By toni lashden
Translation: Arch Tait

I am about to write in my crisp, starched language, ‘My peraekhali za odnu noch’, but what does that mean?

Will you understand if I say we got out overnight? If I add with two suitcases? If I add we had to?

Some people say, ‘We couldn’t stay there,’ and then completely change the subject, to the price of food, how to get a visa, where to find a nursery to look after the children. Their talk becomes noise, a covering for a raw, open wound, but you detect a bad smell of discharge and clamp your mouth shut.

I say ‘We’ll have to wait and see when we can go back.’

That’s in a secret Belarusian language which, translated, means ‘There is nowhere to go back to.

We got out overnight.

Actually, I didn’t get out. I went off on holiday.

All the months before the holiday I was scared of being arrested. The fear followed me everywhere.

I was scared, but stayed on in Minsk. I went out for a coffee, met the few remaining people I knew (who had all been fined or imprisoned for a few days for taking part in the protests. I kept wondering why they were not scared, not scared like me). I read books. I read books, wandered round empty museums, went out into the countryside and heard a pulsating silence. (When I got to the forest I lay in a snowdrift, buried myself under snow, pretended to be dead. It was only then the dread backed away, like a predator losing interest. It was only in that icy grave I could at last take deep breaths, only there I felt safe.).

Wherever I was, whoever I was with, I had that fear of being arrested. I talked about it in therapy, I wrote about it in my diary, carrying my fear around like stones in the pockets of my dress, expecting at any moment to drown in my own paranoia.

I told myself if it was going to happen I would already have been arrested, I would already know if I was being spied on. People were being arrested for their comments on the Internet, for wearing the red and white of the old national flag, for looking at cops the wrong way and causing them unendurable emotional distress. People were being arrested for anything and nothing. Why not me?

I couldn’t stop wondering. Is it because I’m trans and have different names in my passport and my social life? Is it because my mum’s a doctor? Is it because I’m not doing enough, or because I’m good at staying safe, or because I pose no conceivable threat?

How much energy does fretting use up? It sucks the life out of you, sucks you dry, leaving only cracked, bloody entrails.

I went off on holiday because A. and I watched a documentary about penal psychiatry. It showed a mental hospital I had been to myself the first time I lost my mind. I looked at the familiar buildings and listened to people saying they had been given pills that left them unable to move or speak, describing how reality slipped away from them until gradually, day by day, they lost the will to resist.

After A. was asleep I went into the corridor and lay by the front door, thinking that if the security forces came into our apartment they might not notice me immediately and would step on my belly. If I was lucky that would cause internal bleeding or damage internal organs and I would first have to be sent to be examined by a doctor, not taken straight away to that mental hospital with its drip-feeds.

My head was full of thoughts like that.

On 24 February I was lying in a hotel room listening to his lunatic speech (when I made the booking the description promised a wonderful view of a mountain, but in the darkness the mountain merged with its background until it seemed that dense, infinite night was pouring in from all sides and flooding the valley).

I tried to work out the implications of what he was saying. What was he getting at? I messaged my friends to say we needed to buy tickets right now, because by morning it would be impossible to get away anywhere (and in the morning it was impossible to get away anywhere, because the website of the one and only airline was down, and tickets for all flights were sold out for the next two months. Nobody, but nobody, wanted to stay in Belarus). I wrote on my work email that we needed to start evacuating people from Ukraine, prioritizing the south and west.

I want to write something stark and hard-hitting to convey, finally, what it was like to realize I would now no longer be able to return, I would now no longer be able to return, I would now no longer be able to return, I would now no longer be able to return.

I don’t know where to find the words that will explain to you, that will get me closer to describing the belated horror with which I emailed that we needed to get out ‘right now’. I could not believe that was really necessary myself. There are no right words. My unsurmountable anguish cannot be articulated and lies here, an inert seam of homogenous text.

My anguish expresses itself in those two clauses: ‘we got out overnight’ (and since then) ‘I am now no longer able to return.’

At five in the morning I phoned A.

‘Wake up, the war has started.’ [1]

I tell you ‘We got out overnight’ and start to laugh, but there is nothing funny about it.

A. had never flown in a plane, he had never been abroad. I bought him tickets to a country I had never been to myself, and he began packing. He had no remotely suitable bag and had to turn to my grandmother and collect a tiny cabin-sized suitcase from her.

I helped evacuate people by travelling around in a taxi, a dreadful job that made me feel ill. I remember those first days as a choking nausea rising in my throat. If you opened your mouth you would vomit sinister acrid bile.

A. sent me images of what he was planning to take. I had had no sleep all night, so when I emerged from the smog of my work I gave them a cursory glance, not clear what they were for, not willing to allow what was happening to sink in.

In one image I saw he was putting a cup in the suitcase, a ridiculous, totally ordinary yellow cup.

I entered his number and heard a distraught ‘Hi!’. My whole body seemed to pounce, snarling, on the sound of his voice.

To my own surprise I started yelling at him, shrieking like someone who has finally lost it.

Why was he taking this cup?, I screamed, was there really nothing more important to take when we were trying to escape a war. (What I actually screamed was, ‘Why the fuck do you need that fucking cup, are you off your fucking head, is there nothing more important you can take?’ The taxi driver turned round, but I didn’t give a shit. I needed to burst into tears but couldn’t, and all my despair came out in that yelling.) A. heard me out, said nothing, ended the call and sent no more images.

Every day in our new home I see A. drinking from his cup. It is not the greatest or most beautiful cup ever, but he was given it by his mother. I look at it and feel jealous hurt regretful sad lonely wretched abandoned despairing angry. I feel jealous hurt regretful sad lonely wretched abandoned despairing angry. I’m full to overflowing. I move cautiously, trying not to spill myself over other people.

He has the cup, while I have nothing.

[1] Though really the war started back in 2014?