I started dreaming about travelling to Nicaragua to find Saul one day. My mother’s example was my greatest inspiration. She used to tell us stories of her youth, how she grew up in a small village near the River Prut, right on the border of Romania. In Moldavia, school children were introduced to Russian at the age of ten, but as it was only a secondary subject, the teachers didn’t really bother very much about it. Mum had never learned it. But as a girl she’d always wanted to travel the world. At the age of twenty, after qualifying as a builder, she set out to make her dream come true. She left Moldavia and went to Ural. That’s where she learned to speak Russian. Ural was the coldest place Mum had ever experienced, so two years later, at the end of her contract, she left Ural for a warmer place – Uzbekistan in Central Asia. And that’s where she met my father. Mum was the first in her family to marry a foreigner. She often told us she’d allow us to marry anyone we wished. Even a tsigan, she’d say, which made us giggle. Marrying a tsigan, or gypsy, was the wildest dream we could imagine. One day, I cut out a heart-shaped piece of pink paper and wrote Saul a letter about my dream. He wrote back saying that if I wanted to travel the world, I would have to learn a foreign language, like he had with his Russian. The school had just introduced us to a new subject, a foreign language – English. I was thrilled. It quickly became my favourite, especially as it had no strong R like Russian had. During our last week in grade eight, the girls and I were having a chat with Nina Alekseevna about dating boys and getting married. Even though I wasn’t usually shy about asking my parents anything, I drew the line at talking about sex. It didn’t seem appropriate to discuss that with them. Now seemed like a good opportunity to get the answers I’d been looking for. That night, our teacher explained that each girl had a special petal inside her which made her a virgin. The moment a girl let a boy enter her body, she would lose her petal. From then on, she would no longer be special for her future husband. Such knowledge gave me reassurance; if I kept myself special, I’d have a better chance of getting a husband. The next day, during dinner, my friends continued the previous night’s conversation. One by one, the girls shared their dreams about their future husbands, while I worried about what dream I could share with them. I preferred to keep my dreams to myself. Being a crow, it seemed my only option was to marry a foreigner, who wouldn’t know of my R problem. And from books I’d read, I was under the impression that well-educated foreigners had big houses and maids to look after them. All too soon it was my turn. “I’ll never cook for my husband. I’ll have a housekeeper,” I said. “If you don’t cook for your husband, he’ll kick your ass the next morning,” one of the girls said. The rest laughed. I felt hurt but pretended I didn’t care. For dinner that night, we had my favourite – sweet dumplings with condensed milk. We used to share our food, and earlier that day, at lunch, I’d given one of the girls my meat dish in exchange for her portion at dinner. As she transferred her dumplings onto my plate, she said, “Enjoy my scraps. Who knows when you may get your housekeeper?” The table erupted with laughter. I was furious. This portion was not a leftover. Why humiliate me for something that wasn’t true? No one ate scraps at school. “Only pigs eat scraps.” I stood up and walked straight to the bin to throw the entire plate away. That night I stopped talking to my friends, waiting for them to apologise. It never happened; instead they started calling me haughty. The cold war escalated until, on our last night of term, it erupted into a fight and I hit one of them in the face, making her nose bleed. The girls didn’t report me to the teacher. Instead, they threatened, “Your life in ninth grade is going to be hell.” To quell my fears, I made a plan – I was going to disappear from their lives forever. The next morning, I went to speak with the director of the school. She was a tall woman with dark hair, glasses and dark lipstick. She was very intimidating. But she wasn’t as scary as the girls in my dormitory. Taking a deep breath, I said, “I want to change schools.” Her eyebrows rose in surprise. “And why is that?” She was very proud of her school. “There is a school in Debaltsevo that has a more advanced programme,” I said. “I’ll be leaving for high school in a year. I’d like to be better prepared.” I certainly wasn’t going to tell her the real reason I wanted to leave. I knew adults couldn’t fix the problem. They might be able to stop physical attacks, but they couldn’t save me from the emotional pain the girls would inflict. When I walked out of the director’s office, I had the form I needed to request my school documents in my hand. It had to be signed by one of my parents. I didn’t tell anyone at home about leaving the boarding school. I worried my mother wouldn’t understand and would make me stay there until I went to high school. To get the required signature I found one of my mother’s documents, and later that evening I went to ask my neighbour, Lyuba, a college student, to help me forge the signature. I thought her attempts would look more mature than if I did it myself. After the summer holidays, when it was time to go back to school, then I’d tell my parents. When I handed the director the signed form the next day, she barely glanced at it, and handed me my documents without a word. I’d crossed one hurdle. The next one was the new school. In the Soviet Union, unlike in the West, the education was free. All I needed was my wish to attend and my parent’s signature on the acceptance form. After another forgery, thanks to Lyuba, it was official; I started at the new school in the autumn.
