitted into his leg. And he was still going,
‘Will I survive? Will I survive?’
He so wanted to live. They got everything out, bandaged him up.

There was one woman with two children, Anya. ‘I don’t know where my third child is, a newborn,’ she said. ‘He got left behind somewhere in the hospital.’
The doctors conferred privately. There’s no-one in the hospital. The hospital’s gone. All the children died. Should we tell her, not tell her?
‘We’re searching,’ they said. They were covered in burns. She and the children. ‘We’re searching.’ She kept hoping.
I believe in God. There were no non-believers left in the bunker. I don’t know how to pray, so I just talked,
‘Lord, you saved my life. I’m in a bunker. Why did my elder daughter… where is she? Huh?! Why did this happen? How can I understand it?’
God said nothing. He was probably offended that I’d never come to him before.
We were on the Right Bank and she was on the Left Bank. Separated by Azovstal. Not a chance you could get there.

We started treating people, somehow I pulled myself together.
I got used to that smell. I began to recognise what was clean, what was infected, what needed to be done.
If I didn’t know, I’d shout, ‘What should I do?’ The doctors would reply.
We divided up the wounded – you take those ones, I’ll take these. And we worked like that.

There was a different sensation in the bunker. It would sink into the ground after a blast. The sensation that it was right there, striking the bunker head-on. I just cannot believe that I’m still alive after blasts like that. Before the war it was used for storage. And we were very lucky, because we found surgical lights there. We found operating tables, surgical film. We marked out an area, made it as sterile as possible.

One night someone came and banged on the iron door.
People were screaming involuntarily in pain. Children. You can’t explain to a child that they need to be quiet because someone’s at the door.
They tried to break it down.

Sound of machine gun fire.

It was terrifying.
It was as if the Transformers were on the move. I couldn’t make out any other sounds. As if everything made of metal was shaking, screeching, clanking, trying to get you, hunt you down.
We consulted with each other. Decided that we needed to make our presence known.
We drew red crosses on pieces of film with felt-tip pens.
But how to hang them up? We’d have to go out there. And you realise that out there are bullets and grenades and grenade launchers, equipment.
It was a genuine feat going out there. Because we had to fasten the signs. And that takes time. We rushed out in short bursts and attached them.
Then it seemed to subside. We decided to see if it would last or not.
We crawled out of the bunker. And there was the blackened city. Smoke as thick as fog, only black. It was as if the bunker had been dug out of the ground. Masses of crows all around. Our crosses riddled with machine gun bullets.

That’s when it dawned on us that we were there for the long run. We had to do something.
Our food was running out. We had no drinking water. We’d been collecting snow and rainwater, but it was dirty.
We needed everything. Food, water, clothing, medicine, a generator.
So we walked through the ruined hospital. Battered down the doors. We couldn’t find any food, but there was medicine. I grabbed everything I could see.
The doctor said, ‘That’s for chemotherapy. What use is it to us?’
‘Let’s take it. Who knows? Maybe we can exchange it. Maybe someone will need it. We need everything, because people… From plaster casts to simple aspirin.’
So I crammed everything into my pockets, into my trousers, just to take as much as possible.
I wasn’t a looter. I was a medical professional.

Sound of shelling.

Jesus, it was a kids’ hospital. Not just a trauma unit – a kids’ trauma unit, a maternity hospital, a cancer ward. No military targets in sight.
What do you bastards want here?
We have no water, the kids have fuck all to eat! Kill us already, go on. Grad missiles, mortar bombs, shells, tanks… What else have you got there? Bring it all! Kill us! Go on! Just do it now. And kill us all. Anything but a slow death. From starvation or dehydration. Seeing my child dying in agony… It’s more than I can bear.

And then… we found a large barrel. A huge tank of water, about 400 litres.

Something thuds.

It was March and -12 in Mariupol. So it was 400 kilograms of pure ice inside an iron barrel.
We had to roll it towards the bunker. But how? There were mines, you know.
We stood like Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga. The self-appointed de-miners went ahead. The others rolled. We managed to find some humour in the midst of all this, because it was so unbelievably absurd. We cracked jokes, because otherwise we couldn’t have carried on. What else could we do?

We left the barrel to thaw – we’d keep it as sterile water.
We had to dash outside to cook food and light the campfire.
One person would dash out and throw salt in the pot. The next would run out and throw in the food. The next would run out with a spoon to stir it. A marathon of Russian roulette.
We had to cook something at least. Just something hot to eat. That’s how frozen stiff we were. We warmed each other up, took off our coats and huddled together. Because there was nothing. Nothing to warm us up.

And I searched for my elder daughter. I drove everyone up the wall. I went into every basement, every alleyway I could. I met people, described my child, showed them pictures. I couldn’t find her anywhere. I hoped against hope. She knew we were at the hospital. I hoped she would somehow start moving towards us. Because I couldn’t. The little one couldn’t walk.

We went to a bombed-out military base. We found duvets, there was food there, thank God. We brought back bread for the kids – they sniffed it. We didn’t give them the whole thing. We cut it into morsels. Gave them the morsels. The little one only ate the soft part. Then she slept. It was awful to watch. I used to cook up all kinds of things for them. They were fussy eaters at home. Soups pureed in the blender. And here, you see, my child was eating everything. Porridge, vermicelli. A spoon could stand up vertically in that vermicelli made with dirty water. We cut it off in chunks.
And she ate a little bit of that bread. Put the rest in a plastic bag in her pocket.
The kids constantly needed new dressings. Complications, haematomas. The wounds seemed to be healing but they were covered with huge lumps.
We had to operate on Sashka with no anaesthetic, awake. We looked for some but at that point there was none. ‘It’s fine, I can bear it,’ he said.
And that doctor of ours. He just loved rummaging around. Apparently he had to. ‘Stop, that’s enough,’ I said. ‘No, wait a second, he can bear it a bit longer. I’m nearly done, nearly done.’ There were scissors, he did everything, dissecting, squeezing, opening him up. Then there were the dressings. The dressings had to be opened up constantly too and antibiotics slipped inside. Every day, every day.
But Sashka did so well – he stayed strong.

Then somehow I heard about a well near the Drama Theatre.
Anya and I set off. We always needed more water. Then came the shell. We fell to the ground. Tried to stand up. And she said, ‘I can’t walk. I can’t look, I’m afraid. Please can you look and see what’s there?’ I looked – and there was no heel, no knee, it had just been blown off. I don’t know what it was clinging onto – skin, flesh, muscle…
‘Don’t look,’ I said. ‘Let’s go back’. ‘No,’ she said, ‘let’s get the water, for the kids.’ And she used me as a support. We went there. Got those bloody 10 litres. Dragged them back. Ran into the bunker. I dragged her in. We ran so fast down those stairs together. My legs turned to rubber from fear. The others even gave us surgical spirit to drink.

We had no clothing. I fashioned a pair of leggings from a jumper for my child.
There was a kids’ shop next door. But I couldn’t go in. I knew that I had to clothe my child. People were taking, taking everything. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought everything would calm down very soon and get back to normal. We’d all go home.
Oi! Why, people? What do you need that for? What even is it? A cot with a changing table, a digital baby monitor, balance bikes, scooters, mini electric cars. Where are you dragging all of that? Is this what it’s come to? What’s going on?

Things got blacker and blacker. Nothing at all was left standing in our district.
Dogs came to us for shelter. We took them in and fed them. I took in a yard dog. You could talk to her, she understood.
‘What is it, doggie? Where are your owners? Did they leave? It’s a good thing if they left. Don’t be angry at them. You’re such a clever thing. Clever girl. You understand me, don’t you? You should be happy if they’ve left. They say some buses are leaving from the cash and carry.’

Then something else started happening. People started coming. A constant stream of people. People were dying standing in line.
Some people brought others in their own cars.
‘Please take at least one person, take him.’
‘Who is he?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. I threw him in the boot and drove him here. He has no documents, nothing.’
We went to look in one car and it was just… Are they even alive?
One had no shoulder left. The doctor with us said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’
‘But look, he’s talking, asking for help…’
‘It’s possible, would be possible to save him, but not with what we’ve got.’

And every day, every day it carried on like that. They just kept on bringing people. ‘It’s too late for an injection. We’ll have to operate.’ And people endured it, watched, wanted to live.

‘I went out to drink some tea and a shell hit. Everyone died. I was standing alone in that kitchen and only my leg was injured. That’s it. My son, his fiancée, my grandson, my wife. They were sitting there smiling just a minute ago. And now there’s no-one left. They’re all dead.’

‘My husband and I lived on the fifth floor. The middle floor. We have a daughter and a one-year-old son. My husband grabbed our daughter and I grabbed our son. We pressed ourselves against the wall. I turned around, and only my husband’s head was left on my shoulder. My son survived, he’s got a broken hip.’

‘I tried to dig my sister out of the rubble at the Drama Theatre. For several hours. She was sitting almost directly under the chandelier. The chandelier fell. There were so many people there when we arrived. With kids, babies. And when I came out, it was just… We couldn’t reach them. The walls had collapsed. From the whole section where there were 200 people, let’s say, we dug out three alive. And that’s it.’

We went out every so often to see who was there. If someone was more seriously injured we took them. I saw a guy standing there in a T-shirt in the freezing cold. With both hands bandaged.
‘What’s wrong with your hands?’ I asked.
‘I can wait a bit longer. I’ll queue.’
There were women and children. So he stood and waited.
Forty minutes passed. He was still queuing.
I asked again, ‘What’s wrong with your hands?’
‘A shell exploded. I fell to the ground,’ he said.
What do people usually do? Cover their heads. But in panic he’d splayed out his fingers like a rooster’s comb.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I bandaged them up. I don’t even know what’s underneath.’
When he opened it up and we took a look – Jesus. We had to amputate. But with what? You can’t just saw off seven fingers with a knife.
We found something, knew there were some secateurs. We cleaned him up. Got to work, one finger at a time. They gave me the secateurs and said, ‘Do it like this, so the skin gets pinched together afterwards. Make sure the bones don’t stick out sharply.’ And I sat there as if I was using nail clippers.
‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘I can bear it, it’s fine.’ But he was shaking. He did really well. He had shrapnel in his back and those fingers. He came back again to change his dressings. Then they decided to flee as a family, they didn’t stay with us.

There was a woman called Zhanna. A very beautiful woman. Her husband brought her, said their child had died – 4 years old. She had a wounded hand, something beneath her breast, a broken hip, a huge haematoma. Huge. She was so beautiful, we were in awe. She didn’t open her eyes, she had amazing eyelashes, beautiful skin. And we knew that she would die. Because she needed an operation on her head. And we couldn’t do it. We took such care of her. She came to. Told us her name and surname. And that was it. She didn’t regain consciousness, didn’t move.
She started breathing with her stomach. She changed, her breathing changed. Her sweat was sticky. It was clear that it was the end. She died the next morning.
It took us three days to take her outside. We couldn’t carry her under the shelling. We tried to carry her, attached a piece of film to her body saying who she was. We’d try to carry her, the shelling would start, we’d go back. But we couldn’t just leave her. We had to move her. There was a kitchen in the grounds. A separate building. The kitchen got hit by a shell too. But at least the walls stayed standing. The roof was gone. We carried the bodies there. Because there were so many corpses.
Amputated arms went there too.
When it quietened down again, we went outside and there were just masses of corpses. Small children. I looked and saw a child with no head. I got fixated on it. I really wanted to find the head. But I couldn’t. So we wrapped her up. A stranger. Because of course we didn’t know who she was. There were so many like that.

We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Anya’s knee. It just wasn’t healing. A decent amount of time had passed and it wouldn’t heal. In the end it turned out a piece of shrapnel was stuck in there. When it came to the surface and we got it out, the wound more or less started to heal. She’d given up hope of finding her child, it seemed. I guess she’d come to terms with it. But we’d hoarded so many nappies, so much formula.
‘Why the hell do we need formula?’
‘It’ll come in useful, everything will,’ I said. People came and took it with them.
In the end – can you believe it? ¬– some people came for formula. And told us that there was a newborn without a mother in another basement. They brought the child – ‘Is he yours?’ ‘Yes, he’s mine’. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘how is that possible? How?’ Not knowing whose child it was, someone had simply grabbed him. A newborn. Miracles do happen… But rarely.

