Marek Dluski-Miziura

CLAIRE HAMILTON — CREATIVE WRITINGThe pen is mightier than the sword

The Wolves of Pluto
by Marek Dluski-Miziura

A hurried striking on the cottage door pulled me squarely awake. I’d been aware of noise, voices, the crunching of vehicles - so unusual in my village at night that I thought it must be a dream. My bedroom door flew open.
    ‘Don’t worry Irenka darling, but we must go. Quickly let’s get you dressed!’ Mother started packing my clothes into an old bag.
    ‘What to take, the soldiers said take nothing but what we will wear if I take nothing?’
    Mother is much shaken, I was thinking as I quickly pulled on trousers and jumper over pyjamas.
     Father came in heavily, picked up the bag and me and silently ushered mother down the stairs. Outside were bright lights, shouting, crying, the whole village being told to board three grey buses; engines rattling in the cold night air.
    ‘You are being taken to a hostel in Pinsk. Stay calm please, this is a precaution only, you will return soon’.
     I caught sight of my school friend Peter, sat on his sister’s knee two rows in front of me.
     ‘Wojcek!’ Peter shrieked remembering his family’s old cat.
    I, too, shed guilty tears realizing my own pet dog had been left behind.
    Little of the harsh journey, through the cold night stayed fixed in my mind, except for the strange glowing cloud and my father’s bitter sobbing.
     ‘Janeus! Stop, you must be strong, for the child, please stopping this spectacle!’ Mother had implored.

At journey’s end our nightmare got much worse. Stripped of all clothes and possessions then made to scrub in warm showers for an hour. The stark reality of this surreal situation was rammed home to me.
     Through the weeks spent in the rundown hostel, with its damp beds and poor food, I received no reassurance from my morose and silent parent. Mother did her best to keep our spirits up: ‘This is only for short while; the authorities will sort something for us soon,’ she uttered every day.
     ‘Daddy smells funny! Like Peter’s Granddad used to!’ I blurted to mother after several weeks. ‘No, no! The smell must be from the kitchens, the toilets, all of these people in here together.’ The grandparent in question had been an alcoholic and the comparison had hurt her. Her distress made me feel ashamed. But it’s not my fault he’s a drunk…..
    Daddy daddy why are you falling apart, we need you to be strong….. The sudden chill of loneliness tore my heart.
     ‘You can never return to your village!’
     That was the stark information that would not be ignored.
     Months later I came to understand why. Why my world had had to change so radically. It was the ‘plant’, as my father always called the place he went to work. Always coming home smelling strangely, acidy. A terrible disaster! Explosion! Radiation! Words I didn’t understand. But that my life would never be the same, never as happy. This was all too clear.

***

‘The Controller is in conference, he cannot see you.’
     ‘I’ll wait here until I can speak to him. This is of vital importance.’
     Vladimir had refused to be moved by the overbearing secretary and he hammered on the office door. He sprang back as the door opened. Vladimir took his chance and burst into the office.
    ‘What is the meaning?’ spluttered the Controller of operations.
    ‘You have ordered a test tomorrow, on No. 4 reactor, which necessitates disabling critical control systems, including the automated shutdown safety mechanisms.’ Vladimir said loudly, attempting to steady his nerve in front of this important man.
     ‘You are a section head at No4, am I right.’
     Vladimir nodded as the man quickly went on:
     ‘It is not your place to question me, the Director. There are procedures for you to go through,’
     ‘I have tried telling them; they will not listen. It is dangerous, incredibly dangerous.’ Vladimir cut in.
     ‘A test like this should only be contemplated when the fuel rods are new.’
     Holding a hand up the controller continued:
    ‘Moscow wants to know; how long the turbines will keep spinning, keep producing power if the electricity supply is off line. Your superiors who are in charge of the reactors assure me this test has been done before. Before my time here it is true.’
     ‘There have been near disasters before! At the same type of reactor.’
     Vladimir desperately tried to get his fears across.
     ‘How do you know this? Such matters are top secret.’
     Vladimir realized his dilemma too late. If he gave away the source of his information, he was certain both he and his friend in Kharkov would spend years in a prison camp.
     Losing patience the Director shouted: ‘Let me remind you there are procedures to bring about your dismissal and…’ he stressed,  ‘there could be far worse consequences should you continue to voice your alarm.’
     ‘But director you must know what could happen, we cannot take the risk!’ Vladimir implored shaking slightly.
 ‘I can have you arrested now if you persist.’
Vladimir stood in silence.
 ‘Good then report back to your section, preparations are already underway.’

