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You Don’t Ever See The One With Your Name On It

by Justin Robinson, translated by Katya K.

© copyright Justin Robinson  email:

Your daughter said you were prepared for anything. But then she was asleep when you woke with a start, shaking to the sound of violent bangs and a constant rumbling. Then sirens. No-one teaches these sounds but you knew it was the start of a real nightmare – your eyes wide open in the darkness. Stumbling for the light in your nightie, racing to your daughter’s room. Telling her to “get up” as another crack smacked some building in the city. Your daughter was sleepy: “Why are you waking me? It’s still dark. I’m going back to sleep.”


What did you say to her? She claims you were calm and gave precise instructions. The war had started and, logically, she must now get washed and dressed quickly and collect her things to be ready to leave in an hour. Your daughter says she did what she was told…almost. “What about the homework that I spent hours completing last night?” She insisted it must be given to her teacher or taken to school. And you were firm – it was not going to be given to the teacher because you had to leave in an hour. You apologised to your daughter who was waking up and pulled a grumpy face. “What a waste of my time!” she said. With that announcement, her own war began.


And so your planning went into effect. Some clothes already in a bag – a change of everything, warm socks and extra underwear. Soap, one torch, a knife and spoon. Documents ready – papers giving you, her mother, written permission to leave the country with her, your daughter. How did you know this would be important?  A towel and a small first-aid kit with a couple of bandages. Your work laptop and hers – with chargers and two spare batteries for your mobile. One small photo each of your family members. Your mother’s engagement ring. Just in case. A time capsule for a black night without an end.


It was only when you nearly forgot the medicine your hands started trembling. You were scolding yourself. You had discussed the possibility of attack from Belorussia but never actually believed that was a serious option. Even the Belorussians wouldn’t allow that! So you thought. And there you were dropping pill boxes that fell onto the bathroom floor from the cabinet and pain medicine that bounced into the sink. Why hadn’t you packed this already? And your husband visiting his parents – why wasn’t he here? No signal either! And then calling out to your daughter in a voice that was rather tense – was she ready and standing by the door with her warm boots? And definitely not her pink trainers!


And she was standing there, obedient but wide-eyed, with an armful of books and a carrier bag full of toys. No, these must all stay. Perhaps just one book and one souvenir - of your home. We must leave now. Right now! And you gambled on the elevator instead of the stairs in your apartment building; not a considered choice, just running in – the sounds of shouting in the stairwell, another rumble in the city and the wail of the sirens that you hadn’t really registered before. The cold night air slapped you in the face. The cans full of fuel in the boot of the car – your nephew arriving so you can drive him to safety. And you never pray but, by Christ, you were relieved when the car started!


It was a strange kind of silence in the car. Outside, it was guns booming in the distance and emergency vehicles wailing. Dawn was still some way off and there were lights and blackness all jumbled up. You decided not to switch the radio on – it would be panic-stricken and upset the kids.


And your daughter said you were still calm. Even when she told you she was hungry. And because you didn’t hear her, she told you again. And you glanced at her in the mirror like she was crazy. At the traffic lights, you turned and stared at her. She didn’t understand the look on your face and scowled back instinctively. You took a long breath and more gently asked her to be patient.


There was no food packed – nothing. You forgotten food. Any of it. All of it. It was sitting in the cupboard, useless now. How was that possible - when you had thought about everything else? It was lonely without your husband. Perhaps not his comments about your driving. The kids napped in the back as you queued or slowed even on the fast roads in an endless convoy of cars heading west with the sky turning steel grey behind you. A kind of smoky haze hiding everything so that it was like grey liquid bleeding into the sky.


Then suddenly it was half daylight, gloomy but the roads even busier and your kids asking to go to the toilet. Then a strange splitting sound from the sky - a black object like a small jet streaked past crossing over to your left. You thought to tell the girls it was some kind of rocket. Why on earth would you do that? Why didn’t that make you afraid? Just intensely angry. They napped fitfully.


There was a long queue at the next service station but you pulled over. Get out girls, go to the toilet and buy whatever food you can with this!” Your daughter looked at the money in disbelief. “Yes, do it - anything that you can eat”. She returned with two pot noodles, packets of biscuits, bars of chocolate, sweets. Apparently, everything else had been cleared from the shelves. She was smiling. Smiling! A plastic bag full of sweets like it was Halloween.


You finally found a signal on your phone and reached your parents and told them your plan to leave the country. Dad begged you not to leave the country but your mind was set. He was obviously crying and that annoyed you. He said, “If we panic, they win”. But he was the one who was panicked.


