I watch my companion enviously as he eats tender slices of beef. A— looks up and we smile at each other embarrassed, suddenly noticing the awkwardness of our encounter. He notices me glancing at his beef and he suddenly asks if I’d like to try a slice? I politely decline. I explain that I’ve been vegan for almost two years. We start to chat about his role as an aid worker behind the frontlines in the war in the east of Ukraine. As I push the couscous around my plate, trying to ignore his beef, I remind myself why I’m here. I’m a middle-aged playwright with one play to my name. Now I want to write a searing political play about the war in Ukraine.
For months, I have obsessively watched youtube clips which have led me to write a dozen superficial sketches about Ukrainian peasants and grannies near the frontlines. My working title is Once upon a time in a Ukraine far, far away. I want to prove beyond doubt that people in the UK should care, that it affects us, that we’re deeply implicated. But whenever I try to find a direct link between the war in Ukraine and the British public, I never can. Except for sunflower oil, which we import from Ukraine. Did those shards on youtube (never-ending scenes of gun-fights in a derelict airport) add up to a full picture? Now, it’s my final day in this country for an academic work trip, which is my day job until I become famous. I’m conducting research about contemporary theatre. Even the Ukrainians were clearly having their doubts about whether to depict the war on stage because only one fringe venue had a war play in its repertoire.
I glance again at A—, a slender white aid worker, with neat brown hair, hoping he’ll tell me the whole story. My friend put us in touch by email.
He tells me he was previously in Iraq with his aid agency. Before that Somalia. So life here is positively relaxing. I laugh and say I’ll try a slice of beef, why not? It’s the most expensive item on the menu. I hope he’ll feel more at ease telling me his war stories now. There’s a soft, melting sensation in my mouth, buttery and textured. I pause to let the taste linger.
For a moment I forget about the white napkins of this posh glassy restaurant, which seems out of place in the dusty and faded grandeur of Kyiv. I’m transported back to London twenty years earlier – me, a sixteen year old, sitting in the café at the Jackson’s Lane Community Centre in Highgate, after a youth drama group, thinking what it would be like if I were called up to active duty for World World Three. People I’d known for only a few weeks, who had just finished loving me in fictional drama, now genuinely crying as I tell them I’m being flown off to war tomorrow at 0700 hours. But this is war. What it really looks like. People fighting a few hundred miles away, while two British men eat vegetables and beef.
A—‘s already told me the outline of what’s going on. The war in the east of the country has frozen into entrenched positions. An angry border. Soldiers staring at each other, through the latest technological inventions, across small hills. It was in the international news – every headline was screaming about it for months. Then silence. And yet. Every few days one man kills another man. Or woman. But ongoing wars don’t count for much in the hierarchy of global messaging. Here, in the capital, people chatter about it alongside other terrible gossip.
He’s been to the frontlines. The area between the frontlines, the so-called ‘Grey Zone’, where all logic collapses in on itself.
A— travelled there earlier this week. He was distributing food to residents. As he tells me this, I observe his face properly for the first time: slender, a good colour in his cheeks, shy eyes, a neat haircut with centre-left parting to show integrity and purpose. When our eyes meet, he looks at me with an unnervingly steady gaze.
‘Anybody who could leave the Grey Zone left when the war broke out.’
I struggle to understand why anybody would choose to stay.
‘Only the elderly are left. And a few destitute young people. But mainly it’s just the elderly.’
Images of the old people start popping up in my mind.
‘Some of them have no idea why there’s a war. They fought in the Second World War but that one made sense: the Nazis versus everybody else. But what’s this? Why are their countrymen from the west and from the east of the country fighting each other?’
At first the old folks in the Grey Zone moved into the basements of their featureless Soviet apartment blocks. The frequent air raids wouldn’t be able to reach them as long as they stayed underground. But after a few months, most of them moved back into their flats. They could still hear the planes, sometimes see the occasional haphazard destruction of buildings, playgrounds, hospitals and people. But life wasn’t worth living in a basement. Better to die at home.