After that it was so good. People came to have their dressings changed and brought things with them. A guy came and brought a fish. Ohhh, he’d only just caught it. ‘I’ll go and clean it,’ I said. We lit a big campfire and had a feast. Fried fish, fish soup. Everyone was so happy.

We worked like triage in A&E. Recorded everyone’s details. Asked where they’d been injured, under which circumstances, their home address, surname, first name. When they’d arrived and when they’d need their dressings changed.

Young Sashka started getting better. I helped him through. If he needed an injection, he’d go, ‘Hold my hand, please’.
His collarbone was shattered and he was covered in holes, the poor thing. But he so wanted to live. He started sitting up. He started eating.

His dad came and said, ‘I’m taking him.’
‘Don’t, don’t go. There’ll be shelling in a minute.’
We already knew what time it started.
The shelling started around half past five and ended around half past three. It was constant. Only a short break for lunch. So you could travel around lunchtime, at least for two hours. And we knew that they wouldn’t shell our side then. I mean, you could catch a stray bullet anytime. But it wasn’t like when there was shelling.

Sashka’s dad took him. Put him in a wheelchair. They walked about 60 metres from the bunker…. Then the shelling started. Shrapnel slashed through Sashka. Black smoke and white stuffing from his puffer jacket.

Sound of a dog howling. Scrabbling.

Our yard dog howled for a really long time. Then she left us. For good. The most horrifying thing was that we couldn’t go out there. We couldn’t go and get him. He sat there in that wheelchair for a week. His father ran away. There was nobody at all with Sashka.

Then it quietened down. People stopped coming. Nobody thought there was anyone left in our district. The soldiers wouldn’t let them through. People would say, ‘They’re there, they’re treating people.’ ‘No.’ And that was it. Well, power had changed hands. We realised that we needed to make contact with them somehow. We needed to send people away, evacuate them. Get them treatment.
And I needed to find my daughter. I hadn’t had any contact with her for those one and a half months. None at all. The things that went through my head.
‘Why would they bring her in wounded?’ the doctors asked.
‘What am I supposed to think when all this is going on?’
Just imagine – they brought in a girl. And she was covered up, curls like my daughter’s, the same colour hair. I looked at her in the half-light: her legs, they looked like mine. Her head rolled to the side and I saw – the child had no face, it was gone. She wasn’t even bleeding. Nothing in a horror film could compare. Just white flesh. I could see everything: teeth, muscles. I nearly lost my mind.
The doctors said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not her. Her mother’s with her.’ But I didn’t believe them. Maybe they just don’t want to tell me, they’re trying to calm me down. Maybe this woman just said she was the mother so they would take her. I walked up to her and sat down. Asked her daughter’s name.
My hair nearly turned white. She’s mine, my child’s called Karina.
‘Are you really her mum?’
She didn’t even seem to hear the question.
‘I was sitting next to her. Why did nothing happen to me but my child has no face?’

Then I went to see those Russian soldiers. I planned to ask them. Because I’d heard there were some kind of lists. Of the living and the dead.
They pointed me towards the man with the lists. He was imposing, obviously there for a reason. One of the high-ups.
Well, what could I do? I went up to him. Asked about my daughter – nothing. She was nowhere to be found. Not among the living, not among the dead.
I wondered whether I should mention my ex-husband or not. I just knew that he’d kill me. I needed to find my child. He had connections, he could find her. I threw caution to the wind. I said his name.
And it turned out I had stumbled upon someone who knew my ex-husband.
Can you imagine? Just like that.
And he said, ‘They’re looking for you. At the morgues, everywhere. Let’s go.’
‘I’m not going anywhere without my elder daughter,’ I said. ‘Until I know that she’s alive.’
‘At least let us know where to find you. Write a note so he’ll believe that you’re alive.’
I wrote the note.

He came by in the evening. I knew that he was coming for me and that it was definitely about my daughter. Once again I was afraid to look at his face. I was terrified. I stood up so tentatively and thought, I can’t even go up to him. I’ll run away. I went outside and he said, ‘Your daughter’s alive.’
‘Is she in one piece? Where is she?’
‘In Donetsk. It’s safe there. She’s okay.’

It turned out that my elder daughter had escaped after a month. They’d seen that there were kids there, five of them. And crammed them into a car. They waited there for 13 days. In a field. The road, the field, the shelling. The fields were mined. The sole of her foot was burnt in her trainers.

I was so happy. I can’t express it in words. It was a miracle. Just a miracle. For some reason I had got very lucky once again.

‘I’ll go to hell and back now, I don’t care,’ I said.
They evacuated a lot of people. Because there was no time to lose – they needed medical attention. The only ones who stayed were the families of the two doctors and people who didn’t want to leave. The two possible destinations were Donetsk or Russia. There were no other routes. People tried to leave on foot. Can you imagine? Going to Zaporizhzhia on foot – that’s 200 kilometres. We only found out when they crossed the border and made it alive.

Well, I left too. They took me to Donetsk. My ex-husband met me.
They say that people don’t change. Now I think that it depends on the circumstances. It turned out he didn’t know we were in Mariupol. He thought we were with my brother in Lviv. He suddenly realised when he lost contact. With all of us. ‘It’s like I could sense it,’ he said. He saw a video of an eight-year-old girl dying. They were driving her to the hospital. He got so obsessed, kept saying, ‘That’s my younger daughter. I can see her. That’s my daughter.’ He searched everywhere. At the morgues, everywhere. He found the doctor from the video. And the nurse. Tracked them all down. Turned everything upside down. Not a trace. Mentally he buried his children.

He was a shadow of his former self. I even managed to raise my voice at him. I said that we would not under any circumstances stay in Donetsk. And he agreed. ‘Go,’ he said.

When I was praying in the bunker… well, talking, not praying, I wondered, why did we get separated? And then it hit me – if there’d been three of us, one of us would have died. Because it’s Russian roulette.

According to official data, 87,000 people died in Mariupol. But how many more are still unidentified, disappeared without a trace, buried under the rubble of apartment blocks?
Before 24 February, 430,000 lived in the city. Which means that approximately every fifth person died.

September 2022, Warsaw

Kateryna Penkova is a Ukrainian playwright from Donetsk. She is a graduate of the Kyiv State Academy of Performance and Circus Arts with a degree in acting. Her texts explore the topics of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea, violence and sexual harassment, postcolonialism, gender and politics. Her plays have frequently been shortlisted for the Drama.UA festival in Lviv and the Week of Contemporary Plays festival in Kyiv.

Her play ‘Pork’ was among the winners of the 2020 ‘Transmission.UA: Drama on the Move’ playwriting competition organized by the Ukrainian Institute (Kyiv). Kateryna is a co-founder of Ukraine’s Theatre and Playwrights and is currently based in Warsaw.

Kateryna Penkova is a Ukrainian playwright from Donetsk. Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.
Kateryna Penkova.
Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.

The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.

Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.

The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.

In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.

Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.


Narrating the War, a documentary play by Anastasiia Kosodii

Translated by Helena Kernan.

Scene 0 – A definition of war porn

How did you decide to flee the country? How does a person make that decision?

Are your parents still in Ukraine? How are they? Are they afraid?

Where are your friends now? Are you still in touch with them?

How has the Russian war against Ukraine influenced your work?

(he wrote ‘the war in Ukraine’ of course)

you have to tell people about it because
you’re here to put words together and pronounce them
dig words out of the soil where Russian rockets land and place them in the ears of people who live on soil where not a single rocket has landed since 1945 if you pick good enough words
these people will say
you are a good storyteller
well done
well done
and as a token of their gratitude
they’ll give you
heavy weapons
ultraheavy weapons
weapons heavy enough
to wipe the country of Pushkins and Dostoevskys from the face of the earth
to protect you and your parents and your friends and your lovers from their great culture
to leave their ‘confused’ boys lying in the green grass with jaws blown apart guts hanging out
brains spilling out
severed cocks
grinning teeth
as they deserve

now we’ll do a trial blood-letting and as a foreword
I’ll tell you about
the waves of sirens in the Kyiv sky in the second month of winter
the sound rises up and falls
danger above low-hanging clouds
fighter planes cruise missiles aerial bombs and

you go downstairs
using the stairs
the lift is too dangerous
from the ninth floor to the first you go into the yard and ask the bewildered parents of small children where the shelter is
they point to the basement
in the basement
small children stamp on concrete dust it’s hard for them to sit still for long in the shelter the grown-ups discuss how to build a toilet
you read the news
you scroll through social media feeds
you think
that you’re late

what are you planning to do writes a man who
I don’t know
a man who
a man that
who you

what are you planning to do
I think I’ll go to Lviv you answer
he replies
and how do you feel right now what do you feel right now
you feel like
that you’re late
for everything

Scene 1 – I really envy you all

holidays by the sea
planning to have kids
health insurance
no heart palpitations when an unknown number calls you early in the morning or late at night
or even a number you do know
choosing a new sofa
your own flat
your own rented flat
a house
pictures on the walls
flowers in pots you’ve grown from seed
being able to get a dog
photo albums
the freedom to not message your relatives and not feel guilty about it
the freedom to travel
the freedom to not read the news
the freedom to get your nails done and not hate yourself for it
not hate yourself for everything

Scene 2 – The balcony equation

I’m standing at the Fizkultura stop waiting for the trolleybus
in Kyiv it’s mid-December freezing cold -15 degrees
the time 11pm on the app the little triangle of the trolleybus moves from Olimpiiska station to Palats Sportu station (terminus), the driver will take a cigarette break there then start to drive in my direction
if he can get past all the snow heaped
on the roads
I’m waiting for the trolleybus I
don’t value myself enough to call a taxi I
look at the snow
think about summer last year
when I got off the metro at Palats Sportu walked to the synagogue went into the courtyards to look for the balcony of an old woman
who was evacuated from Kyiv in 1942 with her aunt the rest of the family stayed they were all shot at Babyn Yar

she wanted to come to Kyiv one last time to see the flat
the balcony
in the building next to the synagogue
she couldn’t because of COVID
she asked me to take a photo
‘go into the inner courtyard there’s a small balcony there the first balcony in Kyiv’
so I did
not because of that woman let’s be honest I didn’t go for her rather
was helping others with telling their story

it was a typical Ukrainian summer unbearable 34 degrees
(I’m inventing all this I don’t remember anything)
I went into the courtyard and asked a local woman if she knew of a balcony here that was the first in Kyiv the woman looked at me wearily
but she pointed at something and I took a photo of something
a balcony that looked like it might be the oldest and the first
it was actually the right one
but maybe that’s just what Rachel wanted to believe
(does she remember her balcony would she recognise it nowadays?)

she said
when her father put her on the evacuation train he knew it would be the last time they
saw each other
she didn’t

I waited until the trolleybus came
it took me up one of Kyiv’s hills covered in snow to a flat with
two balconies this whole story is about the fact that
those were my balconies in the flat I rented and I’m not there
and I know that I did everything right
and I know that I was afraid
and I know that I carry with me the sum of two balconies which have changed in my absence
reality minus your presence plus time equals
a different reality
for the balconies
you’re the one who’s missing

Scene 3 – The most realistic dialogue ever (I feel nothing)

Your driver Roman is arriving.

Roman the driver sends a message:
Ich bin angekommen
Hinter dem Bus

ROMAN: Bist du spät dran?
ME: Sorry I don’t speak German that well.
ROMAN: Are you running late or something?
ME: No. U-Bahn is broken, so I decided to take a cab.
ROMAN: I see. Are you from the UK?
ME: No.
ME: Ukraine.
ME: And you?
ROMAN: Russian. I’m Russian.
ME: Oh.
ROMAN: (In Russian) When did you get here?
ME: (In Ukrainian) 2 March.
ME: (In Ukrainian) I came here on 2 March.
ROMAN: Sorry, probably better to speak in English. I don’t understand a word of Ukrainian.
ME: Second of March.
ROMAN: And do you like Berlin?
ME: I mean, I’ve been here a lot.

ME: And you?
ME: Been here a lot?
ROMAN: Since the first grade, almost… almost 20 years.
ME: I see.

ME: Do you consider yourself German?
ROMAN: I mean, I consider myself a human being.
ME: Okay.
ROMAN: Haha. Well, I’m Russian, of course. I’m Russian, but I’m not the government.

