It was night. On one side of the street were buses, hundreds of them (they were already preparing to evacuate the town), on the other side were hundreds of fire engines. They’d brought them in from everywhere. The whole street was covered in white foam. We were walking over it, cursing and crying.
On the radio, they announced: ‘The town is being evacuated for three to five days. Bring warm clothes and tracksuits. You’ll be staying in the forests, living in tents.’ People even got excited: a trip to the countryside! We’ll celebrate May Day there. That’ll be something new! They got kebabs ready for the trip, bought bottles of wine. They took their guitars, portable stereos. Everybody loves May Day! The only ones crying were the women whose husbands were ill.
I don’t remember how we got there. It was like I woke up only when I saw his mother: ‘Mum, Vasya’s in Moscow! They took him away in a special plane!’ We finished planting the vegetable plot with potatoes and cabbage, and a week later they evacuated the village! Who could have guessed? Who knew back then? That evening, I began throwing up. I was six months pregnant. I was feeling so awful. At night, I dreamed he was calling my name. While he was still alive, I’d hear him in my dreams: ‘Lyusya! My Lyusya!’ But after he died, he never called my name. Not once. (She cries.) I got up in the morning with the idea of going to Moscow on my own. ‘Where are you off to in your state?’ his mother asked, so upset. They decided his father should get packed too: ‘He’ll go with you.’ They took out all their savings. All their money.
I don’t remember the trip. It’s gone from my memory. In Moscow, we asked the first policeman we found for the hospital the Chernobyl firemen were in, and he told us. I was quite surprised, because they had been scaring us, saying, ‘It’s a state secret, top secret.’
It was Hospital No. 6, at Shchukinskaya metro station.
It was this special radiation hospital and you couldn’t get in without a permit. I slipped the receptionist some money, and she told me to go on in. She told me which floor. I asked someone else, I was begging them. Then there I was, sitting in the office of Dr Guskova, the head of the radiation department. At the time, I didn’t know her name, couldn’t hold anything in my mind. All I knew was I had to see him. Had to find him.
First thing she asked me was: ‘You poor, poor thing. Have you got children?’
How could I tell her the truth? I realized I needed to hide my pregnancy. Or they wouldn’t let me see him! A good thing I was skinny, you couldn’t tell by looking at me.
‘Yes,’ I said.
I thought: ‘I’ve got to say two. If I say one, they still won’t let me in.’
‘A boy and a girl.’
‘As you’ve got two, you probably won’t be having any more babies. Now listen: the central nervous system is severely affected, the bone marrow too.’
‘So, all right,’ I thought, ‘he’ll become a bit excitable.’
‘And another thing: if you start crying, I’ll send you straight out. No hugging or kissing. You mustn’t get close. I’ll give you half an hour.
But I knew I wouldn’t be leaving this place. I wasn’t going anywhere without him. I swore it to myself!
I went in. They were sitting on the bed, playing cards and laughing.
‘Vasya!’ they called to him.
And he turns round and says, ‘Oh no, guys, I’m done for! She’s even found me here!’
He looked so funny, had these size forty-eight pyjamas on, though he was a fifty-two. The sleeves and legs were too short. But the swelling had gone down on his face. They were giving them these fluids by a drip.
‘What’s all this, eh? Why are you done for?’ I asked.
He wanted to hug me.
‘Sit right back down.’ The doctor wouldn’t allow him near me.
‘No cuddling here.’
Somehow we turned it into a joke. At that point everyone came running over, even from the other wards. All our guys from Pripyat. Twenty-eight of them had been flown here. They wanted to know what was happening back home. I told them they’d begun an evacuation, the whole town was being moved out for three to five days. The guys went quiet. There were two women as well. One had been on reception duty the day of the accident, and she started crying. ‘Oh my God! My children are there. What will happen to them?’
I wanted to be alone with him, just for a minute or two. The guys picked up on it, each made some excuse and they went out into the corridor. Then I hugged him and kissed him. He backed away.
‘Don’t sit near me. Use the chair.’
