WORSE THAN RADIATION
and 7 odd Chernobyl stories
Part 1. The Day
I find Sergeant Katyshev, a round tomato of a face, resting in the shade of No. 91, reclining on his quilted jacket, his shoulders against a huge rubber tyre.
'A-ha, that’s where our three lunches got to!'
'No way, comrade Lieutenant’, Katyshev retorts. ‘Got to restrict my intake.'
'High time, otherwise we'll have order a specially made respirator, size XXXL.'
Katyshev hands me a folded paper — I stuff it into my pocket without a glance — and says, casual like:
'Did you hear, Lieutenant? The Americans have joined the Soviet moratorium. No more nuclear tests.'
'Pull the other one.' Katyshev is a master of the wind-up and a terrific driver. Before call-up, he drove a bus, and at first the horribly restricted vision of the armic's windows nearly sent him crazy.
‘No, seriously.’ Katyshev's face is like an offended child. 'It's just been on the radio. They've agreed. At the highest level!’
There's an orange transistor radio just above his head, on the armour next a scratched mess-tin. Playing music.
And I believe him! I believe him because we're in Chernobyl and Katyshev is reposing on 3 milliroentgens hour, and I'm still hot after the NPP... And a happy, lightheaded feeling comes over me, that yes, thank the Lord, there are still wise, thinking people out there... How else, in fact, could it be?
‘He's having you on.' The CO is folding a newspaper as he comes crawling out from under a low plank shelter. ‘And — at the highest level, indeed!’
I'm left to shake my head and glower at Katyshev. He's chuckling away — very pleased with himself.
'Took you long enough today.'
'Some you win, some you lose.'
'We'll be pushed to get out of here now.' The CO looks at his watch. We've missed the best time.
'We'll find a gap. It's our lucky day today. Shall I go first?'
'OK. I'll bring up the rear in 92. Right, move out. Receivers to main frequency! Check communication!'
Now comes the toughest part of a recce: getting out of the zone without being pulled over into the PUSO, or Special Treatment Point, in other words a glorified car wash. The problem is that the armics are horrendously contaminated — nobody, except us, would drive around at the levels we have to, and that day in day out... Because of this, the checkpoint on the highway automatically diverts us into the PUSO without bothering to take a measurement, and half our armics wouldn't even pass after multiple washes — the dust kind of permeates the armour... But what sort of a reconnaissance outfit would we be, if we couldn't bypass the checkpoints! Trouble is we don't have time for detours today — I'm desperate for a shower and they're only open till half seven at the camp...
I tune into the company frequency and stretch out on my padded jacket, listening to the dry crackle of static in my headphones: 'Kolya, wake me up before the PUSO'. I stare up at the hospital-white, slightly dusty roof of the turret and the upholstered machine-gun sight above my head...
"At the highest level"... I wish they'd hold the summit somewhere near here, at the highest levels we've measured! They'd strike a deal in minutes, the zone isn't Geneva, not by a long chalk — you could talk there till kingdom come! They should meet in the bunker under the NPP — low and dank, cramped bunk beds, legs sticking out into the passage... The prospects are almost tangible... During the recesses they could stroll in the woods — the Red Forest. It was known as Yellow Forest back in May, by the autumn it'll probably be Black... A fabulous spot! On the way out we’ll drop in at the PUSO, where the chemical protection crews work twelve-hour shifts in the sun, dressed in rubber from head to foot — rubber boots, overalls and hoods... They have a way with words, extremely graphic and not commonly used in the art of diplomacy... The gentlemen are a trifle sweaty, yes? Then according to instructions — "pull the respirator down away from the chin and pour out the accumulated fluid".... You can freshen up there, too — a huge pond with delightful sandy beaches is at your exclusive disposal. That's what it's called, what's more — the cooling pond...
I bounce up like a jack in the box —
... my head's splitting with pain, molten metal cascades through the square trap-door of a cellar, clouds of dove-grey fumes writhe upwards from the gloom...
What the hell is going on?
'Good stuff, Number 80! You really gave the PUSO the slip!'
Orange sunlight pours through the two tiny square forward windscreens of the sealed armic; dust specks sparkle in the pouring pyramids of light, waves of cigarette smoke waft up them — Kolya and Andrei are both smoking... Hissing from the pain, I rub the top of my head... That blasted machine-gun sight! One of these days it'll kill me — if I don’t demolish it first! A glance at the road — we're past the PUSO already.
'How did you manage that, Kolya?'
'I tucked in close behind a column of KrAZ trucks. The moment they were stopped, I swerved out left and put my foot down — straight up the middle!’
No chance of stopping our armoured column after that... As long as the CO didn't drop us in it — by giving away our number on an open channel... At least he didn't mention me by name. Traffic's still heavy enough, though, so they can hardly catch us even if they did intercept it. As long as they don't stop the ones at the tail.
Kolya pulls out a fraction to check in the mirror through the side triplex: 'Yeah. Everybody.'
'All through,' the CO verifies in the headphones.
I strip off the headphones and switch off the radio.
Mustn't forget to beat the dust off my jacket back in camp...
I'm ravenously hungry. I reach for a cigarette...
Kolya taps out a rhythm on the horn, to stir the orderly — ‘On your feet, boyo! Lift that barrier!’
...Supper is the only normal meal of the day: long-anticipated, leisurely, irrefutable proof that the day is over, and real cheese for the officers. Feet in clean foot cloths, you're in heaven.
'My girlfriend tells me she's already bought the champagne...'
'Yeah, she reckons you're going to give it to her... And you'll be like a limp rag.'
The opposite bench roars with laughter, the tea almost sprays out of their noses.
'Don't take risks, and you'll never drink champagne!'
'Did any of you lot ask for respirators? There's a delivery in today. Ten thousand.'
‘I only need one — for myself..."
'All size two again, no doubt!'
'Didn't you know? They always put size two on top, sizes one and three tucked away at the bottom, same quantity of everything!'
'They were going mad at the PUSO today, making everybody climb out of the armics, drivers as well.'
'A new fad, eh?'
'One of them got crushed. They were hosing down a semi-trailer, the driver knocked it into reverse somehow, the guy doing the washing tried to step back, stumbled over his hose — and the wheels went right over his chest.'
'One more going home in zinc...' Involuntarily everybody has a vision of the hermetically sealed zinc coffin delivered to the family: ‘Killed on active service’...
'I wondered why they had a semi-trailer parked half-way across the road...’
'They've taken two of our armics over to the burial ground.'
'Tomorrow we'll have to go and fetch them back...'
'Forecast's for rain for tomorrow. Not so good!'
'It's great! No dust at the NPP!’
'Get real — rain! This is the third month they've been using planes to disperse the clouds.'
'Sky's clear. It'll be sunny tomorrow.'
'Sun and sand — wine and women...'
‘And a pillar of dust...’
The purplish crimson disc of the sun cuts into the sand flats beyond the road...
Design by: M.Opalev
Studio ARWIS Kharkov, 2001