On 31 of January a man was nearly run over in a car park. He could not speak English, but lucky for him, a senior manager of a certain Black Country town cared enough to make sure he was ok. The manager fetched me quickly – the Russian speaking member of his team -and pleaded anxiously- “tell him I am sorry and ask him if he needs anything”
From that moment onwards, Vladimir’s and my lives intertwined. He spoke to me about his political activity in Russia, how he used to be a good friend with late Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian anti-establishment journalist whose murder remains unsolved to this day. He spoke to me of the 1990s, the years full of hope, when he set up an independent newspaper in St. Petersburg, of his acquaintance with Vaclav Havel and Milos Zeman and many other dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe.
He drunk black tea and ate some toasts (he had to stay off cakes being recently diagnosed with diabetes). I helped him to polish his asylum case – which he found so difficult to put together as his English was very weak. I heard all about his substandard accommodation provided by G4S and of his unpleasant flatmates and of the humble £37 he gets very week to support himself of which he attempts to make some ‘savings’.
He told me of his time in exile in Germany, halted by Angela Merkel’s deal with Putin which meant repatriation of all political asylum-seekers back to Russia only recently. And of his difficult return to his homeland which brought nothing else but suspicion and stigma, followed by systematic persecution and bullying by local authorities, Police and courts, denying him pension and citizenship rights. I wondered, what it must take for someone to immigrate again, so late in life – in their 70s. How desperate one has to feel to fight for dignity and freedom after having failed so many times before.
It was another cold snap in Black Country, the Northerly wind was blowing, as they say on the news, with the dandruff type of snow falling all Friday. Vladimir spent the whole morning in a library and then came to see me. He asked if I could call his solicitor . It’s not my job – I could say, but he insisted. He had another appointment at Immigration Office, Leeds and wanted to make sure his paperwork was in order. He wanted his solicitor to accompany him.
I looked at him and he was not his usual self, I could tell, although I only knew him for a while. “You look a bit different”, I said, “your eyes are yellow and so is your face”. He complained of his stomach pain and lack of sleep, profuse sweating and many other ailments. But after a while, we brushed all this under the carpet, being concerned only with his case…we threw ourselves in further paperwork, considering his options.
Until about 4 o’clock when his state has deteriorated and I suggested to take him into an A&E. He resisted it and now I know it was because deep down he must have known. We reported at the reception and luckily the waiting room was relatively empty. The receptionist agreed with me that he was “very jaundiced” and they took us in shortly. There were some women outside laughing – maybe because their suspected diagnoses turned out not to be so detrimental or they simply felt good about the Friday afternoon. We will never know….
The truth is…I had to leave Vladimir there on that Friday evening, barely managing to explain to the medics that he was suffering from a long list of digestive complaints, constipation including. After all, I had to go to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see the highly acclaimed 7 Acts of Mercy, never mind I could barely perform only one of them…???
As my weekend progressed and I visited the Swan Theatre in Stratford, my first visit to a theatre in 10 years – my mind was wandering to Vladimir and that little corner in Manor Hospital where they took his bloods ( missing his vein entirely and making a proper mess of it).
Later on in the weekend, after the Sunday roast was cleaned up, the ironing was done and we even managed to talk to our relatives on Skype I had a phone call: “It’s pancreatic cancer”, Vladimir said with repeated hiccups. They said there was nothing they could do. I am kaput”, he concluded. “Could you just bring me the slippers and a laptop from my flat so I can at least watch some Russian movies”.
Silence…followed by silence and then some words of encouragement, instructing him to ask as many questions as possible, not to give up, query the diagnosis, consider the chemo or any other experimental treatment, further investigation, invite an Orthodox priest, contact his family and all the other things we hold on to when someone is faced with a terminal diagnosis.
The clock is ticking and I am wondering whether there are any Russian books in the Walsall Central library. If I should bring him some of mine – Dr. Zhivago may be a bit cliche but what about the Tolstoi’s autobiography I have? Would that be too boring? Or the Quite flows the Don – he may be fed up with all these classics. What movies does he want to see before he dies? Is there anything we can do for him not to die?
There’s some time left – one wonders what to make of it, how to wrap up an unfinished story that seeks justification. How to make sense of this ‘stranger, ‘a wondering soul’ that I have known for so short yet have known so deeply.