ROMAN: And you know, it’s good that people here see these things in a good way… I have many Ukrainian friends, we had no fights with them.

ROMAN: Do you need help with…
ME: Yes, to open the trunk. ROMAN: (In Russian) Have a good evening.
ME: (In English) Have a good evening.

Scene 4 – Obviously I wish death on all Russians

the small village where I spent the months from June to August as a child is now occupied by Russians
according to my grandmother
the witch who lived in the cottage next door on the right
cursed the village back in the 70s
it never rained there
or rather it rained very rarely
deep down the soil was salty
so the water in the wells was salty nobody watered their gardens with it and when they brewed tea it had a skin on the surface
at night you could see the entire milky way above the village

do the Russians notice the milky way
what does the water taste like to them
the fuzzy apricots hanging above the road between villages
the cherries that should be ripe by now
the plums that are still ripening
red grapes and green grapes
redcurrants and blackcurrants more than we could pick in our garden
does the lack of rain bother the Russians how deep is their tan from sunbathing
do the Russians listen to the crickets and grasshoppers in the long grass at night do they smell the scent of wild orchids
do they say to each other look there’s the big dipper overhead

fruit pits will sprout into fruit trees and berry seeds will grow into fruit-bearing bushes
a vine grown from grape seeds will embrace the walls of the buildings and the sun will warm it and the trees and the bushes
the stars
will give the trees and bushes a breather to drink the dew and Russian bones will lie in the earth which naturally will accept them even though it has no use for them because what does the earth need with composted Russian flesh on Russian bones but what can you do if those bones decided to come here from their cold, far-flung cities the land
will give the Russians the land that they wanted it will give
work to future archaeologists future historians when they come
when they dig up
the bones of Russians

Scene 5 – The Russians have stolen summer nights from us

the sun hangs in the sky for hours covers your hair exposes your legs so they match your white dress
when it finally goes down
everyone checks how long until curfew
half an hour or less
they wonder how fast they’re prepared to walk
ask their friends if they’ve been late before and what kind of checks there were
eventually they get up to say goodbye leaving their unfinished beer lighting a cigarette on the way
they walk through the old town touching the pavement with the soles of their trainers looking at the angels wrapped in protective fabric in front of the cathedrals wondering what that fabric will actually protect them from
they realise it’s probably just
to keep the debris in one place
they meet three girls one of them shouts
I never want to leave Lviv!
another shouts
Yana stop pissing around it’s nine minutes until curfew please can we go already

the city is getting ready to fall asleep
the patrols aren’t looking at passersby yet
the loudspeakers at the city hall are silent
buskers finish up their last songs
plucking their guitar strings
pushing their luck for ten or fifteen minutes more
playing songs like Imagine
I hope the stone angels wrapped up in fabric will hear them and think
there’s a certain irony to it

the stone angels have the time and
someone has to

Scene 6 – I hate waiting

some air raid alerts have no all-clear
at first the siren sounds from the phone app, half a minute later all the loudspeakers in
the city join in
you get out of bed
citizens are asked to proceed to the shelters
on messaging services the local authorities write
Warning! Air raid alert!

the sound rises up falls down and repeats

sitting in the shelter or the corridor the bathroom a room with no windows and thick walls
you open the map of air raid alerts
Kyiv region – 25 minutes
Kharkiv region – 41 minutes
Lviv region – 4 minutes
Luhansk region – 114 days 2 hours 4 minutes and counting

war is waiting an activity filled with nothing a non-existent period a duration
you just have to survive it then it will be over
over over

if that’s hard for you to live with
you can pretend there are time limits
make predictions omit the word maybe imbue your words with the power of genuine prescience
we’re not going to buy winter clothes say a mother and daughter who escaped the occupied territories
why would we stay in Kyiv so long?
we’re not going to stay long
Ukraine will be a better place when we win says another woman
she’s travelling from Denmark to see her husband in Kyiv her daughter’s still in Europe
only the people who really want to live here and rebuild will return
lie by a wall where there’s no windows says my mum it’s an old building from the 18th century
walls half a metre thick
it’ll protect us from shrapnel as long as the rocket doesn’t land directly here of course

we’ll go and eat watermelons in Kherson
corn on the cob on the beaches of Berdyansk
cherries in Melitopol

the siren sounds again for the all-clear
a voice says
citizens you have the all-clear you may leave the shelters
be prepared for future alerts the enemy is insidious

in the shower at the shopping centre on the main square at an appointment with the urologist at breakfast again and again and again
until the waiting ends and its absence begins real time begins and it’s over
over over

Scene 7 – Narrating the war

war is a multitude
of things that exist separately and they don’t all describe war you know them

time that’s not enough and too much
sleep deprivation
the practice of digging trenches
cowardice that’s bravery and vice versa
that phrase from Doctor Who when the Doctor tells Clara that everyone gets stuck
somewhere eventually on the planet Trenzalore i.e. death

writing this
I gaze at the list of things and think about how all together they can sum up war even though they’re equally distributed across the whole world

the morning of 25 February I thought that I’d read too many books about war to be unafraid of dying because I know how people can die I’ve been lucky a lot of people haven’t
and when I think about these people I think about the
long long train to Mariupol the grey Sea of Azov with the silhouette of the steelworks on the right
the minibus to Irpin the pine forest there the patisserie with overpriced eclairs
the Twin Peaks restaurant in Kherson

memory is the ability to tell stories
in spite of Russian rockets and Russian soldiers
a tragic ending won’t define these stories

like war Russian soldiers are a multitude
we all know that stories about the multitude don’t exist
now it doesn’t seem so important
it will become clear afterwards

in short

time that moves as it wishes
how are you? and
everything’s calm here
even the smallest donations make a difference
all the balconies we’ve left behind
our exhaustion
dawn at 5am
sirens that protect us
brave people who are also afraid
stories about them
that we are yet to narrate
now and when it ends
to you

Anastasiia Kosodii is a Ukrainian playwright, director, and one of the co-founders of Theater of Playwrights in Kyiv. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, Kosodii often worked with NGOs in eastern Ukraine in towns on the front line. Her international work includes projects at the Maxim Gorki Theater (Berlin) and Münchner Kammerspiele Theater (Munich) and the Royal Court Theatre (London).
Anastasiia Kosodii. Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.
Anastasiia Kosodii.
Image credit: Khrystyna Khomenko.

The two documentary plays, ‘Narrating the War‘ by Anastasiia Kosodii, and ‘A Marathon of Russian Roulette‘ by Kateryna Penkova were first presented on stage at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, on the 4th December 2022.

Both texts were translated by Helena Kernan.

The readings were followed by an in-person discussion with the playwrights, together with project curator Molly Flynn and writer/historian Olesya Khromeychuk. The plays were commissioned by BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality), in conjunction with the Ukrainian Institute London and the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network.

In the eight years between the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine witnessed an impressive boom in socially engaged theatre and political playwriting. These recent documentary plays by Anastasiia Kosodii and Kateryna Penkova exemplify the remarkable culture of defiance and resistance in Ukrainian political playwriting and demonstrate how theatre-makers are using their craft to speak out against the atrocities of Russia’s ongoing war.

Image: Ola Rondiak, ‘Everybody Knows’ Acrylic collage on canvas.


Church Valley by Kenn Taylor

I grew up in a region that was scarred by economic decline and disinvestment. It was a surprise to me as I got older and travelled further that some people thought decaying buildings, places abandoned and boarded-up, areas of wasteland that stayed there forever, were unusual, exciting even.

Sure, I can appreciate the more interesting visual layers to be found where nature is eating away at human effort. But I’ve also experienced how so many places get reduced to just that decay. How the media will pick out declined structures to capture a picture they had in mind before they even arrived, avoiding the dozens of well-maintained streets nearby. Grab a few shots of the shittest alley they can find, then back off quickly to the better parts of London or Manchester to file their story. I’ve seen the power of such stories to distort perceptions and how that can damage people and places.

People living in communities like the one at this crossroads face many issues; a shortage of good jobs, a frustrating lack of amenities and declining public services. Parts of the media though will portray it as if that’s all there is. A litany of decay and despair for their readers to consume so they can feel that, however miserable their lives are, someone somewhere else is living worse than them, so that’s okay. Yet yards from that shitty alley, there are houses and gardens in good nick. Footy banners out. Railings brightly painted. Chalk paint on the floor from kids playing. The buildings which are empty have long faded into the background of everyday existence for those who live here, which might seem strange to those from places where every square foot is intensely capitalised. People have got their corner here, however modest, and they get on with it, despite all that is stacked against them, all that is thrown at them.

This landscape, though, visibly demonstrates the pain that its residents have been through. So much writing on urban life for the past 10-15 years has been about too much growth – too many people, too much construction, too much development. At least the writing from the richest metropolises which dominate the media, arts and academia. Yet that growth never reached many places. Such urban decay is scar tissue in a community whose environment has been wrought time and again by decades of disinvestment and bad decisions by people far away. Political stripes may change, but people still find themselves used or forgotten.

This was and is a working-class community. Unlike the London narrative of gentrification, the environment around this crossroads is what happens when first you take away the economy. Then people start to leave. Then there’s too many buildings that are no longer needed. Then so many of the things which make a coherent, thriving neighbourhood shrink away. As more people leave, especially the young, and aren’t replaced by new incomers, optimism for positive change declines. There are still useful bits of public infrastructure from when various governments had brief periods of largesse, but these are now too often falling apart, shutting and slipping away. ‘Left behind’ is the narrative frequently used for these places, but ‘fucked over’ is more accurate. What happens when a state treats a place as, at best, a problem, more often, with indifference and, at worst, with malign intent.

What was done to places like the community at this crossroads is not all they are. It doesn’t mean though, that people who live here don’t feel the pain this neglect causes to collective and individual psychology. Rundown buildings are the visible manifestation of an experience that burns into the mind of people across generations.

This is what affects middle class writers and photographers when they come somewhere like this. It’s alien to them, what others have gotten used to. When culture seekers and artists are attracted to inner-urban ‘grittiness’, they want visible vibrancy that’s rough around the edges, not people dealing as best they can with unglamorous multigenerational poverty. There’s too much edge for them here, without the soothing balm brought by street art or street food.

Perhaps such landscapes were unusual once, contained to a handful of areas that could be safely written off by the powers that be. These days, this abandonment of people and places creeps into everywhere in the UK, outside the gold-plated parts of the south east, as shops close and good jobs disappear. Now even some well-to-do areas are seeing their high streets decline. You can’t say though that the people who live at this crossroads didn’t warn them, but were told: too bad for you, but it couldn’t happen here.

Yet in the places where the new normal is the old normal, people still go on. Places where neighbours are the same for years, the families often outlasting the buildings in the cycles of clearance. Communities intertwined for decades. More so than in supposedly permanent rural idylls which have long become professional commuter towns. Those who remain somewhere that has dealt with large outward migration tend to be stoic about a place and each other.

What people don’t want in a place like this are more promises of grand gestures of change. Because most of the time, it doesn’t happen, and when it does, it’s usually indifferent to them and has often made things worse. Knocking down and rebuilding endlessly, but never really providing sustained investment in a community or addressing the lack of serious economic opportunities.

This crossroads is an amalgam of the decades: Victorian pubs, New Labour schools, 1980s bungalows, 1970s flats, 1990s petrol stations. It is not a place that’s dead though. It’s a place where the idea of catching a decent break can seem remote, but people go on. Despite the fucking over and the predominant media interest being poverty porn, people do their own rebuilding. The housing co-ops here: communities with well-built houses, plenty of green space and long waiting lists to move in. These sorts of places are often hated by much of the left and right though, neither fulfilling the nostalgic desire to have brave workers gratefully accepting their soaring new concrete wonderhomes from the paternalistic elite who designed them, nor the ruthless Home As Castle acquisition of your own thin slice of Faux Olde England. A working class which has its own ideas about what it wants is horrifying to many. As a result, their successes are ignored, and others don’t learn.

Yet, as local authorities crumble to bankruptcy, government action stumbles over the consequences of the last forty years, and the grass on sites of long demolished buildings grows high and unkept, perhaps now is the moment for those with their hands on the money and the cameras to hand them over. To those who have tried to exert positive change on their patch, despite everything. People who have ideas and skills, though are rarely given the opportunity to exercise them or to control resources. This place is the crossroads the UK stands at. The country has been here before and went a long way down a dark and now thoroughly broken path. The stakes are higher than ever. They need to learn from those who have had to deal with the mistakes of others for decades, and yet who still go on.