‘Oh, all this is silly,’ I told him, waving it off. ‘Did you see where the blast was? What happened? You were the first ones there.’
‘Most likely sabotage. Somebody must have done it deliberately. That’s what all the guys reckon.’
It was that everyone was saying. What they thought at the time.
When I came the next day, they were all in separate rooms. They were strictly forbidden to go out in the corridor or mill about with each other. So they tapped on the walls: dot-dash, dot-dash, dot. The doctors explained that each person’s body reacts differently to radiation exposure, and what one person can take would be too much for another. Inside their rooms, even the walls were off the scale. To the left, the right and the floor below they moved everyone out, not one patient stayed. The floors above and below them were empty.
I stayed three days with some friends in Moscow. They told me to take a pot, a bowl, to help myself, not be shy. Amazing people! I made turkey broth for six men. Six of our guys. Firemen on the same shift, the ones on duty that night: Vashchuk, Kibenok, Titenok, Pravik and Tishchura. I picked up toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap for them all at the shops. They had none of that in the hospital. I bought them some little towels. Looking back, I’m amazed at my friends – of course they were frightened, they had to be, what with all the rumours flying, but they still said to take what I needed. They asked how he was doing, how all of them were doing. Would they live? Would they . . . (She is silent.) At the time, I met so many good people, can’t even remember them all. The whole world shrank to a dot. There was just him. Nothing but him . . . I remember one orderly, she taught me: ‘Some illnesses are incurable. You just have to sit and stroke their hands.’
Early in the morning, I’d set out to the market, then back to my friends to boil up some broth. Grated everything, chopped it fine, ladled it out into portions. One man asked me to bring him an apple. I had six half-litre jars to carry to the hospital. Always for six men! Stayed there till the evening. And then back again to the other end of town. How long could I keep it up? But on the fourth day, they told me I could stay in the hotel for medical staff in the hospital grounds. My God, what a blessing!
‘But there’s no kitchen. How will I cook for them?’
‘You won’t need to do any more cooking. Their stomachs have started rejecting food.’
He began changing: every day, I found a different person. His burns were coming to the surface. First these little sores showed up inside his mouth and on his tongue and cheeks, then they started growing. The lining of his mouth was peeling off in these white filmy layers. The colour of his face … The colour of his body … It went blue. Red. Greyish-brown. But it was all his precious, darling body! You can’t describe it! There are no words for it! It was too much to take. What saved me was how fast it was all happening, I didn’t have time to think or cry.
I loved him so much! I had no idea how badly I loved him! We were just married, couldn’t get enough of each other. We’d walk down the street and he’d grab me in his arms and spin me round. And cover me in kisses. The people passing would smile.
He spent fourteen days in the Clinic for Acute Radiation Sickness. It takes fourteen days to die.
On that first day in the hotel, they took readings from me. My clothing, bag, purse, shoes – they were all ‘scorching’. So they took the lot away from me on the spot. Even my underwear. They only left me my money. They gave me a hospital gown to put on instead, but it was a size fifty-six – I’m a forty-four – and the slippers were size forty-three, not my thirty-seven. They said I might get my clothing back, or maybe not, they doubted it could be ‘cleaned’. So I showed up looking like that. It gave him a fright: ‘My God, what’s happened to you?’
I came up with a way to cook broth. I put an electric water heater in a glass jar and threw in tiny pieces of chicken. Very finely chopped. Then someone gave me a pot. I think it was the cleaning lady or the hotel attendant. Someone gave a chopping board, which I used for cutting parsley. In that hospital gown I couldn’t go to the market, so someone bought me the parsley. But it was all a waste of time, he couldn’t even drink. Couldn’t swallow a raw egg. And I wanted to give him something tasty! As though it might help him.
I ran to the post office: ‘Please, ladies, I have to call my parents in Ivano-Frankovsk urgently. My husband is dying.’ Somehow they guessed right away where I was from and who my husband was and they put me straight through. My father, sister and brother flew to Moscow the same day. They brought me my things and some cash.
