25 April 2006

Twenty Years On

Photograph taken from the Nuclear Nonsense Blogspot

Wednesday the 26th of April 2006 marks twenty years since the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. To mark the occasion the Dutch photographer, Robert Knoth is displaying his documentation of the radioactive fallout at the Oxo Tower in London. It is simply called The Fallout and it presents a very tragic human face to the toxic legacy of this tumultuous event.

The above photograph is not from the exhibition but the contained image has always stuck me as poignant symbol of the fragility of 'civilization' in the face of our own progress. The photograph is of an abandoned Ferris wheel at 'The First of May Fairground' in Pripyat, Ukraine. From what I understand it never even had the chance to get used as Pripyat was evacuated soon ( but not soon enough) after the Chernobyl explosion. Pripyat soon became a toxic ghost town, yet miraculously, nature slowly began to return and eventually asserted itself and took over the town. A few years ago, images of wolves roaming the empty streets and plants cracking through the pavement and concrete of abandoned buildings inspired me to write the following story:

Skin Deep by Foul Pete

“There are two places that you can visit, that will convince you that we will be victorious.” That is what they told me. “One is Pripyat in May 1986.” The little one said. “And the other is Pripyat 1996.” The not so little one added.
It all started when I was taking care of my friend Will’s dog, Okri, a lively little terrier of some sort. Okri was pleasant enough but he had boundless energy, and so required at least a two hour walk every evening. The first few weeks had been fine. It seemed as though Spring had arrived early and I was enjoying the walks as much as Okri. I used the opportunity to explore areas of the city I had always wanted to check out. Then winter decided to give us a last blast of cold wet weather before it finally surrendered.
I returned home from work drenched and shivering on one of those days and as usual Okri was bouncing up and down anticipating his walk. It was tempting to give it a miss but I felt that was cruel and I went to get his lead from a drawer in the kitchen. As soon as he heard the rattle of the chained lead, he started running in circles, panting and making yip yip sounds as he always did. Once I got the lead around his collar, we left the house into the steadily darkening afternoon, and disagreeable weather.
I decided to walk to the river to check out the underneath of one of the many bridges that linked one side of the city to the other. Unfortunately, it was rush hour and we had to cross many busy roads before we could get to the river. I always hated watching the exhaust fumes spew out of cars in cold weather. I know they are there no matter the weather but I just don’t like seeing it, especially when I’m out walking a dog. Before me were rows of stationary cars, with white smoke bellowing from their exhaust pipes into the cold air unable to rise up and out of the city because of the rain. I could tell Okri was scared of the traffic, so we quickly manipulated our way through the traffic jam, trying to ignore the worn and wrinkled faces of frustrated drivers behind the steering wheels. I was thinking how much better it would be to take Okri for a walk in the woods or along the sea cliffs, when traffic began to move and people started to honk their horns at us. I ran to the safety of the other side of the road, literally having to drag the terrified Okri who had froze in fear.
Once we were a safe distance away from the road, Okri regained his confidence and vigor and we found the pathway down to the river. I set him free to run as fast as he liked, wherever he wanted to go as I took my time to have a look around. I noticed that if you crouch down to watch the water you could almost block out all view of the city that towered over the other side of the river. It was much quieter down there but the hum of traffic was still constantly audible, especially when a truck roared overhead.
Soon, Okri came running back towards me with a stick and we played every dog’s favorite game that he never tired of, as we ambled our way along the river towards the underside of the bridge. At first we walked right along side the river but it was filthy and it stunk of some chemical smell that I was unfamiliar with. On the river bank was all kinds of crap, from syringes to rusting beer cans to old tires and even used toilet paper. It seemed as though the city was actually cleaner than the river, So much for trying to find solace in nature. By the time we reached the underside of bridge it was almost dark but I decided to have a look anyway. I could see what looked like paintings on the pillars and went to take a closer look. I threw the stick in the direction we were heading so Okri would come with me. On the walls of one of the pillars there was a painting of what looked like a de-railed train, and above was an apparent depiction of a cityscape on fire. As I was examining the art work, Okri came running back to me, with the stick in his mouth. We wrestled with the stick for awhile and I let him believe that he had a chance of keeping it from me. Then I asserted my human dominance over the little canine and threw the stick back towards the river, only it was a rather pathetic throw and it landed in some nearby bushes.