Kenn Taylor is a writer and creative producer with a particular interest in culture, community, class and place. He was born in Birkenhead and has lived and worked in Liverpool, London, Bradford, Hull and Leeds. His work has appeared in a range of outlets from The Guardian and Caught by the River to Journal of Class and Culture and Liverpool University Press.

Image: Bill Boaden

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Copyright - HM Inspectorate of Prisons

A Man’s Got Needs by David Shipley

I’ve been in prison a week and a stranger keeps telling me he’s going to kill his wife. Simon is my third cellmate. We spend twenty-three hours a day sharing a six foot by nine concrete and steel space that serves as kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. When I first entered Simon’s cell, I was struck by how unlike prison it smelled. No stink of sweat, or stale water in the steel toilet. Instead, the scent of soap and spices. He seemed nervous to begin with. I’m sure I did too; meeting a stranger you’re going to be confined with is tough. Will he be filthy? Will he be crazy? Will he be dangerous? Simon soon told me about his crime.

Now Simon spends most of our waking hours talking about his wife, usually through a mouthful of biscuits, or cakes, or sweets. He eats almost constantly, shoving handful after handful into his loose jaw, crumbs spilling down his grey prison issue t-shirt. When he isn’t eating, he scratches at the rash covering his arms, neck and back. I’m pretty sure the rash is caused by the scratching. He talks while he scratches too.

Simon’s wife, though. He became convinced she was having an affair with her cousin, and had been for years. Simon had his suspicions so he had tracking devices placed in both of their cars. This is a crime, of course. Stalking is a crime. Simon’s wife, that bitch, reported him to the police, throwing in an accusation of coercive and controlling behaviour for good measure. Simon was arrested five weeks ago and has sat on remand since. He’s already pleaded guilty, on lawyers’ advice, and will be sentenced next week. He might walk free, he might get eighteen months.

Simon’s somewhere in his fifties, an IT company director from Pinner. Never been in trouble with the police before, class and wealth shielding his recreational cocaine use from the law. I swear, I’m going to kill her, Shippers. She has to pay for what she’s done. His breathing is fast and short, his eyes bulge.

What has she done? They haven’t had sex in fifteen years, but marriage is sacred and something in this affair, in how he has been brought low, touched a pit of rage or shame. If he’s released, will he kill her? Should I say something? To who? I know what happens to snitches in prison. He calls his sons. One won’t answer; he’s sided with the mother. Simon calls the other every day, explaining his theory that she has borderline personality disorder, that she has destroyed their happy family, that she is the monster, and he is the victim. He’s calmer when he speaks to his boys, laying out the case. He never tells them he’s going to kill their mother. But he tells me. She’s turned my child against me. She’s destroyed our family. I’m going to kill her.

Simon’s in love. Not with his wife, but with a prostitute half his age. He’s been paying her for sex since he discovered the affair. He pays her £500 to stay the night. It’s more than the price on her website, apparently. Sometimes she doesn’t ask for the money but I give it to her anyway.

We’ve been confined together a few days when he tells me he’s been using prostitutes for the past fifteen years. I ask him if that means he cheated first. He’s silent, unmoving for the first time, and then he finds the explanation. That was different though. She wasn’t giving me it, and a man’s got needs.

“I’m David Shipley. I’ve sold fork lift trucks, been a recruiter, worked in corporate finance and produced a film. I also committed a fraud in 2014, which I was jailed for in 2020. I was horrified by the prison system I saw. It is neglectful, cruel and seems almost designed to maximise reoffending. In August 2022 I was released, determined to make a difference. Now, I write, campaign and speak on prison reform. I work as a consultant prison inspector, and I’m always happy to talk and write about my experiences.”
Image copyright HM Inspectorate of Prisons
Poetry and Coffee - Craig Smith

Poetry and Coffee by Craig Smith

I love coffee shops. They’re my favourite places to write.

I’m sitting in one right now, the Serpentine Café and Kitchen in Hyde Park, London. When I get around to copy editing this piece, I’ll be in the Estate in Streatham, or the Arcade in Huddersfield when I go home next week, or Iris and June, off Victoria Street in London, or the Rookery Café at the top of Streatham Common. A few weeks ago, I was writing in Carvalho’s, behind Streatham Leisure Centre, while the proprietor, Meire, ran my son’s birthday party. Coffee shops are a refuge, the place with fewest distractions. They simplify things.



A pot of tea is an hour’s rent

for a beechwood table

and a beechwood bench.


Something to write on,

something to read;

that’s all I need.


I’ve been writing my entire adult life and I can assemble a chronology of my writing career based on the coffee shops I frequented and the people I hung out with. Over the years, I’ve switched from predominantly writing poetry to dabbling in screenplays, sitcoms, radio drama, and scifi before settling on poems, novels and short stories as my formats of choice, but coffee shops (and buses and libraries and trains and pubs) have been a constant throughout.

I started writing at the kitchen table, drinking Mellow Birds with milk from tuberculin-tested cows, (that is, unpasteurised). My first two poems were written in a rush for my English Language 16+ certification because my pals were playing football in the school field behind our house and I was two assignments short of my assignment quota. I enjoyed writing them, and later, of my own volition, I wrote more. Those poems were rubbish, make no bones about it, but they got me started, and formed the connection between poetry and coffee.

I found an early platform to trial my poems at Peter Sansom’s Poetry Workshops at Huddersfield Polytechnic. Those workshops became formative events that I built my week around, and they played a huge part in my development as a writer. They served as audience, encouragement and forensic review. In later years, I spent many years as a commissioning editor and copy editor, and it’s no exaggeration to say that everything I know about writing and editing was learned on those Monday evenings in the Polytechnic staff bar.

Poetry was a lifestyle. It was all we read. We would meet in Ye Merrie Englande in Huddersfield’s Pack Horse Arcade, with its displays of medieval weaponry, and slide our latest poems across the table top as we eeked out our Kenco till our bus was due. We ran from workshop to reading to Greenhead Books to the second-hand bookshop in the Byram Arcade, spending our giros on whatever poetry our local bookshops held. I still own every book or pamphlet I bought back then, along with a folder containing all my friends’ poems from that time.

Al Avarez’s New PoetryThe Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Donald Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry and the PN Review’s Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland were our introduction to poetry’s possibilities. Peter arranged readings at the Art Gallery, upstairs at the Zetland, the backroom of the Albert, and we sat wide-eyed as national and international poets such as Carol Anne Duffy, Gillian Clark, Michael Schmidt, Kenneth Koch, Jeffrey Wainwright read from their collections and talked about their writing. They drank with us afterwards and we got to quiz them about the specifics of their poems. Our love for the form knew no bounds. We were geeks.

There were plenty of excellent poets from the region, such as Ian MacMillan, Tony Harrison, John Killick, Stanley Cook, Martin Wiley, all of whom we revered. Though a few years ahead of us, many became friends and counterparts, and they’d created an infrastructure that offered us a framework upon which we could grow. Janette and Geoff Hattersley founded The Wide Skirt in Sheffield; John Harvey co-founded Slow Dancer in Nottingham. In the print room at the Poly, we collated The North for Peter, in which many of our first poems were published, (mine included). We travelled to Doncaster, Sheffield, Barnsley to swap notes and compare experiences with poets across Yorkshire.

Those were the years before laptops and personal computers, before websites or desktop publishing. I wrote my first drafts by hand and typed the edited poems on my old Royale typewriter, with lots of carriage returns and gallons of Tippex to correct my errors. We bought carbon paper from the stationers and typed as hard as we could to create copies to distribute at the workshops. We weren’t in a position to be delicate.

I studied for a BA in Library and Information Studies at Manchester Polytechnic and spent hours in the stacks of the Polytechnic Library on the All Saints campus, working through their collections of Frank O’Hara, Paul Muldoon, John Ash, etc. Pre-internet, it was a trial to acquire any given book, so to see them gathered in such numbers on the library shelves was extraordinary. I would request inter-library loans to source titles I’d vaguely read about in the footnotes of some other book: to hold Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems in my hands for the first time was literary bliss.

I’d spread myself out in a carrell in the circular Manchester Central Library, where I did my work placement and from whom I borrowed cassettes of Robert Frost: ‘… and that made aaaall the diff’rance’. Or I’d perch myself on a table in the Cornerhouse on Oxford Road, where I’d recently enjoyed a double bill of Lemn Sissay and Paul Muldoon. Most cafés sold lousy coffee back then, with a congealed film of cream that stuck to your upper lip, but not The Cornerhouse. I love good coffee but I hate bad coffee: if the latter’s the only option, I prefer bog-standard tea. But I discovered I liked my coffee black, and that’s been my preference, ever since.


Another year in the same café,

the rain on the window

like a microscope sample,

a cross-section of watershed,

a perfect example

of our foulest weather.


Life was a mixture of the solitary – research, writing, editing – and the social, when I’d jump onto the train back to Huddersfield to attend readings or invite pals back to my digs in Burnage to drink cheap wine, eat logs of French loaf, and read from our latest purchases. The highpoint was a car ride to Bolton with John Ashbery, Jon Ash and Jeffrey Wainwright to see Jon read. I talked to Ashbery in the backseat of Jeffrey’s car about hanging out with Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, and was thrilled that he owned LPs by the Huddersfield Choral Society. The wonderful thing was John accepted me as a writer, though he was miles ahead of me in terms of ability and achievement. Writers are confederates. We know what it takes to put pen to paper.

Back home with my 2.2 Gentleman’s Degree, I got a job working for Greenhead Books Library Supplier in a converted mill in Milnsbridge where I’d once fitted a lift with my father. Milnsbridge was the village where Harold Wilson was born, where George Mellor worked as a cropper before being hung as a Luddite. One day in 1990, the Library Supply owner, Chris Watkins, popped his head into the tearoom to announce that Margaret Thatcher had resigned. In non-conformist Huddersfield, we cheered heartily.

I later moved to Greenhead’s bookshop in the town centre. I worked in the Academic department, and learned with sadness how few people bought poetry, even in Huddersfield, which was reputedly the Poetry Capital of Britain. We were a minority interest, and a low shelf in a narrow bay was all we got. As a bookseller, I understood why such a decision was made, but as a reader, it broke my heart. I wrote of a lunchtime in the staffroom above the shop, getting out my paper and pen while the kettle boiled, listening to cassettes of Scott Walker that the junior staff scoffed at. Then, somewhere in there, I broke my leg playing football, missed out on a possible promotion, and side-stepped into Academic publishing, where I’ve worked ever since.

Poetry is my literary first love, and it never lets me down. Whatever we feel as human beings, some poet down the years has distilled that emotion or experience into its elemental form. Poetry is language at its most perfect, the ultimate diviner of the human spirit. If we need solace, poetry will console us. If we need joy, poetry will take our soul and let us fly. As I redraft this essay for a final, final, final time, at home in my comfy chair, with shelf after shelf of books around me and a fresh cup of tea at my side, I glance across at Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghosts on my desk, sitting on top of my reading list, and I can’t wait to know what it has to say.


Café was published by

  Craig Smith is a poet and novelist from Huddersfield in the UK. His writing has appeared on Writers Rebel, Atrium, iambapoet and the Mechanics’ Institute Review, as well as in The North, The Blizzard, and The Interpreters’ House, among others. Craig has three books to his name: poetry collections, L.O.V.E. Love (Smith/Doorstop) and A Quick Word With A Rock And Roll Late Starter, (Rue Bella); and a novel, Super-8 (Boyd Johnson). He is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University, where he is the joint Managing Editor of MIR Online Twitter: @clattermonger
Mstyslav Chernov, Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 ‘Grad’ shoots toward Russian positions at the frontline in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. 2 August 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022

Ukraine Lab: Lessons from the Frontlines

Ukraine has been often called a laboratory when it comes to global challenges in the spheres of environment, information, and security. The site of the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, the first target of the Kremlin’s troll farms and disinformation campaigns, the country to spark the collapse of the Soviet Union and to stand up to its neo-imperialist successor: Ukraine has been the first to face and, at times, set in motion, processes that have worldwide consequences.