The first day of school arrived on 1 September. Lyosha, Toma and now my youngest brother, Vasya, were all dressed in their school uniforms and ready to leave when my mother appeared at my door asking me to hurry up. It was time to confess. “I left the boarding school. I start at Debaltsevo’s today.” Predictably, chaos ensued, but there wasn’t time to discuss it. My siblings had to leave. “This is Albina Ptichkina.” I was presented to the class by my new teacher. “Masha will take you to your seat.” She nodded to a pretty blonde girl who took my hand and led me to a seat next to her. At our first break, Masha introduced me to her friends. I told them about my life at the boarding school, how I was part of the sports and dance teams, and where I’d travelled. I was careful not to mention why I’d left. While making new friends, I couldn’t help wondering what the girls at the boarding school thought of my disappearance. Did they regret losing me? At home, after an exciting start at my new school, I had to face my parents. I gave them the same reasons I used on the director of boarding school. “I hadn’t told you before because I’d wanted it to be a pleasant surprise,” I added. To my joy my explanations were accepted without any further questions. When Lyosha arrived from the boarding school, I learned that my old friends hadn’t even bothered to ask him where I’d gone. I was glad I had left them. Three months later, my future, as well as that of the country, was about to change. A referendum on Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union was scheduled for 1 December 1991. My parents had decided to vote yes. Personally, I liked the idea of separation; it meant that I would definitely be able to travel the world. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, you needed special permission to travel across Soviet borders. This wasn’t easy to get, and if you were lucky enough to get permission, your trip would be only in tourist groups under KGB agent supervision. Independence would give freedom of choice to everyone. Five days after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, I turned fourteen. Unfortunately, the euphoria of new beginnings quickly wore off. First, within a month, all public transport in our village stopped working. The new government had no funds for petrol. I had to walk to school, regardless of the weather conditions. Then came the recession. I remember one evening, hearing my mother talking to our neighbour, Lyuba’s mother. Her voice was tight with tension. “The car has arrived; we’ve got the money but we can’t pay for it. The bank has frozen our assets. They say we have to wait until the new currency is introduced. We’ve been waiting for that car for eight years!” “I’ve heard that everyone’s assets are frozen. Luckily I never bothered with savings,” replied our neighbour. “Not only savings but my children’s future is also in that bank. I don’t know what to think.” Mum looked stressed. Among the assets the bank had frozen was an amount of 2,000 roubles. At that time, 2,000 roubles was a lot of money, the equivalent of 4,000 US dollars, the amount my parents had paid for their house. It was meant for us kids; we each would receive our share at eighteen. Then, overnight, the roubles vanished, and like millions of others, my parents received no compensation. The next time my father received his salary, it was in a new currency – the Ukrainian karbovanets. Dad’s previous salary had been enough to look after the four of us kids so that my mother didn’t have to work. His job as a railway worker was among the highest paid during the Soviet Union days. Now in Ukraine, this was no longer the case as many jobs were reclassified. That’s when the regular monthly fights started between my parents. “Why so little?” My mother would scream, after my father had given her his salary. He always gave her all the money he’d earned. “That’s what they paid me.” Dad’s voice was defensive. “It’s only 200 roubles in the old money and your salary was 600 roubles. They’ve paid you short.” “There is no more.” Dad would shrug his shoulders; exhaustion and stress lined his face. He looked older than I’d ever seen him. “That’s nonsense! They must have miscalculated your hours.” “What do you want me to do?” Dad growled. “They paid the same amount to everyone.” “Go and fight for your rights!” Mum would yell, and Dad would leave the house. Hours later he would return home drunk. Cursing and swearing, he’d break anything he could get his hands on. That’s the only time my mother would stay quiet. With every month, things just got worse. As the Ukrainian currency continued to be affected by inflation, Dad’s salary dropped from the equivalent of 600 roubles to 120 roubles. Whenever price was discussed, the Ukrainian karbovanets was now converted into US currency. Dollars became the unofficial currency in Ukraine, available for sale in every corner of the country. One winter morning, I woke up to my parents’ usual fight, but this time I could smell something burning. My father was drunk and he was burning the money he’d brought home. My mother was beside herself, beating him with a frying pan. It was frightening. Soon afterwards, my mother took a job at the village post office. Trying to be supportive, I started helping her deliver post every weekend. On my birthday, she gave me a very special gift: a gold ring set with a ruby, which had been hers for years. The ring fitted my finger perfectly and matched my gold earrings which had also been a gift from her some years before. Although my mum was never demonstrative, she did show her love in other ways, often through gifts and words of praise. Her love was my most precious gift.