‘Also, they’d all heard the stories, perhaps even seen it happen. When people moved out of their apartments, the soldiers would move in. And that would only mean one thing…’
Soldiers are targets. The enemy side would start bombing the new ‘barracks’, and that would be the end of the apartment block. They’d have no home to come back to. Even if the apartment block wasn’t hit, the soldiers would never move out, even in areas where the fighting had stopped.
‘I only get a few hours at a time in the Grey Zone. I deliver aid packages, essentials, basic commodities, but mostly staple foods…. Bags of rice and tinned meat.’
I’m amazed that he sounds so calm. Then I remember what he told me earlier, that his last posting was Iraq. I realise that, for him, this is a normal war, perhaps even unexciting. He eats his final slice of beef.
After he’s told me the nuts and bolts of his job, our conversation falters and he suggests ordering herbal teas. That must mean he’s told me the worst of it…
He hands me a piece of A4 paper, which was concealed in his inside jacket pocket.
‘I haven’t shown this to anyone else.’
There are two sides of handwriting on this page. I start to read it. It’s a strange and rambling story about a man arrested by the security forces. The man was a rebel. They threw the Rebel into the Grey Zone, hoping he’s get killed in a bombing? I try to absorb the significance of it. I know that the security forces are funded by the West, and the Rebels are funded by Russia. It’s an age-old story. Our Western bunch are hoping to forge a mini-me capitalist country, like an older brother handing weapons to his younger brother. And in return Russia is striking back. I smile at him reassuringly when I’ve read his A4 paper twice and he takes the paper back from me, but I’m wondering what does this mean?
‘I had to write this down,’ he says, ‘but I can’t show it to anyone. My agency wouldn’t do anything even if I showed it to them. There’s no corroborating evidence.’
The weight of his expectations is now cutting deep into my sense of self. For a moment, I imagine myself standing on a West End stage telling the story of the Rebel; the audience is aghast and crying – my face is slightly tilted upwards towards the centre-stage spotlight. There’s thunderous applause. As the house lights come back on, the Guardian theatre critic starts mentally composing his review: ‘This is not a piece of theatre, it is an encounter with life itself’. I’ve achieved the unimaginable. I have stopped a war, perhaps I have stopped all wars. As I enter my backstage changing room, I stare at myself in the mirror, noticing a trickle of sweat running down my right temple. I put my hand on my heart and renounce my middle-class life. I resolve to dedicate my remaining days on Earth to voluntary work for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
I tell him I’ll pay. He’s come to give me material, it’s only right. But he insists on paying for himself. As we walk out of the restaurant into the balmy summer night, I realise that I may never be able to tell his story. True, it contains elements of a drama – a multi-generational conflict at Europe’s borders, with increasingly frequent accounts of CIA boots-on-the-ground, Russian paramilitaries and local death squads. But the Theatre cries out for high drama, not some old folks stuck in their apartments getting desperately bored. A grey war.
As we shake hands, he tells me in a suddenly relaxed voice – almost a different version of himself – that he’s only been to the theatre once in his life to see Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on the West End.
‘A play about this war shouldn’t show old people struggling to drag heavy food bags from our vehicles back to their apartment blocks, or the grey rubble on the streets, or the OSCE men in sunglasses standing next to black jeeps checking their smartphones because they’re not allowed to help the old people, only to observe the aid deliveries… A ruined building seems so mundane. But imagine living there for a month… a year… five years… not knowing if the bombs are moving further away or coming closer, no chance of seeing your children and grandchildren again, no electricity… no running water… I don’t think you should use a drab realistic language, try to make something more expressive like the West End play showing autism through the eyes of an autistic boy…’
I nod to show that I’ve understood. There’s no single gesture to indicate that I have no idea how to do that. I try to believe. For his sake. For the sake of the old people in the Grey Zone. Perhaps even for the sake of the security forces and the Rebel.