Vladimir had in fact finished his shift at 10.pm. Never the less it was to the control centre at No. 4 that he went instead of home. He knew long before he reached his destination that things were quickly becoming desperate. He was met by the deafening sound of the emergency klaxons and by a stream of running operatives. He grabbed the arm of one he recognised and pulled him to a halt.
     ‘What is happening?’
     He needed to shout very loudly to be heard.
     ‘The flow of the coolant water slowed down but the power has begun to increase. No one seems to know what to do, We have tried to shut down the reactor but a domino effect is happening, it’s going to melt-down. We must save ourselves; get to our families.’
     No! It can’t! It will be Hiroshima! No it will be  worse! Absolute terror paralyzed Vladimir. The man seized him by the arm and dragged him to the exit.
     Pandemonium met the two men as hundreds filled the car park. Finally Vladimir reached the gate.
     ‘Listen carefully; everything happening here is of the utmost secrecy. You speak to no one of matters here. Do you understand?’
    ‘Yes Sir.’
    ‘Good, you must collect your family and report to the barracks in Kiev, OK.’
     Vladimir nodded his understanding. The officer indicated the barrier could be raised and the frantic engineer sped to his home.

Home for Vladimir and his wife and daughter was a smart apartment in the new town of Pripyat, 5 Km From the nuclear plant. With its up to date amenities, the town was a Mecca for the Chernobyl elite.
     His whole being in complete shock, Vlad threw the Moskvich along the highway towards his home, his mind sending shockwaves from the top of his skull to his arms and legs, which jumped from his control.
     Only three kilometres gained, he heard and felt the explosion. The 1000 ton concrete cap on reactor No4 had been blown off and the inrushing  air had caused a ferocious and deadly firestorm. Vladimir and the car kept going. Before long a grey dust was covering the windscreen, making seeing the road difficult; attempts to clear it with the washers just made things worse. Before he realized it, he was at his home. The whole town was in darkness but an unreal glowing cloud hung over the reactor five kilometres away.
     ‘Marisia! Magda!’
     Vladimir frantically roused his wife and daughter.
     ‘Vlad for god’s sake, what is happening?’
     With one arm around a terrified Magda, she reached the other toward her husband. He did not respond; just stood a moment, incapable of speech.
     Slowly the facts were drawn from him and Marisia saw it was she who must take control. As his wife quickly dressed and packed a bag, Vladimir roused a little.
     ‘I was told to take us to Kiev, to report to the army barracks there. We cannot take the highway through Chernobyl. We must go either west to Rivne and then south. But that’s not far enough, we must get further away.’
     He knew a plan must be worked out to get to his family in Odessa, but would they be safe even 1000 Km away?
     Outside Marisia asked him should she drive. Vladimir nodded his head.
     The worst of the deadly fallout was at that point being blown northeast to engulf a huge part of Belorussia, whose border lay just 1 Km away.

One hour later the family joined the highway and were heading south. Convoys of Army trucks were trundling northward. The spring morning that was slowly coming to light, gave them the sensation that they were driving toward the rising sun and safety; giving the lie to the invisible poison around them. As they approached the capital streams of empty buses and coaches could be seen going in the opposite direction. Marisia pulled into a service station to buy a map of the city; they didn’t know exactly where the Army barracks was situated.
     When handed his coffee and a sandwich Vlad said:
     ‘How everything can seem so normal here, surely the authorities are warning of the danger? This catastrophe could affect people for thousands of miles.’
     Weeping and spilling hot coffee he sobbed:
     ‘I tried to tell them. No one would listen. I knew from Zibigiew that this could happen if the rods were old, too unstable. I should have done more; made that Director see sense instead of …’
     He threw his sandwich, then when calmer said to Marisia:
     ‘Looking around it seems difficult to believe it isn’t just a terrible dream.’
     ‘But the Army wagons and all the empty buses. Something must be happening. Should we wake Magda or let her sleep a little longer?’ Marisia murmured. But Magda stirred by herself.
     ‘Good morning darling, here eat some breakfast.’
     Magda ate in silence as they drove to the barracks. Although the flight in the night had been very frightening; looking out at the bright spring morning and seeing the people behaving – well, normally. Nothing could be badly wrong could it? I’m with Mummy and Daddy it’s OK, she told herself as she fed little bits of sandwich to her puppy snuggled beside her on the rear seat of the car.

