Bohdan Kozak had lived on the outskirts of Kyiv all his life and he’d seen Russian tanks trundle past his front door before. Thirty-five years ago, his house had trembled on its foundations as dozens of heavy old Soviet T-62’s retreated East to Moscow. He could still recall the thunderous approach and the sulphurous fumes left in their wake. His wife, Oxana, had compared them to a flight of cantankerous dragons suffering from acute halitosis. They’d laughed at the time and brushed off their home’s minor structural damage as one of life’s unfortunate events. Deep down, both knew there’d be no apology and little recourse for redress; distress would get them nowhere.
Today’s return visit had started two days ago when the first platoon of shiny T-14 tanks had rumbled towards them, followed by support vehicles and A.P.C.’s packed with fresh-faced conscripts. The tanks travelled two abreast and were the head of a long column that disappeared into the far distance. There had been a news blackout. The local TV station had gone off the air. There was no explanation for the sudden appearance of Russian tanks. The old couple had no choice but to ignore the rumpus and hope the commotion would soon desist.
For two long hours, the couple’s windows rattled and the internal woodwork creaked as the mighty battalion ground its way towards the capital. Oxana resorted to burying her head under two feather pillows and Bohdan stuffed his ears full of cotton wool. Their precautions dimmed the racket to a certain degree, but did nothing to stop the house from complaining. Its timbers and beams shrieked as the weight of the passing cavalcade twisted and undermined the property’s fabric.
After the din diminished, the house relaxed once again, and Oxana raised her head and gesticulated at Bohdan to check outside. Bohdan exhaled dramatically and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what had happened. It was a relief that the commotion had stopped, but Bohdan had an unpleasant surprise. The noise had subsided; it was true, but that was because the endless line of armoured vehicles had come to a halt. Eight feet away from their front door, there was a solid wall of heavy metal; caterpillar tracks, armour plating and countless 125 millimetre cannons.
Clutching her ear protection to her chest, Oxana poked her nose past her lace curtains and peered out of her front room window. The stationary vehicles’ exhaust pipes coughed and spluttered noxious fumes and that was the only sign of life. However, as the afternoon drifted away, they heard orders barked, distant shouts and the crackle and splat of radio transmission.
The column remained motionless in front of their home and, by early evening, there was an eerie silence. All the engines had stopped belching out diesel fumes and as the sun dropped below the tree line, Bohdan detected nervous birdsong in the surrounding woodland. He recognised the familiar chirrup of a friendly blackbird, but it seemed more remote than usual. It was as if the creature had retreated to a safe distance, just in case.
Oxana fretted all afternoon, and Bohdan did his best to calm her. She’d made noises about an evening meal and said she couldn’t wait any longer.
“It’s no good,” she says at last, “one of us must collect the groceries.
Bohdan inhales with my mouth closed tight.
“Mister Kalashnik’s store isn’t open all night and he’ll be closing his store soon,”
Oxana says, presenting Bohdan with a list of groceries as though it was both a challenge and a commission to accept or be damned.
Oxana had trained her husband well over their long marriage. Bohdan was an obliging fellow and his partnership to Oxana had flourished for four decades despite all the regime changes that had occurred over the years. He accepted her scrap of paper, double-checked the list of provisions, and saluted Oxana.
“I may be some time, my dear,” he says, hauling on his outer coat and knotting his scarf.
Oxana pinches his long, straight nose. “Now, don’t you stop on the way and get talking to any strangers,” she says, pursing her lips and frowning.
“I won’t,” he says, clapping his hands together.
There was a fug of wood smoke outside the house, and Russian voices echoed up and down the column of static metal boxes. Bohdan shuffled up his short garden path, closed the gate behind him and edged his way past the convoy towards the village.
It was a pleasant ten-minute walk on most days, depending on the weather or any local impediments. The rolling pastures beyond the pine trees support cattle and it’s not uncommon for a herd of Ukrainian Greys to delay a trip to Mister Kalashnik’s store. Milking times occur at regular intervals during a working day and all traffic stops when they cross the road. Bohdan wondered if there’d been any cows traversing the tarmac today or if they’d abandoned the milking schedule.
Mister Kalashnik is folding his metal chairs and coffee tables outside his store.
“Hey, Kalashnik!” Bohdan says, checking his list again. “Had a busy day?”
“Busy day?” He asks. “It’s always a busy day. I’m busy here and busy there and I’m busy everywhere.”
“Is that good business?”
“I’m always busy in my business and any business is always good.”
Bohdan enters the premises and places his wicker basket on the counter.
“You have Oxana’s list for me?”
“You know me too well, Mister Kalashnik.”
“I can supply most things, but…” He scratches his chin. “Business today has been---”
“Busy?” Bohdan asks, frowning. “But we live here and---”
“I can’t turn away extra business and today I’ve had an extra busy day.”
“We’ll take what ever is available.”
“I’ve had a run on toilet rolls and flour is in short supply, too.”
“Milk and butter?”
He shakes his head.
“You have been busy.”
Today’s unwelcome visitors have lingered longer than expected.
We do not know when they’ll leave or in which direction they’ll depart.