It was 9 May. He’d always said to me: ‘You have no idea how beautiful Moscow is! Specially on Victory Day, when they have the fireworks. I want to show it to you.’ I was sitting next to him in the room, he opened his eyes: ‘Is it day or night?’
‘Nine in the evening.’
‘Open the window! The fireworks will be starting!’
I opened the window. We were on the eighth floor, the whole city spread out before us! A bouquet of fire shot into the sky. ‘Wow, that’s something!’
‘I promised that I’d show you Moscow. I promised that I’d always give you flowers for every holiday.’
I turned round and he pulled three carnations from behind his pillow. He’d given some money to a nurse to buy them.
I ran over and kissed him. ‘My darling! My true love!’
He grumbled, ‘What did the doctors say? No hugging me! No kissing!’
They’d forbidden me to cuddle him or stroke him. But I lifted him and positioned him on the bed. Smoothed the bed sheets for him, took his temperature, brought the bedpan, then took it away. Wiped him down. All night long, I was close by. Watching over every move he made, every sigh.
It’s a good job it happened in the corridor and not in his room. I started feeling dizzy and grabbed on to the windowsill. A doctor was walking past, he took hold of my arm. And suddenly he asked: ‘You’re pregnant?’
‘No, no!’ I was terrified that someone would hear us.
‘Don’t pretend,’ he said, with a sigh.
I was so shaken that I didn’t manage to ask him to keep quiet.
The next day, I was called to the head of the department.
‘Why did you trick us?’ she asked harshly.
‘I had no way out. If I’d told you the truth, you’d have sent me home. It was a little white lie!’
‘What on earth have you done!’
‘But I’m by his side . . .’
‘You poor, poor thing!
Till my dying day, I’ll be grateful to Dr Guskova.
The other wives also came, but they weren’t allowed in. The mothers were with me: they let the mothers in. Vladimir Pravik’s mother kept begging God, ‘Take me instead.’
Dr Gale, this American professor. He did the bone marrow transplant. He comforted me, saying there was hope, maybe not much, but with his strong body, such a hefty guy, we still had a chance. They sent for all his family. Two sisters came from Belarus, and his brother from Leningrad, where he was serving in the army. Natasha, the younger one, was just fourteen, she was crying a lot and frightened. But her bone marrow was the best match. (She falls silent.) I’m able to talk about it now. Before, I couldn’t. I kept quiet for ten years. Ten years . . . (She is silent.)
When he found out the bone marrow would be from his little sister, he flat out refused: ‘No, I’d rather die. Leave her alone, she’s just a kid.’ His older sister, Lyuda, was twenty-eight, she was a nurse and knew what she was going into. ‘I just want him to live,’ she was saying. I watched the operation. They were lying side by side on the table. The operating theatre had a big window. It lasted two hours. When they’d finished, Lyuda was worse off than him, she had eighteen puncture holes in her chest and had a rough time coming round. And she’s in poor shape now, she’s registered disabled … Used to be this beautiful, strong woman. She never got married. So I was rushing from one ward to the other, from his bedside to hers. By then, he wasn’t in an ordinary ward, they’d put him in this special pressure chamber, behind a see-through plastic curtain, which you weren’t allowed past. It was specially equipped so you could give injections and insert catheters without having to go behind the plastic. It was all sealed off with locks and velcro, but I worked out how to open them up. I’d quietly move aside the plastic and sneak in to see him. In the end, they just put a little chair for me by his bed. He got so bad that I couldn’t leave his side. He kept calling my name: ‘Lyusya, where are you? My Lyusya!’ He called over and over. The pressure chambers for the rest of our guys were being looked after by soldiers, because the orderlies were refusing and demanding protective clothing. The soldiers took out the bedpans, they mopped the floors, changed the sheets. Took full care of them. Where had these soldiers come from? I didn’t ask. I only saw him. Nothing but him . . . And each day I’d hear: ‘This one’s died, that one’s died.’ Tishchura died. Titenok died. ‘Died …’ It was like a hammer hitting your head.