I went back to examining the paintings on the pillars as Okri scampered off in search of the stick. Someone had obviously put a lot of effort into them, the painting of the blazing cityscape was about four feet wide by eight feet tall and the detail was quite remarkable, down to the names of the shops, advertisements on the buses and pictures on the billboards. Then I heard Okri yelping and yipping away behind the bushes. I had not heard him make such peculiar sounds before so I went running in his direction with a fair amount of concern. Thinking back, as I am now, I often wish that I didn’t go to Okri’s aid. I know it sounds cruel but sometimes I just wish I left the damn dog to fend for himself. What I saw when I went to investigate, I am reminded day in day out, is seen by very few people and remains something I am unable to forget no matter how hard I try.
There is no tactful way to recount the following scene, so let me just offer that I am not intentionally trying to be perverse or crude in the slightest sense.
After finding his stick Okri paused to investigate some rustling in the bush and when, I presume, he went into it to have a closer look, he came across two tiny humanoid, but very non-human, creatures copulating as if there was no tomorrow. Naturally, the dog’s curiosity got the better of him and he went in for a good old sniff and was greeted with a swift slap to the nose by one of their chubby little hands. He must have kept on interfering, resulting in more slaps to the nose and hence the painful little yelping sound that came to my attention.
I came upon the scene as Okri was edging himself closer with a gentle groaning sound only to be slapped as I just described. I bent down as Okri jumped back with a whimper, to catch my first glimpse of the two little beasts, vigorously fucking deep under the cover of the bush amongst the dirt and nettles that surrounded it. My first instinct was to just get up and walk away and choose not to believe my eyes. I briefly thought to myself that I could have imagined it and perhaps it was best just to leave, put it down to my sick imagination, go home and forget about it. But, of course, like Okri, curiosity got the better of me and I stared on. I stared at the little arse of what appeared to be the male one, bouncing rapidly up and down. I stared at, what I assumed must have been the female one, bright blue eyes clenched shut in pain or pleasure, as her head rocked back and fore with each forceful thrust. I stared at their chubby limbs, short stumpy legs and arms with fleshy rolls of fat. Their skin colour was a glowing green, that is the parts of it that weren’t covered in dirt. And it was this color, not their size, not their shape, nor even the activity with which they were so thoroughly engrossed in, that nauseated me. It glowed so brightly it illuminated the underside of the bush. It was freaky, unnatural, supernatural, a very sinister fluorescent light, not a solid green like the color of grass, more of a faint, diluted green yet almost effulgent, like a luminous mucus.
I wanted to touch them, poke them to confirm the images that my eyes were sending to my confused brain were real. But then they saw me. What I thought was the female one opened its eyes and looked right at me, then whispered something to what I thought was the male one. Without stopping its vigorous thrusting the male one turned its head around to face me.
“Uh Uh Uh So you’ve seen huh huh us? Ah ah ah.” It said, panting for breath.
“What was that?” I replied.
“Uh Uh You huh huh were right uh uh” The copulating was relentless.
“Eh?” I couldn’t believe I was having a conversation with these little fornicating creatures.
“When you said, “...like there was no tomorrow...”
“You heard me.” It said with a casual but smug tone.
Then the male one dismounted the female one revealing what I assumed to be both female and male genitalia. Then, what had been the female, swiftly mounted what had been the male and they resumed their rabid reproductive procedure.
“Are you just going to stand there and watch us all day?” The one who had just assumed the male role asked.
“No, No of course not!” I replied wondering why I felt so embarrassed when really I should have been questioning my very sanity.
“Well good, but just remember, now you’ve seen us, you’ll never again be able to avoid us. We are with you forever... ha ha ha.”
Then they both started laughing maniacally as they rolled deeper into the bush, still in a penetrative embrace. I decided to return to civilization as quickly as possible.
Okri and I walked rapidly home in the cold rain without incident, had something to eat and we both turned in early for the night. The next day I decided not to go into work. I told my boss I needed a ‘personal day.’ I did, indeed, feel as though I needed a day to reflect on my state of mind. At first I was hesitant to leave the house. I thought perhaps it was a day to catch up on some reading and avoid the outside world completely but I couldn’t concentrate on my book and after being in bed for so long I had a lot of energy to burn. Okri was also ready for a walk and so we ventured outside, hoping the events of the previous day had never really happened.