‘I’m happy for you to tell this story. It’s important – it’s happening all the time. But it didn’t come from me. We never met. You found this out from somebody else.’
We say goodbye and I never write the play.
Extract from the A4 handwritten note, as recalled from memory:
A rebel was captured by the Ukrainian security forces. They took him to the Relaxation Zone. That’s what the Ukrainian army called the makeshift buildings for prisoners-of-war. There are too many stories to recount about the relaxation zone. Too many. Like the detainee who was so ‘relaxed’ he got a hole through his jaw, during his time in detention. The Western-backed security forces like to negotiate with the rebels. So they gave one rebel a hole in his face: part of an organic process of ‘negotiation’. The security forces refused to treat the hole, instead they gave the man painkillers once or twice a day. He got out of detention eventually, but now he’s a drug addict and he has a gangrenous growth appearing on his face. I saw that for myself. But they do have limits. They’ll send a rebel to hospital if he’s about to die. And also there’s some semblance of a legal system here, unlike many war zones. So rebels do get released sometimes. Other times the rebels turn up – dead. That’s also ‘released’ in their language.
One rebel was released into the Grey Zone. He turned up with only the clothes on his back –and a one-hundred dollar bill in his hands. The security forces were hoping he would be killed in the bombing, or abducted and killed by local militias in the Grey Zone, one less problem for them. He didn’t risk entering the apartment blocks. He slept outdoors in the cold, even though it was minus fifteen degrees Celsius. He managed to convince a local old man to let him call his family. His family hadn’t heard from him for two years, even since he’d been ‘relaxing’ with the security forces. They didn’t know if he was alive or dead. I managed to negotiate with the Ukrainian embassy, not the security forces directly, but I got him papers to cross through the checkpoints at the border, to get into rebel territory and then back home to the Donbass, the breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine.
He told me he had no interest in fighting. He’d just wanted to buy his daughter a bike and living costs had become impossible. So he’d joined up with a local band of fighters. He said:
“I’m not ‘for’ Russia and I’m not ‘for’ Ukraine. I’m fighting to earn enough for cigarettes and beer. Plus money to send back to my wife and daughter. I just hope to get out of this alive. Like your English action man… Bond.” He was a funny man, intelligent, bright eyes and matted dark hair although I wondered if his hair was normally curly when washed. Even in his exhausted face, I felt like I could see a future doctor or maybe hairdresser, who had somehow ended up with a gun in his hands.
When the day came for him to leave, I couldn’t reach him. He wasn’t answering his mobile. My mission was ready to leave. The convoy of cars was asking for permission to go – but I refused to leave without him.
But the time came when I couldn’t hold them back any longer. Then suddenly he appeared from a hiding place and walked quickly over to us. He was taking a risk every time he came out in public. I gave him his permit to leave. There was no special transport for him. He had to take the local bus running an irregular service across the Grey Zone to the front line in the east, and then to the checkpoint, where they would either decide to let him through or not, depending on whether they believed his story or considered him to be a spy.
I assume he made it back to his hometown. Perhaps he’s at home with his family right now, eating a Sunday roast. But I’ll never know for sure. I didn’t hear from him again.
For over fifteen years, Noah was directing, researching and translating contemporary Russian plays for staging in the UK, both for his own ensemble Sputnik Theatre Company and also as a researcher on Creative Multilingualism (University of Oxford). In 2019, shifting his focus to environmentalism, Noah co-founded the Oxford Flyingless Policy and Research Group and worked as a researcher on ‘Academic flying: Necessity, Motivation, Reduction’ at the School of Geography and the Environment (University of Oxford). Noah is currently completing the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. In 2019, he was the Hackney Winner of Spread the Word’s City of Stories competition.
“Roast Beef” by Steve A Johnson is licensed under CC BY 2.0