English notes by a Ukrainian woman. Part 4: The Readers

21.07.2022Irina Potanina

A few months ago, Irina Potanina, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer from Kharkiv, moved from Ukraine to the UK to save her two sons. Now she works in a small cafe, believes in the imminent victory of her country and keeps a personal diary. By tradition, "Winter" shares excerpts from it with readers. This one, the fourth, is about why the British are the most read people in the world.

You can read part one here, part two here, part three here. here. .

From now on, the English to me are the most read people in the world.

For some reason I didn’t think about it when I learned about the neighborhood literati clubs, where quite consciously and voluntarily twice a month neighbors bring – no, not even books! – but reports on readings and recommendations.

I did not generalize when I found out that the English acquaintances who praised my glimpse of the detective immediately bought it and …- no, they did not put it on the list of must-reads, the enormity of which we are so proud of! – and they’re really reading.

I rashly didn’t come to this conclusion when I noticed that my cafe often has customers sitting down for coffee with a book. Didn’t even react when my youngest son, probably after comic books in which agents are doing surveillance while covering himself with a newspaper, said: “Mom, congratulations! There are now two whole spies in the square! There’s the lady over there supposedly reading the newspaper, and then there’s Grandpa over here too…”.

But once I started driving in England, that’s how it went. Yes, the most read in the world.

The mass of road signs here have text accompaniment. Not just a triangle, but a triangle that says Give way. Not just a circle with a speed limit, but also a white Slow on the road. If there is a mobile traffic light, there is a sign in front of it with explanatory inscriptions: why they put it there, for how long and why in no case, even if it seems to you that there is no one ahead, you should not go through the red light. The driver absorbs tons of text every minute. I – yes, sorry, I know I’m a loser – can’t park in some places without a dictionary.

– Ta-rah-rah! It is forbidden to stand on weekdays and Saturdays,” I read the sign in the parking lot, “but only from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and only if you don’t have a special permit, and only if for more than two hours, and only if…

All I have to do is drop my son off at school. That’s all – the usual spot is occupied, and I went to look for another place to dump the car. But here goes.

Katherine – the owner of the house I live in and the car I drive – is silent, showing wonders of restraint. We agreed that later I would drive Igor to school on my own, and she would be around for a couple of weeks, helping him get used to left-hand traffic and other unusual things. And from the third day on, it will only be to observe. Now I don’t even cheat anymore, by the expression on her beautiful face – always the inimitable wise half-smile and mischievous girlish chuckles in her eyes – trying to guess whether I’m doing the right thing or not.

– I guess it’s okay to stop! – I utter, having finally realized the whole text and driving a little forward to shine my parallel parking skills.

And then some car, without any preparation, makes a feint and occupies the place I’ve taken. It’s my own fault for thinking it over for so long, but Catherine is always on my side. I’m plus or minus the same age as her three kids, so she’s almost motherly to me. Right now, for example, it’s comforting:

– Don’t feel bad, you’re doing great. It’s just that our people can be a bit rude sometimes!

– It’s fine,” I assure him, and of course I immediately get burned by my own disgustingly frequent memory of actual rudeness.

Evacuation. It’s the third day of the war, and the same amount of time we’ve been on the road – driving, with almost no sleep and not yet even a sense of when respite will come. That being said, of course, we are constantly reading news and hearing from loved ones. Kharkiv is being tormented by shelling, and damned Russian tanks are standing on the outskirts. There, in the city, everything was left: a familiar life, heart and, most importantly, a lot of people who are ready to defend their native land or simply not willing to leave their home to be plundered by invaders. Some people move to the subway, some people gather the headquarters of the tera-defense in their apartments, some people joined the army, some people would like to, but are already afraid to evacuate: a couple of hours ago, a family whose car happened to be near a military column of the enemy was shot at point-blank range….

We are standing in the wildest traffic jam on the pass, behind which is Zakarpattya, and, like, we do everything right (take the children to a safe place), but conscience is not in place. We’re running away from a war we should probably be trying to stop….