Your husband came through on another line and checked you really were ok. He said he loved you. His voice was strangely sensible and reassuring. His question was kind. He was more sensible than you expected. It was oddly comforting to think you had him, still, somewhere in all this chaos.


And no, Kyiv hadn’t fallen yet and many men were being mobilised. You looked at the girls slumped in the back seat under a blanket. A twelve-year old daughter and her ten-year old friend. And you were angry about forgetting the food. You couldn’t eat anything from the bag of sweets, the thought of eating anything made you feel sick.


The queue slowed and then two men in uniform suddenly stepped forwards and pointed to you to pull over. It was only then you suddenly thought – whose army was this? Is it possible they are Russians? There were no flags! Your heart pounded – until you saw the trident on their arm patches. They beckoned impatiently to wind your window down and the kids both sat up behind you. You were told to give someone a ride to the next town. And suddenly a strange man was climbing into the passenger seat shoving himself in awkwardly. You grabbed the bag of sweets from the seat. He cramming into the seat with his layers of uniform, a thick khaki woolly hat, a huge pack in his lap and a long rifle banging on the dashboard as he cradled it by his knees.


He turned and stared at you in a cloud of breath and a gust of cold air. His face was pale and stubbly, his teethe a little crooked and his ears red with chill. His dark eyes seemed so close, too close. He didn’t buckle up. Just grunted something. He looked at you clutching a large bag of sweets and frowned slightly. You didn’t like him at all. He smelled of damp clothes. He seemed as old as your father; or perhaps he just looked old. And why the hell were you holding so many sweets?! You tossed them at your daughter in the back seat.


You grasped the wheel, looked ahead and told him to buckle up; he just stared ahead through the windscreen. You told him again rather loudly; he turned suddenly and you flinched. The car was cold and it seemed to radiate from him. Then his face softened slightly and he looked embarrassed and you realised he was not as old, perhaps in his early fifties. He pulled his gloves off clumsily and struggled with the seatbelt. And then you noticed. His hands were trembling slightly. You were annoyed all over again. But you felt in charge as you pulled away. And you vaguely heard you daughter politely offer him a sweet. These sweets!


You asked him if he was mobilised. He said he expected to be mobilised and decided to leave because he couldn’t stand waiting now that his wife had left with the kids. He was being sent to set up a checkpoint with whatever weapons could be found. They had no idea when the Russians would arrive but all roads to Kyiv were being guarded or even closed altogether. And his voice was not unlike your husband’s; strangely quiet and rasping slightly like after a bit of a party. You were grateful he didn’t smell of alcohol. His rifle stood in his fist, metallic and deadly, filling your car with menace. And you so you drove on in silence.


Queuing almost everywhere, you closed your eyes for a split second and it was black, a button resetting you in stillness. For a moment, you felt you were completely on your own and it was a relief. Then back to the dizzying shapes of cars and people dragging bags, cases and plastic bags to and fro almost aimlessly along pavements. Staring at the road and bending your head to scan the sky. Hearing nothing except the rumble of cars, shouted voices, even some kind of artillery or God knows what.


The sun was showing weakly from behind but everything looked grey. You were getting tired and started to imagine rockets arriving like crows. And actual crows were flying all over the place, catching the wind and wheeling in the sky – they seemed like huge creatures, not just crows. Suddenly he spoke. “No need to watch for them; you don’t ever see the one with your name on it.”


And you gripped the wheel and drove, hating everything, no end to this. Soon enough it was time to let him get out. Sandbags, cars, some kind of makeshift structures blocking the road. A few men with bundled weapons, stamping in the chill, some just in jeans and breathing clouds into the gloom. He paused before he got out and offered gruffly to pay you for the ride. It took you a moment to understand what the hell he was talking about. You looked at his face for the second time in amazement at what he had said. He was apologetic, embarrassed and patiently waiting for a reply. He looked sad, lost, even frail.


Eventually you said: “Don’t be so stupid!” Then a bit more kindly and because you couldn’t help some tears welling up in your eyes. “Just take care of yourself. Please just….live”. He threw you a startled glance and was suddenly gone. And there it was. A token of affection from nowhere. A small knot connecting you to this man you’d never met before and never would again. A blessing to live. And you pulled away rather suddenly and didn’t look back. It was hard not to weep but you needed to see the damned road melting in front of you.


And twelve months later in a foreign country your daughter recounted the flight from hell and said you didn’t eat for two whole days. And she said again how amazing you were. But that doesn’t help much. She still doesn’t properly realise that you had left something else behind that you really cherished.  It was your life as you knew it. As you wanted it back then. And her life too. Suddenly lost on a dark, cold night among rockets and a large bag of sweets that nobody wanted.

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