The following spring I began my very first business venture. The idea came from an article in a newspaper giving advice to teens on how to earn some pocket money. One of the suggestions was to grow strawberry plants, which could be sold to people to grow their own strawberries. We already had a strawberry patch next to our house, so I saw this as an opportunity. When I told my mother about the idea, she took it one step further. “Why don’t we grow strawberries for sale instead?” she said. “That way people will have to keep coming back to us for their strawberries.” My parents owned land the size of a football field at the back of our house, which was big enough to grow our own food. It was used as a vegetable garden and cornfield to feed our two cows and some chickens. Soon, we’d replanted all the strawberry plants from the patch into the field, and in June we picked our first crop. In two weeks we picked over a hundred kilogrammes of strawberries. Lyosha, Toma and I soon learned that we had to sell strawberries quickly, as they didn’t last till the next day. Then I discovered that the price for strawberries in town was double that in the village. This meant more money, but it also meant that my friends from school might see me selling home-grown items. There was an old prejudice towards those who sold things outside of a shop environment. They were nicknamed spekulyanti, or speculators, which was an insult. That first week in town, whenever I saw my school peers, my first reaction was to turn and walk away from my siblings, pretending I wasn’t with them. By the second week I was no longer embarrassed. People loved strawberries and we were earning good money. The strawberry business became my family’s extra source of income for the next fifteen years, producing 3,000 kilogrammes in our record year.
While finishing school, I decided that my best choice for a future profession was to become an English translator. This would cover my speech defect. However, the English we’d been taught was too basic to pass the university entrance exam, which guaranteed free education. The alternative was for my parents to pay for my education with a commercial contract, which was very new for our country. Commercial contracts allowed you into university no matter what your school marks had been. Before Ukraine’s independence, a post-secondary education was a privilege earned by good marks only. With one child in the family, paid education was affordable, but not with four children in the family, not even with the money we were making from the strawberries. With a 94 per cent grade average I could still get free university education, but not to study English. I had to find another subject. I turned for guidance to my mentor at school, who was my Ukrainian language teacher. She suggested that to achieve my goal, I could apply to the faculty of Russian and Ukrainian languages. After I’d been accepted, I could take on a part-time job to pay for private English lessons, and a year later I could transfer to the English faculty. With that advice in mind, and to be better prepared for the future, I knew which subjects were my priorities: Russian and Ukrainian literature and languages. I threw myself into my studies. Not interested in boys from my grade, I stopped worrying about my R complex. Soon I became active in literature classes where I made friends with my classmate, Vova, who shared my passion for reading and dancing. I joined him for rock ’n’ roll dance classes in the town and learned that he volunteered as a DJ at the same club on the weekends. Vova told me a lot about foreign music and musicians, much of which was completely new to me. I thought the things he knew might also be of interest to those at school. I persuaded him to talk to the school director about starting a musical education project. Not long after, Vova became the school DJ. At every break, he would entertain us with a little history about a certain artist and then play their music. We learned about Queen and their free-spirited leader, Freddie Mercury. And then there were the Beatles with whom I was immediately obsessed. I went on a mission to learn two of their songs, ‘Michelle’ and ‘Yesterday,’ from a record I’d borrowed from Vova. Playing it over and over, I would stop after every couple of words to transcribe the lyrics into Russian. I also became familiar with the electrifying music of Rammstein, and artists like Patricia Kaas and Bryan Adams. Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’ was one we used in our rock ’n’ roll dance classes. ‘Happy Nation’, by the pop group Ace of Base, affected not only me, but also the whole school. It became our unofficial anthem. My friendship with Vova helped me to become less shy of boys. It worked perfectly, until one day I developed a crush again. The boy was a year older, in his last year of high school. His name was Igor. One morning, on my way to school, I met him on the long, high bridge that crossed the railroad tracks. He was walking towards me. Why is he not at school? I wondered, watching his approach. Was there an announcement I’d missed? I felt brave enough to ask him. But then, all I could think about were his deep blue eyes. He passed by before I said a word. Igor greeted me a few times after our moment on the bridge, but I would just tuck my head down and walk on. I was suddenly very aware of my speech impediment again. Only in my dreams did I allow myself the enjoyment of our conversations, which I imagined would lead to my first kiss. My friend, Masha, knew about my crush on Igor. She was also in love with a boy from Igor’s class. The only difference was that Masha wasn’t afraid to chat to the boy she liked. When Igor graduated, my romantic expectations were dashed, but Masha told me her boyfriend and Igor would be going to the same college, the one close to our school. Perhaps it wasn’t the end of my dream. With that thought, I let myself enjoy the summer holidays.