Russia’s all-out attack became a wake-up call for the international community. The world was first shocked by the sheer brutality of the invasion, then by its own ignorance about the country invaded. It turned out Ukrainians were not ready to surrender to the seemingly superior military power: neither in 72 hours, as was predicted by many western intel agencies, nor seven months into the full-scale war. It turned out Ukrainians were defiant. It turned out their defiance had a history of which the world knew nothing. It turned out the outsiders’ perceptions of Ukraine were shaped by Russia’s imperialist narratives.

Today, the value of Ukrainian knowledge and experience can no longer be dismissed. The urgency to learn from Ukraine is now existential for the rest of the world.

Ukraine Lab is an online writing residency for emerging writers from Ukraine and the UK tasked with exploring global challenges through the prism of Ukraine. The thematic focus of the creative nonfiction pieces by Kris Michalowicz and Sofia Cheliak is war. ‘Luhansk, Stolen’ reminds us that Russia’s war of aggression did not start on 24 February 2022 but has been raging on for eight years. ‘Ukrainian Lottery’ takes a look at those surprising Ukrainians who reject the ready-made model of victimhood and resist the enemy with a sense of humour and a sense of purpose.

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture 2022. You can read ‘Luhansk, Stolen’ and ‘Ukrainian Lottery’ in Ukrainian here [link to the Ukrainian publication]. Ukraine Lab pieces focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects’ curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, UCL. She has curated Ukraine Lab.

Mstyslav Chernov, Visual interpretation of Ukraine Lab war theme, Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 ‘Grad’ shoots toward Russian positions at the frontline in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. 2 August 2022
Mstyslav Chernov: Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 ‘Grad’ shoots toward Russian positions at the frontline in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. 2 August 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
Mstyslav Chernov, Birds fly over the residential building in Kostyantynivka, eastern Ukraine, February 8, 2022

Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen: Ukraine Lab

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture. You can read the pieces in Ukrainian in Тиждень. Ukraine Lab pieces by Kateryna Iakovlenko and Jonathon Turnbull, focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.
About Ukraine Lab
Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery, (In Ukrainian)
Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen, (In Ukrainian)
Mstyslav Chernov: Birds fly over the residential building in Kostyantynivka, eastern Ukraine, February 8, 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
This is how they steal your hometown from you. This is what they did to your Luhansk.

They bring in droves of drunken russians from over the border by bus and have them hoist mutant two-headed eagles on every flagpole. The russians bully their way into the heart of the city and proclaim themselves the heroes of a ‘great patriotic war’ from long ago. They swear this city – which they have never set foot in before – has always been their city. They say it always will be; that they have returned from exile to reunite your city with them like a lost child with its mother.

Then the russians hand in their tracksuits and football tops for military fatigues. Instead of the russians tri-colour and the ribbon of Saint George, they now have small arms and artillery. They look like boys playing a game of soldiers, dressing up in their fathers’ clothes to try look like men. They belch cologne and slur grand proclamations about a country that never existed. This country is as real to them in their drunken stupor as a desert mirage and, to breathe life into it, they have to capture buildings, abduct and torture your neighbours. What they can’t rape or kill, they eat or steal.

The streets you grew up on become a smuggler’s cove; the fields you wandered, a haunted graveyard. A curfew is imposed, and at night the drunks sing songs from a war they never fought. They wear insignia and icons and toast heroes from a country they can’t remember living in. This city of strangers, they swear, is the same as the one you were raised in. These strangers were always your neighbours.

Your father took you and your mother away from the city and to your family dacha just outside of Luhansk, where the steppe opens up and only the flocks of birds stencilled into the sky keep time from coming to a complete standstill. From there, you spent your sixteenth birthday feeling the tremble of the earth beneath your feet. You watched the dull illumination of mortars and the eerie glow of tracer fire in the distance. Friends and their families disappeared to Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv. Their shelled and empty homes looked like lanterns with the candles burnt out after All Saints’ Day.

Your mother begged your father to follow the others, but all he could say (after swilling the sediments from the wine in his mouth) was Why should we leave?

Although you felt your mother’s fear in your own blood, you shared your father’s sentiment. This, after all, was still Luhansk. Your Luhansk. Who had the right to tell you which country it was or wasn’t? Who could sweep borders across the land like breadcrumbs across the table?

You looked just like your mother when she was a girl, but you inherited your father’s shining black eyes and deep, solitary attachment to the place where you were raised. Like your father did when he was as a boy, you preferred to spend all your time outside of class wandering the wild fields. You loved to stand under the noon sun and look across them, feeling like the horizons touched the very ends of the earth. You loved to study maps and languages and learn the mysteries of ancient empires, but curious as you were, you felt no desire to leave Donbas. You were open to the world, but wherever your thoughts drifted, they always came back home to Luhansk. Faraway places, with their legends and unpronounceable names, were something like curiosities and no more. Like stones and leaves you’d find in the fields, you’d handle and inspect them, turn them over just to feel how they rested in your palm, before you’d discard them and walk on.

It was the same for your father. Unlike many of the drunks recruited by russia to steal the city, he could actually remember the Soviet Union with clear eyes, the toil it demanded of a person. His twenties were lost in its honour to a dreary military service on the top of the world in Murmansk, where he kept his thoughts to himself and plotted and yearned to return to Luhansk and never leave again. His resolve to do so was so strong it pressed its shadow into you, his daughter.

Apart from making wine, your father’s great passion was fishing. You once told him about a boyfriend from school and his first question was Does he fish? You told him no and he replied Tell him not to waste another second! He doesn’t know what he’s missing! On the weekends you and your mother – the people your father called his best friends – accompanied him for lazy picnics by the river. These car trips took you further out of the oblast and showed you tributaries of the Luhan and the Mius. In an old photograph now lost, your father faces away from his wife’s camera, the lens catching only the edge of his smile as he perches on the riverbank. But you face your mother, your eyes sparkling in the shade of your father’s contentment as you proudly hold up his catch in your hands.

Your mother dressed the house in flowers and nurtured you under ferns. The bitterness of wine contrasted the sweetness of lilies and peonies. The house was full of books, both in russian and Ukrainian, and you loved to read in both languages. But rather than sneaking books to bed at night to read with a torch under the covers, you took paper and pencils. You drew by torchlight as your parents lay asleep in each other’s arms in the next room. You made diagrams of your mother’s plants and sketched your father’s rivers. You bathed in the warmth of your parents’ love. They never argued, your father never swore. Although his wine was his pride, you never once saw him drunk.

Now the city became starved by drunks who sang dead men’s songs and flew the flag of a fictitious place. But at the refuge of your dacha, facts would remain facts. The fields, uninterrupted by buildings, would still welcome you, and Ukraine would stay Ukraine. Your father still had to go into Luhansk to work. He’d see the skids of tank tracks in the streets, portraits of Lenin and Stalin like undead risen from their tombs. The drunks guarded checkpoints, clinging to their guns. Their charcoal silhouettes haunting the roads looked like scarecrows come to life to wander in from the fields in search of a brain.

You turned eighteen and your parents moved back into Luhansk, so your father could keep an eye on the garage he owned and guard it from looters. A stray cat moved in with you at the dacha and your neighbours regarded you and it as something like a witch in her covenstead. This strange girl who lived alone, who never thought about marriage or children, and didn’t eat meat. The cat watched you as you scarred the frying pan in your efforts to cook. It hunted mice and saw you endure an intermittent water supply and faltering electricity. The sparse furnishings of the dacha calmed your artist’s eye. It was no longer possible to even transact with a local bank or post office without collaborating with the enemy, so you made a living freelancing online as a graphic artist. In the evenings you read Ukrainian poetry to yourself in a faint whisper.

You were hidden from the world.

Your art was a hymn to these remote suburbs. Removed from the militarised city, it was sometimes possible – if only for fleeting moments – to pretend you were free. The images you rendered were smooth and rounded and warm. With your hands you brought to life scenes from the city outskirts. A bumblebee visiting a barefooted girl sat among wild flowers. A bike ride. A young boy sailing away in a daydream boat down the Krynka to reach the sea. A kitchen table where a cup of coffee steams next to a bowl of three beaten eggs, a fork resting on the side. Years passed and your artwork became more vivid and insular. It protected you from what was happening inside the city, where russians staggered among the ruins, delirious with alcohol poisoning.

You turned nineteen; you turned twenty. At New Year, your parents refused to toast at midnight, waiting instead until 1am so as to not celebrate at the same time as Moscow. And the safety of the world depicted in your art became evermore disconnected with Luhansk as it had become. You noticed birds of prey hunting in the trees surrounding the dacha and taking off with something weak and helpless. In a nearby village, a wolf dragged away a little boy. Every now and then a forgotten landmine, left somewhere in a drunken blackout, took someone’s life or leg. Your father’s rivers were now desiccated or bled a polluted rusty red. You still felt like you lived in a fairy-tale, but now with only the dark, sinister elements left in.

Ever since the russians shelled your street in the city and forced you and your parents to leave for the dacha, you swore to yourself you’d never worry again about anything less than life and death. You knew what could happen to a body. Bodies failed; bodies could be ripped apart. Where once there was a person, a consciousness, there is now something unrecognisable; a prop in a horror film. A bullet or a shell erased a person and all of the memories and love contained within them. That’s why in your sixteenth year you made a silent vow to yourself to never get close to anyone or anything that could be stolen from you.

But now in the silence of the dacha something was changing inside you. When you fell asleep your mind showed you images, textures, played fugue notes that collaged into a feeling. The feeling then grew hands and breathed and became a body of its own, touching you and loving you and holding you until the morning as your nails traced its back. Then it would dissolve upon awakening, and you’d sit up alone in bed, feeling like the dacha was haunted. An echo, an absence, lingered in the air. The scent of someone who was never there.

During the days too you dreamed of other things. Public parks bustling with happy families. Flags of blue and yellow. Crowds staying out late. Everyone safe, speaking their minds. These daydreams buzzed with chatter in Ukrainian and Surzhyk. To think of yourself separated from Luhansk was to imagine yourself in a vacuum. But now you felt at last the need to leave, to follow the whisperings of sleep and feel the things you saw and touched in dreams.

You stood in line with the pensioners at Stanytsia Luhanska, feeling like you were about to cross the river Styx to go back into the world of the living. The russians at the crossing asked if you had a boyfriend and looked at you like you were an item in a warrior’s harem. They were so beguiled by you in their boredom they neglected to search your bags. You wondered if all it took was a smile for you to be able to smuggle bombs for the resistance and copies of Kobzar back across the demarcation line undetected.

You followed your friends to Kharkiv and enrolled at university, where for four years of total freedom you jumped at every loud noise and lay awake at night worried for your parents. Then the russians decided Kharkiv was also their city. So once again, just like the day they shelled your street back in Luhansk at the start of it all, you crouched for the last time in fear of the murderous sky.


Kris Michalowicz won the Creative Future bronze prize for fiction in 2018. In 2022, he was a writing resident with the Ukrainian Institute London. He lives and volunteers in Ukraine.


Please note: since Russia’s full-scale invasion, many Ukrainians and supporters have refused to capitalise the name of the aggressor state and its people. This piece uses lower case in accordance with the author’s preference.

Mstyslav Chernov_soldier_burning

Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery: Ukraine Lab

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture. You can read the pieces in Ukrainian in Тиждень. Ukraine Lab pieces by Kateryna Iakovlenko and Jonathon Turnbull focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.

About Ukraine Lab
Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery, (In Ukrainian)
Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen, (In Ukrainian)

Mstyslav Chernov, A Ukrainian serviceman in front of the destroyed headquarters of the Mykolaiv regional military administration in southern Ukraine after a Russian strike. August 5, 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
Mstyslav Chernov: A Ukrainian serviceman in front of the destroyed headquarters of the Mykolaiv regional military administration in southern Ukraine after a Russian strike. August 5, 2022

War-time Lodgings
The small 900-square-foot apartment, built to accommodate one person, now housed five people: all had moved in here to free up their own homes to accommodate those who were forced to abandon theirs and flee into uncertainty. This was not an exception: divorced couples moved in together, long-estranged paramours did the same, relatives that had seen each other once before shared homes, and cats, dogs, and fish all got along just fine. People slept on mattresses, in sleeping-bags, on a couch, three to a double bed. But that was nothing: Ira had taken reservations for the spots on the floor of her apartment.
Anna looks up from her zoom meeting and gives me a hug that has become routine—the hug that says, “I am so happy that you exist and you are here right now.”
Maksym gives me the same hug and says, “Sofia, do a dance. We have a bottle of wine. Ira’s friend from Poland, the reporter, brought it.”
I sit down in the red armchair under the window, light up a cigarette, and realize that things are almost as they have always been. We’re about to have dinner, just like we used to, we can stop working for a bit, and perhaps, for the first time since it all began, speak in sentences longer than, “I’ve got three families from Donetsk, and I can house two, can you find room for the third?” We will have some illegal wine.