And there’s a whole pass full of us. The way, usually traveled in an hour, now, as reported by those who have already “released”, costs about 6 hours and a lot of nerves. It’s all clear about time, but nerves – because some road users try to squeeze through to the checkpoint at the end of the traffic jam without queuing, and others feel entitled to stop them.

At this pass, I saw the menacing trucks jumping out of the general queue like sharks on the hunt in front of the oncoming jeep. I’ve seen a shuttle bus intentionally back up, almost right up against the bumper of the car behind it, to teach a lesson to the driver who just passed another shuttle bus. I saw how the same shark-furs, despite attempts of negotiations and even bribery, did not let an Englishman who was late for a plane, which was canceled at the Ukrainian airport and for which it is now necessary to go to Hungary. I saw someone in line start shooting at a car that was tailgating the police with flashing lights. And also saw a driver who unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a fare get offended and start threatening everyone with a gun….

And the lousy part is that I had to be a part of it myself. The least of all old Tavria, which I happened to drive by pure chance, is adapted to a long slow and uneven ride uphill. I knew that a little more of this kind of exploitation and the car, if not dead, would boil over, bringing everyone to a standstill for a long time. The flow stopped again, and I, realizing that the next stop would be the last for the poor Tavria, squeezed to the curb and rushed forward. Not oncoming, of course, but the queue quickly realized where the new offender was.

I was cut off, pushed into the ditch, curses were shouted at me and obscene signs were shown from the windows, while I wiggled between potholes and other people’s bumpers, feeling like the same bastard from the queue at the clinic who “only had to ask”. Alas, I had neither time nor chance to explain that I was not going to break through to the checkpoint, but just wanted to drive to the top and stand there quietly, opening the hood and waiting for my husband’s car, without which, of course, I was not going to go anywhere further.

When I finally got over the rise and stopped, the driver of the neighboring car came to me to scold me:

– What the fuck are you doing? Greyhound? – She asked.

– The thing is,” I was glad for the opportunity to talk….

– I’m not interested!

And I suddenly realized that I wasn’t interested in the truth. Answering rhetorical questions is not a good idea. I muttered something like, “if you’re not interested, then why ask?”, accompanied a gloomy look at the spit that fell under my feet and returned to the Tavria, going to sleep while my eldest son vigilantly monitors the queue, so as not to miss our second car.

A nightmare, of course… There were so many good things in this road, so many evidences of mutual support and cohesion – then in the queue at the gas station near Poltava, where cash and cards of most banks were not accepted, happy owners of working cards helped everyone to pay, then already in Transcarpathia, where we stopped on the way, residents specially brought free coffee and sandwiches to the highway – but the most vivid to this day for some reason I remember that nasty pass. Eh…

– Mom! – Igor rubs my arm confusedly. In the meantime, we managed to find a free space in the parking lot, managed to nod complacently to the girl who took our place (she did not immediately realize that we wanted to park there, and after it was too late to leave, so she went to us to apologize), even managed to approach the school. But we didn’t make it to class…

– The gate is closed,” says the son. – Am I too late? – for a moment the boy looks unhappy, but I am fortunate enough to be the mother of an optimistic child, so I immediately burst out, – Oh! Happy first tardy to school to me! Mom, congratulations and a gift!

As I get Igor into the classroom, Catherine is waiting at the front desk. When I return, I catch her… – you guessed it, right? – reading, of course. It’s customary here to write in a tardy log. And there really is a lot to read here! The lady who brought her granddaughter, for example, succinctly wrote the word “grandmother” in the “reason for lateness” column. Someone complained, “It’s too early for me.” But this not-so-wide column accommodated the lengthy, “We’re not late, it’s just that the reception is closer to our house than the gate.”

I wrote, “It took me a long time to read the parking regulations.” Why? Let them know we’re the most read too, right?

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