***

As summer came to the marshes of Belorussia, in my village of Mazyr, Peter’s old cat and my little dog roamed the deserted lanes. They joined the occasional skirmish for food with other sick and abandoned pets. There was no scarcity of things to eat but all was contaminated.
     My father Jan was an unskilled worker at Chernobyl. He travelled to work every day on a factory bus which collected workers from the poor villages of southern Belorussia.
Not for these workers the new apartments, and smart Danish furniture enjoyed by the highly paid technicians at Chernobyl. Badly trained and poorly motivated the maintenance crews were less the backbone, more the broken bone of the establishment.  
My village was part of what would become 4,000 sq km of abandoned wasteland. Too contaminated for human occupation for 600 yrs no 900 yrs; experts would argue in years to come. Wolves and wild boar would flourish here in a short while, taking over the empty cottages and shops.
     Mother had eked out the family budget by growing fruit and vegetables and tending to our own hens and geese; a tiny portion of a vast harvest lost forever.
 
                                                                   ***

Father could wait no longer. He stirred himself long enough to arrange for me to live with his sister Zosia in Brest. My unmarried aunt had always loved me and willingly took me on.
     Zosia knew we could have fun and she was determined to spoil me. Where my parents went to live was never clear to me. Their visits became less frequent with time.
     Sadly, my health soon became Zosia’s main concern. My headaches got much worse and I was often sick, but it was the fits and blurred vision that made me panic. Life grew to a grind of one awful test after another. Each clinic more overrun than the last, the doctors more distracted. I knew I was really ill. I didn’t understand any of the words that people told me. I did know that the needles stuck in me, hurt an awful lot and I was certain the medicine was making me more ill. When my hair began to fall out I didn’t want to leave the house, even on the days I felt well enough.
     What is that? It sounds very frightening
     I shuddered, when told I needed radiotherapy.
     It took Aunty Zosia and me two hours to get to the forbidding grey clinic in Lvov.
     What a cold white room. What a strange machine
     My head was clamped at the end of the hard black bench. Red goggles placed tightly over my eyes.
     ‘Slunk.. Tt..  Slunk…Tt..’
     The machine clicked, making a ghostly robotic progress around me.
     ‘A laser beam,’ the doctor had said, only frightening me more. After half an hour a bright young nurse told me: ‘You will need the same, every day, for six weeks.’
     ‘OK.’  I replied quietly.

After the first week, I was already feeling drained. There were times in that week I wanted to give up; the pain in my head was unrelenting. But Zosia made them give me more morphine. As my pain eased, a little of my fight restored a little.
     ‘Is it very painful?’ the blond girl of about the same age asked me quietly.
I had always been shy and the few friends from my tiny village were now gone from my life. My six days experience of the treatment that the other girl was just about to begin, made me feel that I must show bravery and kindness to this stranger. It was a sudden thrill to realize I wasn’t just going to show courage; I could be the brave one!
‘No don’t worry you won’t feel anything. The noise is frightening the first time that’s all. They ought to tell us about it before hand; I guess this place is just so busy, there isn’t time. I suppose it’s like sunburn that gets a little worse everyday. My name is Irenka. As you can see one side-effect is the same as chemo.’
     Smiling, I gingerly put a hand to my head. My hair had again started to fall out, but this time, only on one side. My head was sore, and needed soothing with a cool white cream.
‘I’m Magda. The nurse has just told me I must come here everyday for a month. Will you be here everyday as well? I hope you will be. Sorry I don’t mean I hope you have to be; I just …’
     ‘It’s fine!’
     I grinned
     ‘Yes, I’ll be here, I’ve got another five weeks.’
     ‘Thank you,’ mouthed the beautiful lady, holding Magda’s hand.
     We met everyday except Sundays and soon became close friends, promising to write each other when our treatment ended.

It was after several tense and exhausting months that a smiling doctor told me, ‘You are now clear’.
     ‘Does that mean no more poison or burning?’ I’d asked.
     ‘For now yes, you can go back to school and start to have some fun,’ the doctor grinned.

Years later, I came to understand, it wasn’t often doctors could say those words to many of the children of Chernobyl.

home | about claire hamilton | courses | what students say | stories |books | links | TOP OF PAGE ©2008 C. Hamilton