Please, Just Leave Us Alone
This was before the shortage of petrol, but after the ban on alcohol sales. Maksym picked me up from my office in his car an hour before curfew. He had heard that my guests from the East did not make it.
Maksym works in alternative education. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he has been helping teachers and students set up learning in evacuation. He also takes humanitarian aid to the regions near the front. His car was shot at multiple times. It took him forever to find replacement glass, and for a while his very expensive vehicle sported a large hole taped over with scotch-tape. He has a deferment from the military service, but he is getting himself ready to go to the front. A saint.
During those days, the highway from Kyiv to Lviv was one single traffic jam. The family with a small child who were supposed to stay with me for three days decided to spend the night in a hotel hallway. They were lucky there was room for them in the hallway. To be alone in the beginning of the war meant two things: one, that you had an apartment (which was good), and two, that you were putting yourself in danger (not so good).
Alone, you might not hear the air-raid siren and die in a rocket strike.
Nothing had hit the city yet, but you were getting used to the idea that you were mortal. And that every day you were still alive was like winning a lottery: you got lucky.
The city would empty out about an hour ahead of curfew (at 22:00); during the day, it acquired the look of an impregnable bastion, ready to take the hit—sandbags and check-points everywhere. The boot of our car was like a mobile supply depot of a military unit. We had three bullet-proof vests, four helmets, pain-killers of various strength, chemical protection suits, tourniquets, Israeli bandages, a dozen of first-aid kits, two boxes of canned food, three canisters of petrol, and a ton of various smaller bits and pieces. The following day, all this was supposed to go to Kharkiv. All this was pulled together in half-a-day, as soon as my friend heard folks were leaving the next morning. You could get anything necessary on the front-lines in the city in those days. Our city became the main sorting point for equipment and humanitarian aid that flowed into Ukraine, while Ukrainians all over Europe were raising money and buying up gear. In a few days, you would not find a single bullet-proof vest or a tourniquet in Poland, and a week later Germany was similarly cleaned out. In this manner, zig-zagging between check-points and wiring money to the military, we moved toward our Ukrainian dream: to be finally left alone, so we could just live our own life as an independent country.

Feminism in Ukraine Has Won
“It is official: Feminism has won. The girls are saving the country, and we are making dinner,” says my friend, Andriy.
He works in IT, and the war caught him on a business trip abroad. On the morning of February 24, the air space above Ukraine was closed and all flights canceled. Andriy traveled thousands of miles to get back, and finally crossed the border on foot. Men are prohibited from leaving the country until the end of the war. Andriy knew this but could not fathom not coming back. As soon as he returned, he went to the enlistment office, but was turned away.
“Someone has to make money to buy the drones,” they said. “We’ll call you if we need you.”
So: the three guys are making dinner while we are finishing work. Anna is negotiating with a group of international lawyers—we keep hearing the word ‘tribunal’ but politely ignore the conversation. Anna is a lawyer; one of the youngest to make partner at her firm. Before the war, she worked with business clients, but began taking on human rights cases in 2014. In most of these, she represented, usually pro bono, victims of political persecution, and she lobbied tirelessly for the release of Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Anna began collecting evidence of war crimes–the evidence that will eventually help take russia to court for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Ira is on the phone all the time. “Yes, we have a home for you in Krakow, Witek will pick you up at the border… There’s a family waiting for you in Rzeczow, they are happy to put you up for three days, until we can arrange transport for you to Vienna or Prague, wherever you want…” Before this invasion, Ira was an art curator: she organised exhibits of Ukrainian art in Europe and brought the work of European artists to Ukraine. Over years, she amassed a vast network of contacts all over the world which was now very helpful in evacuating women, children, and the elderly away from the russian bombs and occupation.
I am prepping for my next broadcast. I call a young, successful and intelligent writer to invite him to join a national marathon tomorrow: a shared broadcast by the country’s biggest channels that would run for 24 hours. He holds a pause and then says, “The intellectuals can all fuck off, I’m going to the front, I won’t be here to talk,” and laughs confidently.
I know it is himself and his previous life he is telling to fuck off as he prepares to take up arms. I laugh hard back at him. Ira interrupts her flow of phone calls.
“It’s so funny, I now talk to the air-raid sirens like I talk to my alarm clock. I make a deal and go back to sleep.”
“Got it. We’ll wake you up.”
“Can’t I just sleep?”
“We won’t sleep, so you won’t get to sleep either.”
“Either that, or we’ll get hit, and that’ll be the end of us. It’s a lottery.”
An air-raid siren wails, and we go to the basement.

The Dreamers
The raid lasted just under an hour. We returned to the apartment. We are six: three girls and three guys. In our previous lives, we worked, went on Tinder dates, flew to Berlin for parties, and bought art. We were the generation who had no memory of the Soviet Union. We were practically children when we got involved in the Revolution of Dignity in 2013, when our nation’s leadership did something unacceptable: used force against unarmed protesters. At the cost of those first lost lives and our collective grief, we won the right to determine our own destiny—until the russian regime interfered, annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine’s East. It was some time then that we grew up.
With no experience but learning quickly, we became part of the Ukrainian Youthquake. We were into fashion and art, and spoke several languages. By the age twenty, we had mastered wine pairings and gone to the world’s most important art museums. In 2014, when war began in our country, we realised we were mortal—and fell deeper in love with life. We had successful careers in creative industries that we built fairly, from the ground up, on merit and with faith in the future of our country.
And now our greatest joy is a chance to have dinner together. The guys started the water for the pasta, mixed up the sauce, and washed the vegetables for the salad, (we are the bourgeoisie who eat fresh vegetables even during a war).
The dinner was ready. We poured out our one priceless bottle of wine. It came out to about six sips for each of us.

Miss Ukraine 2022
Andriy was still on the phone, and we decided to start eating with him. Most of us remembered we had not eaten for two or three days—and not because there was no food. On the contrary, a hoarder instinct awoke in all of us, the genetic memory of previous wars and Holodomor, and ever since the first news of the possibility of a full-scale invasion started coming last autumn, we all put an extra can or two into our shopping carts on each trip. We did not eat because our bodies pumped out so much adrenaline they could only function on coffee and cigarettes. The only time you remembered about food was when someone put a cooked meal right in front of you.
Ira spoke first.
“You know, I got out of the bath this morning and saw myself in the mirror for the first time since it started. I mean, I had looked before, but just to make sure I didn’t have toothpaste all over my face. This time, I actually looked at myself. I’m all ribs.”
“Don’t catastrophise things. After we win, ours will be the land of the models, the way they looked in the 90s—“heroin”, pardon me, “war-time” chic. We’ve got our very own time machine here.”
“Listen, I never believed it when women in the movies about the Second World War had these nice tidy hair-dos, and wore dresses, and red lipstick—but look at Sofia now: full make-up and perfect hair. It’s like there’s no war,” Maksym teases me.
I realise I had not washed my face since the broadcast, so I look like I’m dolled up for a party. When I became a broadcaster, I hated that slick hair, the heels, the make-up. Now I feel like I’m one of about ten women left in the city who wear make-up. I usually wash my face and pull my hair into a bun before I leave the office; I feel very embarrassed to walk down the streets with my face all painted. Today, I forgot to do that, too. But that’s his fault: he distracted me with his talk.

Hedonism Days
“They keep bombing Kyiv,” Ivan says. He is an artist, and thanks to Ira, his work is known around the world. His pieces can be found in institutional collections all over Europe. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he designs interiors for the newly built shelters that house temporarily displaced people.
“Just think, less than a month ago, a few days before the full-scale invasion, I was dancing in a bar in Kyiv. Against the backdrop of the alarming news, we were joking that those were our last days of hedonism. I mean, it sort of turned out like that, but it was all in a previous life.”
A long silence as we open and scroll through the news. We read about the defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and Anna starts talking to fill the silence.
“I went and bought myself a piece of gold jewelry. I tell myself I could trade it for a loaf of bread, if it comes to that.” “Ha-ha! And if it doesn’t, how are you going to explain it to the children you will have after the war? The fact that you bought it during the war?” “Right, they’ll think you did it in between digging a trench and running around with a machine gun.” “And next to her, Sofia, with her perfect curls, flitted from one trench to the next and wished her viewers a very good day…” “I made a manicure appointment for next month: this is the only thing I managed to plan that far.” Anna at some point remembered the value of sustainable development, and determined to make plans not just for the day or the week, like everybody else, but for a month. We looked at her as if she were a mad prophetess. The war turned out to be different from what we had imagined. We would hide in bomb-shelters—but then go to a newly opened restaurant whose owner kept buying automobiles for the front. We would buy clothes from Ukrainian designers—and know that, while making the profit they needed to keep funding their businesses, they would donate a portion of the proceeds to the military. We could make a manicure appointment—thus providing employment for a woman who had arrived on the previous evacuation train from the East. Our former lives with parties and receptions to be attended in cocktail dresses felt very distant, but everything we brought back we did for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and our victory.
“We’ll cancel it for you if we have to,” Maksym jokes. He means in case a random rocket hits the building where we are. We roar with laughter. Anna has just raised the stakes in the lottery.

Basic Instinct
“Well, my friends, I have had calls from all my exes. Every one of them. They worry about me, bless them,” Andriy says, with a touch of pride.
“Calling is nothing,” Ira laughs. “Mine was coming from the safety of Europe to rescue me out of Ukraine.”
“Well, shit! What did you tell him?”
“Told him to fuck off at first. Then I told him if he was coming anyway, our shelter needed some basic drugs. And that I was not going anywhere: this is my country, this is my home, and I’ll die here if I have to,” Ira says.
“Hey, Andriy, did you tell your exes how crappy your libido gets under air-raids?”
Even here, far away from the front-lines, we had forgotten about sex and sexuality. We put on the same clothes day after day because making a different choice required an effort. The chats on our phones exploded with messages. We wrote “How are you?” to friends from the cities that russians hit what felt like every minute. Certain words lost their significance. We knew we had to tell our friends, of all genders, “I love you” if that’s how we really felt. Love for one’s own, and hatred of the enemy—this is what helped us get out of bed in the morning (on those exceptional mornings when the air-raid sirens did not do it).
“I feel the opposite,” Anna says. “I really want to have sex with those guys in uniform and to have their babies. Only how am I supposed to have babies in the world where they won’t close the sky and children get used to sleeping in shelters, and all their games are about war?” She raises her eyes at us.
“I miss my son. I keep thinking of the day I put them on the train. My son and my wife left the country, and I won’t be able to see them any time soon. I cried on my way from the station. But they will live,” Ivan blurts.
Most people left because of the children. Women bundled infants in their warmest clothes and took them to the other side of the border. They crossed an imaginary line beyond which the sky was secured by NATO and wept at the despair of having left their homes. We don’t know who has it worse: we who had stayed or those who had left. To be on the other side of the border, near or far, is to live in a normal world, but without losing touch with our broken one. When you are ostensibly safe on the other side of that line, you feel every piece of news even more acutely. The women who left put their children above their own interests or mental health. They are alone in a foreign country where they cannot afford a nanny, and do not have their parents or a partner who could watch the kid while they go for a walk alone. Their lives revolve around their children and the news of casualties in their native cities. But to remain in Ukraine would have meant to put one’s child in danger. Most do not wish their children to play the lottery.

