– Good morning! – across the street, this unusual man shouts in Ukrainian. And he waves his cane at me, coming closer and laughing powerfully, almost at the top of his voice.
The gray of the short-cropped temples sets off the already very swarthy skin. On her hands, she wears a multitude of jewelry and fingerless gloves. On his head is a funny cap with a fan on it. A portrait of John Lennon proudly displayed forward on his T-shirt-clad belly. And the same dark glasses on the bridge of his nose as Lennon’s.
The town lunatic? No. I socialize with him quite often and I know his mind is fine. He appears here and there in our small town, he knows everyone (he meets everyone he doesn’t), he greets everyone in their own language. Such an amazing custodian of the local streets. After the greeting, as a rule (already, of course, in English), tells that he comes from the gym, where he does boxing, and that today he defeated so many strong young opponents. Then usually asks something unexpected like, “Who did you beat today?”
– I haven’t beaten anyone, but I’m going to overpower a piece of work,” I get ahead of his questions. – I’m going to the library.
– It’s a good idea,” he praises, but immediately, having lost interest in me, he bursts out with the joy of a new meeting and shouts to someone in a distant alley: “Olla! Olla!
And I do go to the library here often after I drop my youngest son off at school so I don’t have to spend an hour driving home before my afternoon shift at my waitressing job. And I feel terribly guilty. Gone are the days when, in reading rooms, I used to dig through subscriptions to old newspapers or proofread something in archival materials. Especially when I’ve been invited to libraries to meet with readers and present my retro detectives. Things are different now. I can see that there is a lot to read, meet and dig into here, but… I’m only shooting sparrows with a cannon: I use the space as a co-working space. I’m sitting at my laptop, sorting out current orders for texts and websites or working on this book. Sorry, library, but I clearly don’t have enough time or language skills to use you for your intended purpose.
You ask, why wouldn’t I do the same at the nearest mall? I agree, there’s good internet, comfortable tables and deserted nooks. But! A distinct advantage of the library is the full-length mirror in the powder room. In normal life it is unnoticeable, but every refugee probably already knows how important it is to look outside yourself at least once in a while, while being alone. Without it, you (at least that’s how it was for me) start to see the world as a first-person computer game. You watch it as if it were a movie, but, although you do everything properly, you don’t feel like a participant in the events. Losing one’s self is already an almost inevitable side effect of being forced to move abroad, and now it is becoming dangerously rapid.
In short, libraries are our everything. Especially in this one, I’ve been surprisingly lucky: the writing is easy, and the people who seemed like projects everyone should stop with are in touch (the main thing is that they’re alive and well, but work is good too), and yes, this is where I found Katherine and Ian, which is one of the most important luck I’ve had so far.
Found it – not, of course, in the sense of “met in the reading room.” It was just from here, the first time I monitored the database where those willing to help refugees with house-sitting were posting offers, that I read an ad for a small studio over a garage in the household of a retired English couple. And I wrote honestly everything as it is: I am here with two children on a family visa, but with relatives agreed that I will not sit on their heads and soon (this “soon” has already passed) will start something to rent independently. So I’m looking for options. And there are not so many of them (or rather, there just aren’t), because the lease agreement should be signed for a year at once, and I hope that the war will end sooner, besides, our family is forcibly recommended by the agencies to rent two-bedroom apartments, and for us here it’s too fat for us…. And, of course, she added, I understand that you probably would like to help someone who will come from Ukraine directly to you, and it is strange for us, since we are already safe, to ask for something, especially since the state will not pay you extra for us, but if you agree for a reasonable fee.
The reply came instantly: “We would be very happy if we could be of service. Come and meet us.
We arrived and…we became friends. That rare occasion when strangers are suddenly, across multiple positions, on the same page with you. The only times we are conflicted is when I try to pay for what they do for us just a little bit more and they resist and try to take less.
Catherine and Ian have been together for 45 years. Both came from poor working families, both grew up in very difficult conditions, but managed to keep a lot of good memories of that time and pass on to their children and grandchildren a strong belief that childhood should be happy. And if someone somewhere – whether it’s right under their house or in a faraway country – is trying to ruin children’s lives, they can’t stay away. Not out of posturing, not for the sake of karma, but simply because otherwise they would feel very uncomfortable. And that’s impressive. I, as you may recall, need a full-length mirror to keep from losing myself, and people, here – need to put refugees in with them….
And they talk about it like it’s a given. Well, they say that here in England, for everyone they know, such decisions are one aspect of a healthy lifestyle. In order not to get physically ill, pensioners go jogging or practice yoga, and to minimize the heartache from some world injustice – do good deeds. Or rather, they don’t even call them kind. They don’t call it anything – they just do it, that’s all.
Yes, I realize that is not everyone’s opinion and not always. In local Ukrainian groups I have seen both cautious “the sponsor has sudden health problems, we are urgently looking for new hosts”, and frank “the sponsor said that they don’t need us, where do we turn?”, and funny “we were informed that the six months for which we have been provided with house-sitting ends in five months, which means that we need to start looking for our rent tomorrow”… Not to mention the difficulties of mutual understanding in the family of almost everyone who went to live with relatives. Psychologists, of course, will later defend a mass of dissertations on the subject of communication between the refugees of this war and those who tried to help them. Globally, “we are responsible for those we took in” as well as “thank you, we are forever indebted to you now and will indulge you in everything” can push so hard as to intoxicate any relationship. Well, locally what I see is what I see: a mass of stories of goodness and light.
Remembering about the Ukrainians’ forum, I get distracted from work and go to look at their news. I can’t hold back a skeptical chuckle: it turns out that the town where I live is home to the county’s famous Soothsayer (that’s how they spell it – with a capital letter). On the advice of her English friends, one girl has already signed up for a divination session with him and recommends him to us. This Wizard even has social media groups organized by local admirers, to whom he has correctly guessed everything…
I don’t believe in such things, of course. I followed the link just out of curiosity and was stunned when I saw the photo of the praised Predictor: it’s my street guardian!
At the same moment, involuntarily glancing out the window, I see that he is just passing by the library… I don’t know what glitches at this moment in my praised realism, but I, dropping everything – and the laptop, and the unfinished order, and the blouse, which I was going to try on in the bathroom – regarded it as a sign from heaven and started in pursuit.
– Excuse me, wait, it’s very important! – and now I’m yelling at what must be the whole town. – I know you can guess, and I have one question! Stop! – and after a two-block run, I stop him. – Tell me… Except don’t laugh. It’s really super important for me to know this…..
– How interesting,” he says now, smiling enigmatically and shifting into a mysterious but somehow loud whisper. It is evident that it is not the first time he has faced such hysteria and that he has all the necessary theatrical techniques prepared for this case. – Yes, I’m predicting. Actually, for money, but I can do it for you for free. What’s the question? – he lifts his glasses and stares so piercingly that he gets a look right into your soul. – I’m listening to you…
– When will the war in my country end? When will these bastards get off our backs and off our land?
Silent pause. The prophet changes in his face and looks now with genuine bewilderment. After a second, he speaks in a normal timbre:
– Are you out of your mind? I don’t know how I know. I’m not a cheat, to answer such a thing… myself waiting, myself terrified, myself just like everyone else…..
Back to the library, I walked for quite a while and, to keep from crying, laughed mightily.
Almost at the top of my lungs.