“Look, magnolias! I love magnolias. I haven’t seen magnolias since…”
She falls silent, and I follow her gaze to the gnarly tree trunks decorated with bowl-shaped flowers. As I watch, the delicately coloured blooms smudge together, and I blink rapidly, more for Anya’s sake than mine.
If I have learnt anything over the last thirteen months, it is that I am no longer afraid of tears. I welcome them. They remind me I am alive. But Anya has more reason to cry. She has lost more. So, I feel embarrassed that my emotions leak out easily, while everything about her is fiercely stoic.
After all, what have I lost? Dreams of returning to the country where I got married and had my first child? Aspirations of one day watching my children fall in love with my favourite city?
Anya has lost so much more. Taking her son and fleeing during the first two weeks of war, she has found herself in a country which had only ever been a holiday destination, struggling with a new language she is unable to retain, aimless and hopeless in a world where everyone else is focused on their own plans.
My husband is back in our hotel room, using our weekend in Milan to catch up on essential business. I can’t complain. Anya’s husband is back in Kyiv, holding down a job in a failing economy, learning how to sleep through air-raid sirens.
It is the first time I have seen Anya since I moved out of Ukraine, sixteen years ago. But there is no discomfort. Our friendship picks up more easily than either of us expected. When two hearts are truly broken, there are no walls between them. No defences. Love and pain flow with breath-taking intensity.
She steps forward, reaching out to touch a pinky-white flower, hesitatingly, as though it is more sacred than the Duomo we have just walked past. And for her, it is.
“I remember Kyiv.” She isn’t talking to me. Her words are a prayer, directed towards the trees.
I too remember Kyiv. I arrived as a young twenty-three-year-old. My first ever plane ride, and I’d bought a one-way ticket. I had followed the call of my heart, not knowing what would await me. But on that first day, as I travelled by bus through the city at sunset, I knew I had come home. Some people spend their whole lives looking for home. And I had found mine.
Friendships grow quickly in those early adult years. The language was not a barrier for long. I loved deeply and was deeply loved. Accepted. Cherished.
I joined my adopted nation in 2004, belting out the words of the national anthem, “Our souls and our bodies we will lay down for our freedom”. An orange scarf around my neck. Not afraid of the Russian snipers rumoured to be on the surrounding rooftops. We stood united for our freedom in Independence Square.
But when those voices were raised again in 2013, my view came from a live-feed. I was married, and we had returned to the UK. Our initial plan of a few months had morphed into a few years, and now we are obliged to stay while our children finish their education. I tuned in daily. Scouring the screen, looking for familiar faces. Frustrated as the rest of the world chimed in with its own wisdom. “Who is giving them weapons? It’s all American-led.” “What weapons?” I snapped back, watching boys and grannies wearing saucepans and colanders when hardhats were outlawed. It wasn’t American’s risking the wrath of a domineering neighbour. It was my family. My friends. My heart-country.
And then the day that heart was ripped open. There was tension in the air, over the airwaves, into our home through the laptop monitor. Lines of riot police. But these were different. They walked differently, held themselves differently. These were not ‘our people’. I eyed them wearily, uneasy as they were now carrying large guns. I was afraid. I was right to be afraid. An automatic weapon sounded, followed by others. Women and children were pushed forward towards the stage, nearer the centre of the Square. The men forming a guard around them. And bullets rained down on unarmed people, at the behest of an angry man, who was afraid of the freedom of which they sang.
It was not the only time gunfire was heard on those streets. Not the only time I have watched a live feed with tears streaming down my face, feeling helpless and heartbroken.
The war has lived like an invisible beast on my shoulder for the last four hundred days. Its presence is constant. Sometimes it is harmless, like a dead weight above my heart. Sometimes, it pulls out its claws and rips through my body and soul, tearing my heart to shreds.
Anya’s soft voice interrupts my memories. “Did you ever go to the Botanical Gardens and see the magnolias?”
I smile as I remember the annual pilgrimage to the landscaped gardens at the back of Teatralna Metro Station. It was as though the whole city crowded into the small space over a couple of weeks to enjoy the blooms and be photographed with them. I look at my petite friend. Our eyes asking the question our hearts aren’t able to answer. Will we ever see be there again? Will we ever again delight in the frivolous joy of being in that scent-filled garden, enjoying the beauty of these perfumed blooms? Or will those simple pleasures be haunted by the sights, sounds and smells of war?
The future is unknown. We can’t guess what it holds. We pray for the war to end, for peace to return, so Anya can go home, rebuild her life with her husband and begin to make plans again.
She turns and buries her head into the heart of the nearest blossom. Inhaling deeply, she breathes in memories, beauty, hope, love.
I follow her example, and for a moment, I am transported back to another country, another time, another era.
She lifts her face, her skin reflecting the white of the flower. Her eyes closed. Holding on to the moment. “I feel alive,” she whispers.