Adrenaline Roller-coaster Park
“If you are going to spread pessimism, I’ll kick you out of the apartment. Better let me show this video of how our nice Bayraktars blow up russian tanks. Look, there was a column of tanks—and now there is not.”
I look up with tears in my eyes.
“But what if we lose Kyiv? What if we never get Mariupol and Kharkiv back?”
The waves of adrenaline that made us capable of working two or three jobs and volunteer in-between would give way to deep pits of despair. Whenever that happened, the most important job was to support the person, to pull them out as quickly as possible. And then to keep working, working, leaving no opportunity for another fall.
“Even if they take them, we’ll get them back. Look, look: a nice little Bayraktar is flying through the sky… and there are fields below it, pretty summer fields…”
“Feel better? If not, I’ll give you my wine. These six sips are not going to make a difference.”
“Thank you, a little better. I can’t take your wine.”
We watched a lot of russian content, too, to understand what people there were concerned about. It made us sick, but we could not stop. All of us at least read russian, and this gave us the tool to, let’s be frank about it, locate some hope that their society would organise, would protest, that they would begin fighting the regime from inside while we battled it at the front. Our hopes were in vain. Instead, we saw Instagram stories about the pain of sanctions (are you serious?) and threats to our President.
We grew up very early, just like the majority of our compatriots. While people of our age out in the West spent time wondering where they would apply for college after a few gap years, we were managing enormous projects and founding successful businesses. After the Revolution of Dignity, we learned very well that we needed to live life to the fullest and take responsibility for our every action.
We finished the food and the wine. It was a few minutes before midnight—we went to bed.

The Ukrainian Dream
The other day a well-known writer asked me whether I knew how to build my life from now on.
I realised I did not. I cannot plan or dream; I don’t know whether I will be alive tomorrow. But we are all certain that none of this is in vain. We are not afraid at all. We, young, beautiful, and accomplished, slept three to a bed that night. Yes, we just slept. We spent all our savings on assistance to the Ukrainian military. We worked twelve-hour days for our Ukrainian dream. Each of us, curiously, had something unique in mind, but this did not matter. We wanted one thing: for the russians to leave us alone so we could go on developing our careers, starting families, and renovating our homes not as a means of dealing with obsession but because we were confident no enemy rocket would strike it the next day. All of this is yet to come—when russia finally leaves us alone. In the early hours of the morning, the air-raid siren sounded, but we decided to ignore it. Rockets did not hit Lviv that day; we survived, and we had one more day to be young.

Translated by Nina Murray


Sofia Cheliak is programme director of Lviv BookForum as well as a TV host, cultural manager, translator from Czech into Ukrainian, and PEN-Ukraine member.


Please note: since Russia’s full-scale invasion, many Ukrainians and supporters have refused to capitalise the name of the aggressor state and its people. This piece uses lower case in accordance with the author’s preference.

Roman Road by Kerry Mead

‘This decaying fabric, this unknowable terrain has become my biography, the euphoria then the anguish, layers of memories colliding, splintering and reconfiguring’. 

Laura Grace Ford


Do ghosts exist? Yes, they do. I know this because I’m being haunted. The ghost stains the air around a stretch of pavement next to the park on Roman Road. Roman Road is in Easton, an urban neighbourhood just northeast of Bristol’s city centre. It is a short one-way street with not much going for it really; a mishmash of flats, shuttered shop fronts and graffiti. Overflowing Biffa bins and haphazardly parked delivery vans line the narrow pavements and pounding bass throbs in waves from passing cars. It’s around the corner from the golden glass dome of the Bristol Jamia Mosque, situated at the end of the recently regenerated and rebranded ‘cultural and culinary hub’ of St Mark’s Road.

St. Mark’s Church sits opposite the start of Roman Road. It was gutted and converted into sheltered housing in the 1980s, after dry rot bloomed and took over its wooden interior. The builders dug up a stash of gold coins as they excavated the foundations in 1848; three bowler hats full, apparently. It was called Roman Road because it formed part of the route between Bath and the Roman settlement of Abona, where the northwest edge of the city meets the Severn Estuary. Roman Road is a place destined to be a cut through on the way to other places. A site for secret stashes of gold to be buried and left behind.

I live just over the other side of the motorway from Easton. When the ghost started haunting me, I avoided walking along Roman Road for a while. Instead, I stuck to the logical paths through the city that guarantee an efficient passage from Place A to Place B. But that’s not how ghosts work when they haunt the city you call home. There’s no escaping them, and they can’t leave, either.

‘I read the past everywhere. It’s like an overlay to the city, two maps, two cities – past and present – and you can always switch your view, walk through the streets a ghost, with you as if you were a spectre.’

The Place of the Bridge, Jennifer Kabat


Bristol has been a port city ever since Abona was established. It’s a city of hills, basins, bridges and gorges built on migration, movement and slavery. Many of the neighbourhoods in Bristol are named after saints. Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, the labyrinthine city of marshland, lagoons, offshoots and dead ends, has his name imprinted over Easton’s streets. Water and earth rub up against each other amongst Venice’s networks of canals, bridges and squares. The footsteps of past, present and future residents overwrite each other along its walkways. All of this creates fissures and in-between spaces where ghosts can appear.

More than twelve rivers and brooks run through Bristol’s valleys to the docks, into the Severn Estuary and out to seaAs in Venice, these waterways circle around Easton and cut it off from the rest of the city. It can sometimes feel like an island. Many of the rivers have been culverted; the River Frome is one of them. It flows from its source in the Gloucestershire countryside, passes through the town I grew up in and then skirts around the edge of Easton, buried under concrete. It’s easy to forget it’s there most of the time but, even though the water is hidden, its influence can still be felt if you pause and linger. A quiet pull, a whisper.

Ghosts need straight lines to move through a place freely. Centuries ago, all over the UK, pathways called corpse roads, lych ways, coffin paths or bier roads wound and weaved their way for miles across the rural landscape. They linked villages to their parent churches and often took the most barren and remote routes. Mourners who couldn’t afford a hearse would carry their dead on foot along these designated paths to be buried. They never took a direct, logical route. Our ancestors believed that if they were straight the spirits of the dead would find their way back to haunt those left behind. They also believed ghosts couldn’t cross water. Corpse roads often cut across streams, rivers and marshland to further ensure the dead didn’t return home.

Many of the straight lines evident in Easton’s streets have been overwritten over the years. This might explain why the ghost that haunts me is stuck on that stretch of pavement next to the park on Roman Road. It’s tangled up in the rows of Victorian terraces interspersed with mid-century cul-de-sacs and tower blocks that make up the urban geography of Easton. It’s stranded on an island. It couldn’t escape even if it wanted to.

The past also teaches us that the living haunt us as well. Processions of sprites, luminescent corpse candles and wraiths were rumoured to travel along corpse roads after dark. But once a year, in April, on St Mark’s Eve, apparitions of the living, those who are destined to die during the next year, make their way from their homes to the closest burial place. In the past, villagers would gather at lych gates at midnight and wise women would watch over the corpse roads and churchyards, to see whose ghostly figure would pass.


My steps have scored Roman Road’s paths so often that something of me must also remain for other passers-by to spot in unfocused moments. An occasional flickering glitch barely visible to the naked eye. Flesh and bones are transient, but ghosts remain to reappear again and again. I mostly drive straight through Roman Road nowadays, not leaving a mark. On my way to somewhere else in a rush, navigating the parked delivery vans or stuck behind a mum in an SUV reversing into a too-tight space, dropping her children off for gymnastics.

It’s easy to stop noticing even the most solid of things when you see them every day. In the middle of Roman Road, sandwiched between Anstey Street and Barrett Street, is a large red brick building that dominates the streets around it and houses Hawks gymnasium. I’d rarely notice it when I passed it every day. The building has lived many lives before, of both industry and dissent. Built in 1897, it was first a corset factory, then a laundry, then a storage space for engine parts used by British Aerospace. It was left empty for years until 1987, when it was squatted briefly before being gutted by a fire in 1989.


‘The time is out of joint’

Hamlet, William Shakespeare


I started noticing Hawks gym again after I had children. It has a reputation for being one of the best gymnastics centres in the Southwest; it’s probably the only reason many people from the more affluent areas of Bristol ever venture to EastonAva went to gymnastics there when she was six or so, but stopped after a term: ‘It’s too boring Mummy, we repeat the same things again and again.’ I secretly felt proud of her rebellious, independent streak. To be honest, I was also relieved not to have to drag myself out of the house early on a weekend anymore. Every Saturday morning, I’d peel myself out of bed and pile Ava and Joe into the car, both sullen and complaining, before driving over to Easton.

In my memory, every one of those mornings was grey and wind whipped, dragging Joe and Ava through the park opposite Hawks by the arms of their coats, their sulky bunched-up fists wet and cold. Head down, red wine hangover stinging my synapses, horizontal rain bursts slapping my face. Crossing the road, running up the steps, ushering Ava into the fusty, crowded reception. Since then, sometimes when I’m passing, I catch a flash of my back pounding up the steps to the entrance, Ava’s chubby fist in my hand. I am rubbing shoulders with the fainter ghosts of the corset factory and laundry workers pouring out of the double doors at the end of the day. Mothers rushing somewhere they don’t want to be, gymnasts’ feet hitting the mats in the same spot over and over, the clack clack clack of rows of sewing machines.

Hawks gym is clearly visible from the M32 motorway, a swath of Brutalism that sweeps past Easton, elevated on concrete pillars. It provides a constant background roar of traffic; the sound that has lulled my children to sleep since I moved back to the area in 2013. Work began on the motorway in 1966, a safe distance away from the gentle crescents of Angela Carter’s bohemian Clifton. The M32’s construction embodied the promise of a new, more dynamic future for Bristol. It cleaved through the streets of Victorian terraces which housed the city’s workers, rupturing the green parks and cutting Easton off from the rest of the cityThe route planned for the motorway intersected with the River Frome just upstream of Easton, so the river was redirected and culverted as it passed Easton’s western edge. The river’s natural course through the city has been altered and forced underground so many times it no longer flows freely. There is a cycle track you can take from Easton to the city centre that follows the motorway, a short corridor of grass, tarmac and graffiti. If you walk along the path and look closely you can catch glimpses of the river stagnating in the dark through metal grilles set in the concrete.


Opposite Hawks gym is a rank of shops. There’s Pak’s Butchers and Star Cash and Carry with its silver bowls of bruised fruit on display outside. Above the cash and carry, a small flat with a grubby closed-eye window remains unchanged since Katie lived there during the long, stifling summer of 1995. We’d both just moved to Bristol and I’d walk there some evenings from my house on Easton Road. We’d smoke a joint with her flatmate, and when we got bored she’d pull her trainers on and we’d run to the pub giggling, Katie still wearing her pyjamas. We’d pool our change on the bar for a pint each; nineteen and fearless. I often think about Katie and her flatmate when I walk along Roman Road. He ended up on smack; I wonder if he got clean.

Two doors down, on the corner opposite St. Mark’s church, is No.12, the new cafe that opened a few years ago. It’s conspicuous in its sophisticated blandness, like it’s been ripped out of a Sunday supplement and pasted over the takeaway that used to be there. Remains of the building’s previous life are still visible if you know what to look for, like a palimpsest. You can see it in a flake of white masonry paint above the new fascia revealing where grey stone used to be. Or in the long, low sill that still runs along the large windows, where a row of people would perch every evening, waiting for their orders of pizza or kebabs. Windows dripping condensation, softening the harsh strip light glitch and buzz inside.

The first time I sat in the courtyard of No. 12, it had already been open for four years. It was a hot, bright Saturday morning in 2018, the summer after I met O. He’d visit most weekends and I’d sometimes meet him off the train at the station opposite St Mark’s church. That day I’d got there early so I was killing time. I sat listening to the coffee machine puffing and screeching inside, nondescript electronica floating through the air. At that moment the café felt flat and calcified; nothing left to be added to its serene occupancy. In direct contrast, the street outside was a constant overwriting of footsteps and noise; the rich busyness and unfolding of an always shifting and building geography. I remember feeling suddenly complicit in the othering of the Easton on the other side of the courtyard’s high whitewashed walls, just by being there doing nothing with my expensive cappuccino. I quickly drained my cup, returned my book to my bag and stepped back out onto Roman Road.

I walked the long way to the train station instead, past the shops and through the summer-humming park. Before the park, unseen behind bricked up ghost doorways, are the backyards of a row of fixed up cottages. Their front doors face onto Albion Road, which runs parallel to Roman Road, like they are politely turning their backs on it. My friend Greg bought the middle cottage for £26,000 in 1999. I rented a room there for a couple of years not long after. A mossy red brick path weaving through tangles of jasmine and green led to the front door. Inside, the rooms were covered in wall hangings and full of cheap furniture, and on weekend mornings empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays left from an after-party the night before. Greg and my close friend Helen, now his wife, lived there until recently with their two boys. They sold the house for £399,000.