With money earned from the strawberries, my father took the three of us to the Black Sea, while Mum stayed at home with our youngest brother, Vasya. It was our first holiday at the seaside. Lyosha, Toma and I spent all day at the beach, and in the evenings, we rode the Ferris wheel or ate ice cream in a café. The house we stayed in was a short walk from the beach and only five minutes from the attractions. Our father allowed us to be on our own with the understanding that we wouldn’t go far from the house. Every morning he gave us breakfast, always checked on us during the day and took us for lunch, and then left us at the beach with the instruction to be at home for dinner no later than nine o’clock. One afternoon, at the end of our vacation, we made friends with a foreigner. We were waiting in a queue to buy the creamiest milkshake we’d ever had, when a young stranger in front of us paid for our order. Impressed by his generosity, we invited him to our table. He spoke in a funny Russian accent, saying he was from Turkey. The next evening, we met up with the Turkish guy again. We were watching a street music show when he walked up. “Would you like to join me on the rides?” he asked me with a smile. For me it was a rare opportunity to enjoy attention from an attractive young man and not to have to worry about being a crow. I gladly accepted, asking Lyosha to look after Toma. They were to stay together and meet me at the house at nine o’clock. I had one hour to spend in the guy’s company. I laughed a lot as we whirled around, holding hands tightly. Afterwards, we bought ice cream and then walked to the beach, where we sat and talked. I kept asking him for the time, making sure I’d get home at nine. My new friend walked me to the place I was staying at. When saying goodbye, I held out my hand to shake; instead, he pulled me towards him and kissed me. I experienced the most sensational feeling – my head went light and the waves of tingling pleasure touched every part of my body. I didn’t want him to know that I’d liked what he’d done; after all, he hadn’t asked my permission. Embarrassed, I pulled away and ran into the house. It was my first kiss, and what a discovery it was. At eight o’clock the next morning, as I was leaving for the beach, I was surprised to see my Turkish friend waiting near the house. “You shouldn’t be here,” I whispered. “I’ll get in trouble if my father sees you.” “I’ve came specially to see your father. I’ve brought you a present.” He showed me a beige box, opening it so I could see a gold ladies’ watch. “I want to ask your father for permission to marry you.” I was stunned. This felt like a perfect fairy tale – a handsome foreigner, who kissed me last night, now wanted to marry me! I couldn’t help feeling flattered, but it was just too embarrassing to even imagine talking to my father about getting married. I was fifteen and a half. “I don’t think my father will agree. I’ll only get in to trouble,” I said. “When you’re seventeen we could get married!” he insisted. “This is the legal age to get married in Ukraine. I’ve checked with my lawyer.” I knew about the law; we learned that at school. Only in Ukraine and Uzbekistan could girls get married at seventeen. In the other ex-Soviet Republics, the legal age was eighteen. But would my father agree? “Is everything alright, Albina?” My father headed towards us. “Yes, Pa.” I nearly jumped. “Please meet my new friend; he wants to talk to you.” I ran back into the house. The last thing I wanted was to be questioned in front of this guy. When my father returned to the house, there was no beige box in his hands. Disappointed, I kept quiet, relieved that he asked no questions. He took us to the beach and later that day, while I was sitting next to him, a strange teenager handed me a vanilla ice cream cone and walked away. It was the same type of plain vanilla ice cream I’d had with my Turkish friend the previous night. Unsure how to react to this in front of my father, I just sat there holding the ice cream. “Eat it before it melts,” Dad said, at which point Lyosha and Toma began to tease me about my secret admirer. To stop them, I gave them my ice cream. Until we returned home to Volchanovka, my father stayed with us all the time. I never saw the guy again.