Okri and I set out in the opposite direction, this time heading for the park up in the hills that overlooked the city. The weather was much better and I was hoping that Spring was finally here to stay. It was still cold but the sun was shining and the wind had died down. We walked through the neighbourhoods and I was pleased to see the trees that lined the roads beginning to show signs of life again. I remember breathing in the fresh air and looking at the little green buds on the not so long ago bare branches, when horror struck me. There in the tree were two more green little creatures with bright blue eyes staring down at me. My jaw dropped- please let it be a flash back -I thought to myself. Then one of them winked a cheeky wink at me and proceeded to mount its companion and they commenced shagging the hell out of each other. I rapidly walked on, dragging Okri with me. I tugged his lead as I looked dead ahead at our destination, the park, but Okri wasn’t budging. I tugged harder and still he wouldn’t move only letting out a feeble bark. I turned around to see what was going on, and there were two more of them riding on his back and yes, they were going at it, full speed ahead, like there was no tomorrow. I yanked Okri’s lead violently and they both fell off his back and bounced on the hard concrete. Seemingly unhurt, they were laughing at us as we sped off. I became convinced that sanctuary was waiting for us in the park but along the way we had to endure meeting upon meeting with hundreds of these fucking little beasts. In bushes, up trees, perched on top of the streetlights, riding on top of moving cars, the city was full of them.
We eventually reached the park and climbed to my favorite peak that had a clearing in the trees where you could look over the whole city. It was always a very peaceful locale and I was pleased there were no sinister chubby little green creatures in the vicinity. I let Okri free to run about while I sat down to take a few deep breaths and ponder the view of the city. I tried to get the images of the copulating trolls, gnomes, aliens or whatever they were out of my mind. I searched my memory for an image that was as far removed from their sinister behavior as possible. I thought about how calming it was for me, as a child, to watch my grandmother and her incessant knitting. She was always knitting, jumpers, hats, gloves, dolls. She would sit for hours, the needles tapping and clicking away in a steady rhythm producing ever expanding lengths of wool. Tap- tap- click- click.
And it almost worked until I looked back towards the view of the city. Tapping and clicking in a steady rhythm. Tap- tap- click- click. Thousands upon thousands of little green lights shone from all quarters of the city. Tap- tap- click- click. They were everywhere. Tap- tap- click- click went the rhythm of their fucking.
I walked home with Okri in tow and they seemed to have multiplied even further in number. By this point, I could not tell who was more disturbed by them, Okri or I. We walked on, watching our feet pace in front of us, too afraid to look upwards because we knew what we would be forced to set eyes on. We both resigned ourselves to their commands. We became zombies in their wake. At one point, Okri’s lead was snatched from me, into the hands of about half a dozen of the creatures. They walked him the rest of the way home. He put up no resistance and neither did I. What could we have done?
For the second night in a row I went to bed early but I couldn’t really sleep. They had infiltrated my house and infiltrated my bedroom. I woke up after an hour of nightmares to see one of them bouncing up and down on my pillow mere inches in front of my face, laughing hysterically. It was then I decided to return to the bridge where I had first seen them. I felt weak and tired so I decided to drive to the river, only to find the little buggers jumping all over my car, valiantly attempting to destroy it with their tiny but viscous fists. I had to walk instead.
I returned to the bridge and sought out the spot where I had initially conversed with the miniature hermaphrodites and there they were ready and waiting.
“So am I ever going to get any peace?”
“Not until we take over the world, no.” The little one said.
“I see and what does that mean?”
“That means we are going to reclaim and rebuild what you’ve destroyed.” The not so little one continued.
“And how do you propose to do that? You’re so little?”
“We have all the time in the world and you don’t, simple. And of course...” It made a gyrating motion with its hips. “...strength in numbers he he he.”
“Well that is all very well but what can I do to get you off my back? I’m going to go insane if you don’t leave me alone.”
“You just have to accept that ultimately we will be victorious.” The little one said.
“And how do I do that?”
“Well, there are two places that you can visit, that will indeed convince you that we will be victorious.” The not so little one replied.
“One is Pripyat in May 1986.” The little one continued.
“And the other is Pripyat May 1996.” The not so little one added.
In order for me to reclaim what was left of my waking life and the ashes of my sanity I went to Pripyat May 1986. Two weeks prior to my arrival, just under two miles away there had been a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Clouds of radiation spread as far as Scandinavia. While people celebrated the arrival of spring, opening the windows to their homes wide, leaning out and raising their faces to the sky to soak up the sun’s rays. While workers walked home from work pausing to breathe in the fresh air. While children rode their bikes in the streets. While teenagers sunbathed down by the river. No one came to warn them. Nearby, the world’s largest wolf population roamed the countryside. Thousands of miles away in the Kremlin politicians groaned about the hysteria induced by “radiophobia”. 36 hours later, the town was evacuated, but a huge amount of the population had already been exposed to lethal doses of radiation.
Pripyat was home to 50,000 people many of who worked in Chernobyl. By the time I got there nobody remained. Thousands of people had left by bus. The bus drivers had driven back and fore to Pripyat many times to load up new passengers to whisk them away from their home town and out of what was becoming the ‘exclusion zone.’ Most of these drivers died of cancer years later.