You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming.’

For the Sake of a Single Poem, Rainer Rilke


My old bedroom window looks out over the high wall onto Hawks gym, and I always glance up at it when I’m passing, but the blinds are usually down. I remember telling O they were happy times living there when we passed one time and paused by the peeling green park railings to look up at the window, but now I’m not so sure. Too many sleepless nights, whether drug or anxiety induced. Too many people passing through, not enough time spent still.

One scene comes to mind looking up at the window. I am lying on my side in bed propped up on my elbow on a dull, white-skied Sunday afternoon, with last night’s makeup still on. I’m watching a film and passing a joint back and forth with Louie, who is sat leaning against the wall on the other side of the bed. The smoke curling and mugs of hot, milky tea soften the jagged edges of our hangovers. Then the sound of drumming starts drifting up from the street outside. We both get up to look out of the window in time to see a procession passing along Roman RoadA joyful, proud collective heading from the Sikh temple on nearby Colston Road dressed like jewels. The men and boys wearing white kurtas, orange turbans and elaborately patterned coats, the elders at the front carrying blue and orange flags, the younger drummers jostling behind. The procession briefly fills the road and pavements. They are gone in a minute or so, heading in the direction of St Marks Road, leaving nothing behind except the fading sound of drums. I pop my head out of the window to try and follow their route, then I ease the sash window back down and we return to the TV. Louie moves closer, wrapping his arm around me, squeezing my shoulder and settling in next to me.

When I think about living there I also think about the black cat. Sometimes I’d feel a hint of soft fur sweeping across the back of my calves as I ran up the stairs, or I’d catch a glimpse of a black cat’s tail curling around the corner at the bottom of the stairwell as I walked back down. It happened enough times that I started to believe in ghosts. We didn’t have a cat until two or three weeks before I moved out. A stray tortoiseshell cat had turned up out of nowhere one day and would sit motionless for hours on the red brick garden path, staring at the house with intense yellow-green eyes. One day she strode into the kitchen as if she had never belonged anywhere else.

In another scene, I’m lying in bed again, but this time it’s late at night; one of the last nights I spent living in Easton. I’m in bed with the stray cat, who jumped in and curled up next to me a few minutes before, lapping her rough tongue over the back of my still hand.  I’m staring out of the window at the streetlight outside Hawks, half-packed boxes surrounding me.  It is silent and the height of summer. I don’t want to move out of the cottage anymore, but I’ve accidentally made myself homeless. I was meant to be moving to London to live with Louie. Greg had already found a replacement tenant, who was moving into the room in a week’s time. Louie had rung me a couple of days before to announce that he didn’t think me moving in was the best idea anymore.

I decided to take the stray cat with me a week later when I moved into the flat I’d found at the last minute. It had newly painted white walls and pristine polished wooden floors and was on a leafy, quiet street two miles away, on the other side of the M32. It was called a clean slate. When I moved there, the quiet sometimes deafened me, but the cat filled the silence with her warm weight across my feet at night and loud miaows at the door during the day. As I unpacked boxes and filled kitchen cupboards, I made myself a promise that, from then on, I would stop believing in anything that didn’t seem completely solid. The cat disappeared a few weeks later. I was inconsolable, but still couldn’t see the absurdity of the promise I’d made to myself.


Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.’

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf


From the first time he came here in 2017, O seemed like he was sucking the streets dry; collecting the sights, sounds and contours of the city, then storing them away in a private, locked collection. He didn’t want to go for walks through nature reserves and parks on Sundays. Instead, he preferred to traverse the underpasses and back streets, scoring a line past the skatepark under the M32 with its sunken, burst sofas and upturned bins. Sometimes I’d wake on a Sunday morning and he would already be sat on the edge of the bed pulling his socks on: ‘I’m popping out for a quick walk’. We’d walk most Saturday nights as well, me talking, him listening, moving between gigs, friends’ houses, clubs and bars. When I walked with him Bristol felt like a new city. His presence breathed life into the tired streets.

A few months before I last saw O, he messaged me on a Wednesday afternoon to tell me he was coming to Bristol after work and would get the last train home.  It was unusual for him to visit during the week, but he told me he was bored and fancied the trip. All I heard was that he missed me. I rang around for a babysitter and met him in the pub by the station where Katie and I used to go. We sat in the beer garden wrapped in big coats under fairy light garlands and rolled cigarettes in gentle silence and smiles.

After a while we decided to head to Ricardo’s who lived a few streets away. Roman Road was unusually still, bathed in orange light, April sky full of stars. Past No. 12 and Pak’s, past Katie’s grubby closed-eye window, past the bricked-up doorway and closed blinds of Greg and Helen’s. As we walked alongside the park, he stopped in that spot and pulled me close and kissed me out of nowhere. We rarely kissed in public. We kissed for a long time, me marvelling at his solidity, his here-ness, then I pulled back laughing:

‘What are we? Teenagers?’

He laughed as well and pulled me back into him tightly and kissed me again:

‘I just can’t let go’.

We carried on walking, wrapped up in each other, paying no attention to the streets. Later, on the last train home, he messaged me with links to one-bedroom flats in Bristol on Rightmove. All I heard was that he wanted to stay.


When O first left, his ghost haunted my house. Over time, it appeared less and less; the frequent apparitions slowly written over by the constant traffic of domesticity. New memories are painted over the old. But all ghosts reveal themselves occasionally; they can never be fully deleted if you know what was there before. Occasionally O’s frame would flicker at the kitchen table in the corner of my vision when I was draining pasta at the sink and a song he loved came on the radio. Or sometimes as I woke and opened my eyes, especially on bright, crisp, winter mornings, a long, freckled back might materialise on the edge of my bed, caught in time pulling on a sock again and again. These ghosts always disappeared when I turned to them, with my mouth full of unanswered questions.

Although the traces were faint and glitchy at home, there was still a ghost’s stain that was vivid, trapped over the other side of the river. Shortly after O left, we entered the first 2020 lockdown. I would sometimes drive through Easton and in my memory the same thing happens each time. I see myself rounding the corner past the church and No.12. There is a white delivery van stopped with its hazard lights on outside Pak’s, the open tailgate door showing skinned carcasses hanging from hooks inside, staring blindly from clouded eyes, the driver nowhere in sight. I stop and drum my fingers on the steering wheel whilst I wait, sometimes for so long I end up turning the engine off. Cars start pulling up behind me, beeping impatiently. Reggae is blaring from somewhere. I see an old man in a long white kurta and topi feeding the pigeons in the park. My eyes, against my will, are pulled to that stretch of pavement and railings that separate the park from the road. That’s where the ghost is, entangled with the street’s tarmac and airA stratum usually concealed from view. A garland of orange marigolds slung over the railings appears for a second before disappearing. A glitch; a symbol of union and mutual trust marking a sacred spot. Or an offering slung over a portrait of the dead. A point of access shimmering between presence and absence. I wince and turn away and look over towards the gym. Eventually, the butcher in his blood-stained white overalls lumbers into view, pushing a supermarket trolley. He is following the delivery driver, who is on his phone, and slowly starts unloading. When he has finished, the driver jumps back in the van and starts up the engine. As the road clears, I exhale, relieved, and pull away.


Beneath all the cities we don’t recognise are stacked all of the cities we do.

Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London


At the start of the millennium, just before I Iived in the cottage on Albion Road, I lived in Barcelona for a short time. When I arrived, the city was laid out before me unspoiled. No layers of memories, no roots from which to untangle my feet. For most of my time there I walked. Like O, I wanted to suck the streets dry. I walked like a tourist who wants to take the essence of the city home as a souvenir, from the port and beaches next to the old city across to the very top of Montjuic. I walked between cafes and galleries, through secret, crumbling squares. I listened to the echoes of my footsteps in knotted networks of narrow, gothic alleyways that the midday sun never reached. I stopped to watch locals parading dead-eyed, jewel-coloured papier-mache Gegants on sombre, grey Sunday mornings. I walked alone along the wide, crowded thoroughfares that cut through the city, rain showers briefly slicking the pavements before evaporating. I’d inhale Barcelona’s heady, sweat-spiked petrichor deeply, marvelling that I’d never smelt anything quite like it, knowing deep down I never would again. I fell in love with a city.

Then, after a while, I started walking out of loneliness. The people I crossed paths with felt distant and unreachable. As I sunk deeper into depression, the actual bones of the place felt increasingly threatening and the people in it casually cruel. I started resenting the city and everyone in it. One evening I mapped the streets of the barrio around where I lived in looping, unravelling circles for hours. My restless steps echoed the heavy agitation I felt running through my arteries. I couldn’t stop but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was unable to return to my flat, turn the key in the door and admit the affair was over.

After that night I left as soon as I could. 


I returned a year later with Louie, a few months after we first met. I felt the urge to revisit and forcibly overwrite my complicated memories with new, simpler ones. We stayed a few streets away from my old flat in a grandiose but down-at-heel pensión filled with huge blooming succulents. We gorged on expensive food and I fucked him noisily day and night. We drank cocktails in bars hidden from the street behind heavy velvet curtains until we stumbled home through the gothic quarter in the early hours. I didn’t tell him, but as we walked I was searching the streets for traces of what I’d felt when I’d inhaled Barcelona’s after-rain smell. But I couldn’t find it. Nor could I fully exorcise my ghosts.


‘Find a way out | Through a memorial garden | A wilderness of roses.

Savage Messiah, Laura Grace Ford


Not long ago, I found myself walking back along Roman Road on a steely grey February afternoon. Life had shrunk since mine and O’s Saturday night wanders had ended. For the last ten months, I’d stuck to walking the same established paths during our allotted hour a day of outdoor exercise. In the depths of the first lockdown, I’d walk with Joe and Ava up to Stoke Park along the pathway that climbed through the woods behind our house. As we reached the top of the hill, we’d stop and look out over the city spread before us, pointing in wonder at the empty motorway gliding silently past below, high above the roofs of Easton and St Pauls.

When I find myself walking through Easton again, it feels freeing to cut through the city streets on foot once more. As Hawks gym and the peeling green railings of the park come into sight, instead of following the logical, more direct route home, I change direction and walk along Roman Road. I want to know if the ghost is real or is just a by-product of malignant nostalgia left to grow unchecked throughout the lockdowns. I want to see if the garland of marigolds is still there or if it was just refracted light bouncing off my windscreen.

Just before Hawks gym, I reach Paradise Fashions, which has had its shutters down for as long as I can remember. I cross the road and walk slowly along the pavement. A gaunt man in a shiny black Adidas tracksuit sits on the park bench cradling a can of Red Stripe. His gaze is fixed in the direction I am walking from, but he seems to stare straight through me. I don’t see the garland of marigolds as I approach but I can tell as soon as I stop that the ghost is there. I sense it as a swirl of solid, dark energy and hear it as a crystalline snatch of song suspended in a cold April starry sky. A corpse candle halted, flickering mid-air. The ghost still feels brand new, and as gentle and kind as silent smiles in a pub garden, but it also feels raw, and as cruel and shocking as fresh grief. The spectre of an imagined future that failed to materialise. Caught in the city’s in-between spaces, unable to extricate itself from its surroundings. No one else knows it’s there, but it’s now as much a part of Roman Road’s geography as its bricked-up doorways, concrete, grass and air. I hurry away, paying no attention to my surroundings. Past the back of the row of cottages, past Katie’s window, past the rank of shops. A young boy of around ten or eleven comes out of Star Cash and Carry as I pass; I almost bump into him and have to step aside to let him by. He stops to tip a plastic tub of food scraps onto a knotted black bin bag resting on the curbside. His stare makes me feel like an outsider. I follow behind him as he turns and walks back through the shop door.

I decide to return a few weeks later and I swear the man in the Adidas tracksuit is sitting on the park bench again, but the ghost is very faint this time. The marigolds have yet to reappear, although I know they are still there.  The ghost and the marigolds are as solid as chubby fists in my hand, the turn of a key in a lock, a black cat’s tail, a river running under concrete. The marigolds remain there somewhere, buried like a stash of gold coins waiting to be dug up in the future.