On our return home, my mother didn’t seem as happy to see us as I’d expected. We had hardly walked into the house when she snapped at me, “Your friend Lyuba is getting married next month. She’s pregnant. From now on, you are no longer seeing her on your own.” I felt immediate guilt over my first kiss. Luckily no one knew. “If you ever get yourself into that situation,” she continued, “Don’t even dream of a wedding! You’ll leave this house immediately.” The thought of my father telling her about the Turkish guy scared me a lot. I hurried to my room. Thankfully, my father didn’t say a word. By dinnertime, things were back to normal. My mother never broached the subject again. I resolved that I’d be leaving home as soon as I finished school.
Two months before my graduation, our school announced it would be hosting a new competition: ‘Miss School’. The news spread to other schools, and everyone was welcome to come and watch. I was excited about the competition, but I didn’t even think of signing up. When our Ukrainian language teacher brought the competition forms to our class, only two girls raised their hands. She then pointed at me, “I can see you are interested.” She placed a form in front of me before leaving. I read the competition programme. It included modelling, dancing, singing or reading a poem, baking, sport and crafts. I could do all of these, except for the singing or reading of poetry in front of others. But then I thought of my favourite Beatles’ song, ‘Yesterday’. No one would hear my R. Excited, I decided to sign up for the competition. I had two weeks to prepare. On the morning of the competition, I awoke with happy expectations. I was ready to show off my rock ’n’ roll skills with Vova, who had agreed to be my dance partner. I had polished my performance of ‘Yesterday’ with the help of one of my classmates, who accompanied me on the piano. Masha had recorded us ten times, checking the quality of our sound. In addition, my mother had helped me bake a Drunken Cherry Cake, using homemade cherry liqueur and liqueur-soaked cherries on the icing, which always won our guests over. Half an hour before the start of the show, the hall was already packed. I was number eighteen on the programme. Of all the girls in the competition, Irina looked to be my strongest competition. We’d played in the basketball team together, and she was a very competitive player on the court. I had a feeling she’d be no different in this competition. As the competition progressed, the entrants were whittled down one by one. With only three girls left, including Irina and myself, we came to the song and poetry part. Among the three of us, I was the only one going to sing. To my amazement, when I finished, the audience gave me a standing ovation. The judges revealed their scores; Irina and I were in the final – I was one point ahead. The last round was the presentation of our cakes. The host announced that there would be a ten- minute break while the jury tasted our baking. I handed over my cake and went backstage to await the verdict. I was standing behind the heavy red curtain when someone gently touched my shoulder. As I turned, I saw to my surprise that it was Igor. I hadn’t expected him to know about the competition or even care. Although he was no longer at my school, I still had a crush on him. And there he was, smiling at me. “Privet,” he said. “I want you to know that I support you. Can I kiss you for good luck?” Overwhelmed at this, our first real encounter, I nodded, feeling my ears burning. He took my hand and planted a gentle kiss on my cheek. Right then, the host called Irina and me back to the stage. It was a tie between us. The judges said, although they liked my baking, alcohol should not have been used in a school competition. To decide on the winner, they suggested a quiz: the first girl unable to answer a question correctly would lose the competition. My mind immediately raced – answering questions might require the use of the letter R. I felt like running away, but Igor was there watching me. Holding my sweating hands tightly behind my back, a smile fixed firmly on my face, I hoped for a stroke of good luck. I tried very hard not to think about Igor. The first question was for me: “What was the name of the first Russian city?” I breathed a sigh of relief. At boarding school, Nina Alekseevna had drilled us in questions we were likely to be asked by foreign students. That was when I learned that the first Russian city was not Moscow, as most people thought. “Kyiv.” The next question was for Irina. “What is the name of the warmest ocean?” I couldn’t help but wish this were my next question. “Indian Ocean.” The correct answer. The host, Irina’s friend, commented how well Irina and I presented our intellectual side. She asked the jury if she could add her own question. She wanted to touch on the subject of modern culture. They agreed. My smile vanished. This girl knew of my R problem; she could easily make me fail. “Who was the leader of the legendary group, Queen?” She turned to me. I felt numb. There was no way I would say the answer into the microphone without humiliating myself. Everyone knew the answer. Someone from the crowd shouted “Miss, Miss” to thunderous applause. I heard my voice saying from a distance, “Ya neznayu, I don’t know.” I turned away from the crowd, ignoring their groans of disappointment. My eyes were fixed on Irina’s face. She looked triumphant. The host handed her a microphone. “Freddie Mercury,” she said loudly. Without delay Irina was crowned ‘Miss School’. I just managed to shake her hand before rushing backstage.