When I arrived, it looked just like any other city though, just eerily empty. Cars remained parked on the roadsides. Washing was still drying on clotheslines. Traffic lights still flickered green and red. Buildings stood stoically, absolutely refusing to move. The roads remained intact. I saw a fair ground unoccupied; in the center of it stood a stationary Ferris wheel. A new and as of yet un-played on children’s playground. The swings gently rocking in the spring breeze. None of this inorganic material was infected by the invisible poison, as the living inhabitants had been. For them, every breath was radioactive. Soon there were reports of three eyed fish, odd-shaped leaves and other such mutations in plant and animal life. Then came reports of thyroid disease and lymphoblastic leukosis amongst the housing projects of Kiev where the in habitants of Pripyat had been evacuated to. But the place itself remained intact, even with the soul sucked out of it. I left after and hour or so, but not before almost collapsing in horror and vomiting all over myself.
And so I continued to Pripyat 1996. Ten years from the meltdown, the ‘exclusion zone’ was now the biggest ecosystem in Europe. It was spring again and the birds were celebrating. I walked down the same roads, now cracked where the trees and plants had forged their way through. Flowers were also sprouting out through these cracks. In places, concrete paving slabs had been pushed up nearly one meter high by tree roots. Weeds and nettles were taking over the abandoned buildings. I saw dozens of squirrels munching on fruits that had fallen all over the undisturbed roads. Mice scurried away as they heard my approaching footsteps. I walked across a torn up road and caught a glimpse of a pack of wolves in the distance. I made an effort to follow them, in order to confirm that I had just seen wolves roaming an urban wasteland. I watched them running through the streets, about seven or eight of them, darting to and fro. In the surrounding forests there were hundreds more and amongst them boar, elk and other thriving mammals, all safe from human predators. They knew nothing of the radiation. Life had never been better. Until that point I had wondered why I had been spared any chance meetings with the fornicating little devils that had sent me there but as I watched the wolves run through the city like they owned it, such a surreal yet fitting sight, I understood.
It was time to leave and I wondered why I was still there. I didn’t want to be exposed to any more radiation than was necessary. Then I came across an old man working in a garden. He was tending a vegetable patch that produced huge potatoes and tomatoes amongst other vegetables. He heard me coming and slowly straightened his bent back as much as possible, pushing one hand against his frail hip in an effort to stand erect. We greeted each other and made comments about the weather, as his wife peered through one of the windows in the house. Before I could ask my question, he announced.
“Because we will last a lot longer here than we would in the tenement flats of Kiev”.
He said there were a few other stubborn old residents who had never left the area and never planned to, preferring to remain in the City of Ghosts. He said there were also groups of squatters living in some of the abandoned buildings, amongst them criminals, social outcasts, utopianists and the poor.
I tried to picture Pripyat in another ten years. Perhaps more people will slowly start to return, people who are able and willing to build something new out of the ruins of an old world. Perhaps all the human inhabitants will die of some horrible form of cancer or go insane in their seclusion and Pripyat will be left for nature to fully reclaim. Perhaps all the buildings will be completely enveloped in vines, trees, weeds and flowers like extraordinary temples dedicated to a new religion. Perhaps the fair grounds and the Ferris wheel, and the playground will all rust and crumble and any sign of the city will end up buried under a lush forest. Perhaps, there will be a long hot spell and all the grass, weeds and growth will dry out and the sun light will bounce off a broken mirror and the grass will catch fire. Perhaps the phenomena will spread, I thought.
When I returned home it was time for Okri to return to his owner and the house seemed very empty without him. I missed the little bugger. I went back to the bridge one last time to speak with the little creatures as I had some unanswered questions. Only there was no sign of them. Since I had last been, there was a tremendous amount of overgrowth. Grass was growing out of the dirt, the trees seemed much bigger and nettles were making their way up the pillars that held up the bridge. I looked under the bushes and up in nearby trees. I combed the vicinity for a couple of hours before giving up. I went back to the site of the paintings on the pillars but they had all disappeared. Where I thought the paintings had been was now only dirty and cracked concrete. Yet, out of the cracks, weeds were growing. I turned to leave, at first disappointed, then confused and then finally relieved. However, all three of these emotions were sent into a nauseating whirl when I then saw this message scribbled on the wall in charcoal:
“To Okri and his companion: We have immunity and all the time in the world. Good luck to you.”
Overhead, what must have been an eighteen wheeled truck roared by. It was probably carrying a huge load of logs from what was left of the nearby forests. The whole bridge seemed to shake.