“A touching love story that illuminates the aid business. Compelling and enjoyable.”
Clare Short, former Secretary of State for International Development
WINNER: The People's Book Prize for Fiction 2016
Prologue – April 2014
Donetsk was on the news again today. It’s become headline material, even out here; the hostages, the burning buildings, the thugs – and those Russian tanks gathering in ever greater clusters along the border. Afterwards, I managed finally to get through to Svetlana. She says it’s tense in the village, that some of the youths have left to join the pro-Russian activists. Her relief that her son is too young was palpable down the phone line, and my concern for her rebounded at me as a long-distance echo, “If you need to get out, then come here.”
Those youths from the village, now hurtling through the streets of the city, launching their petrol bombs, they were barely born back then. I can still see their hot little faces, just awakened from their naps, as they ducked around our legs in the wooden hall which served as the kindergarten – along with its many other communal roles. I see them hoisted onto the shoulders of the men returning from the mine, the pinpricks of coal dust emblazoned in their foreheads. It will be those children who are fighting in Donetsk now. But then, of course, most of them followed their fathers down that mine, with its rickety ceiling props and high methane levels, so what do you expect? The country has barely changed since it won its independence over two decades ago. The inertia of Ukraine, I used to call it, and people would nod vigorously – yes that’s just the word. Inertia.
Back then though, there was so much hope, so much commotion. We Westerners were crawling over Ukraine, passing on know-how in the ways of democracy and the free market, helping this bold new nation through its transition from communism. But did we ever really know where that transition was to wind up? Not where it is today. Ukraine means ‘borderland’ in old East Slavic and perhaps Russia was never really going to let go, perhaps it allowed Ukraine to fray at its borders, scrunching it back in when the threat of union with Europe seemed like it might actually happen.
At least the winter is over. The TV pictures show a landscape that is still barren, but I know that it will be strewn with sunflowers before this conflict reaches its zenith. There are blue skies and sunshine, a warmth in the air, and the soldiers at the checkpoints can feel it on their backs, even if the inevitable still awaits them. In the village, come April, spring was always quick to arrive and life would begin again; the chatter at the well, the goats straining on their chains, the whitewashing of the squat houses with their roofs of corrugated iron, the storks taking flight from an old chimney top.
The TV cameras homed in on the airport, on the offices of the regional government – I even caught a glimpse of that hotel. How can there be conflict in a city I know so well? Where all the buildings are so familiar – so benign? I can feel myself there, as if it was all just yesterday. What is going to happen to all those people I knew? I picture their faces, I see them laughing, dancing at a party deep in the forest, or contemplative, stirring sugar into strong black tea, and the memories overwhelm me. The past twenty years fall away, and I remember so vividly that first time I went to Donetsk – with Dan.
“You wanna come to Donetsk with me?”
I was sitting at my desk awash with documents when Dan phoned. We’d met the day before at the launch of my programme.
“It’s where the coal mines are. Thought you’d know that, Vanessa?”
What if I’d said no? What if I had never gone with him that day? But that provocation in itself was sufficient, plus the fact that this was of course a prize of an invitation. And, I admit, he had been on my mind.
“Of course,” I said, “down in the east. When were you thinking of going?”
“Flight’s in two hours.”
“Yep. You got your passport?”
“Yes, but we’re not leaving the country, are we?”
“No, but Ukraine’s still communist in all but name and there’ll be checks.”
“OK,” I said.
“I’ll pick you up in thirty.” And he hung up.
I flustered about the office, checking my handbag for my passport, which had not left my side since my arrival in Kiev a few weeks before, and stuffing background papers in my briefcase. I have to smile when I look back on those eager days – I even forgot to pack my camera. From behind her computer, Irina threw me sullen glances, while Sasha sent faxes with his back square on to me; they must both have found this impromptu day trip as bizarre as it was.
When he pitched up with his driver, Dan was slouched on the banquette seat, his arm loosely thrown about its back. He wore chinos and a crimson polo shirt, while his cream jacket was bunched up on the back window, its stripy lining spilling like the silk of a hot air balloon. Not without some trepidation, I climbed in beside him, wishing I’d worn a longer dress that day. As we set off for the airport he turned to me with his languid smile.
“Settling in OK?”
“Yes thanks, making good headway with the programme.”
“Well, you made an impressive start yesterday.”
“Thanks.” I felt myself flush.
He contemplated me for a few moments. “You’ve just got to know that they’ll play you, these people, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. But can you second-guess them? That’s the real skill to this game, it can get tricky.”
I laughed, only vaguely clear. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll have the chance to suss them out when we get down to the detail at our workshop next week.” I paused but he said nothing, so I added, “I really want to get it right.”
“Sure you do.”
As he smiled at me, I took the chance to observe him. He must have been in his late thirties – a good ten years older than me anyway – his cheeks held the crease that comes with age, a baggy line drawn out from the nose down to the corner of the mouth, only in Dan’s case it was as marked as Yogi Bear’s. His hair was coal black and dishevelled – messy even – and his eyes, the colour of walnuts, were gentle. Presence, that’s it, I thought, that’s what he has. Even then I could feel it wreathing itself around me like the hot day. He reached behind him for a paper bag and offered me a doughnut.
“Thanks.” I held it for a moment as he bit into his.
“You get a place yet?” He sucked sugar from his fingers.
“No, still at the hotel.” I took a bite of my own and gulped it back. “Once we’ve finished the programme design, I’ll head back to the UK for a month or so while we put the contract out to tender, then I’ll find an apartment in the autumn.”
“Ah.” He scrutinised the last of his doughnut. “Yours have any jam in it?”
“Little bit.” I flipped my hand to show him the red ooze.
“Mine didn’t. But then life does that to you, don’t you find?”
I watched the tip of his tongue working on the last grains of sugar at his lips, before turning to the view from my window, my thighs peeling like Sellotape as I shifted position on the vinyl seat. Get a grip Vanessa, you’re a professional, I chided silently, still callow enough to enjoy the weight of that word when applied to myself. I could see why so many people had told me about Dan, but I was not about to be waylaid by some guy, however high up the ranks he was. I was in Ukraine on a mission – well I was there to change the world, wasn’t I? We travelled on in silence, entering the birch forest which surrounded Borispol airport.
“What projects do you run in Donetsk?” I asked eventually.
“IFI mainly.” He turned and saw my frown. “Inward foreign investment.”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“Most of it from the States – plenty of rich pickings down there. We’re setting up an IFI department for the Governor, which is the purpose of our meeting today.”
“Is there scope for the Levshenko Programme down there?”
He snorted. “There’s scope for everything down there, Vanessa.”
The plane to Donetsk was a squat propeller affair, which looked like some cartoon character from a kids TV programme as if it should have a face and a cheeky smile. We were last on, having enjoyed the VIP lounge, which consisted of a couple of benches in a side room and a glass of iced water. As we made our way in through the hold, I pulled up short at the scene before me. Beside the heaps of cases, several people were standing around, chatting and smoking. A row of worn canvas loops hung down from the ceiling, and I realised that these passengers were going to be strap-hanging during the flight. Incredulous, I turned back to Dan, who winked at me.
“Different strokes, Vanessa.”
He took a window seat at the front of the plane, placing his briefcase in the saggy overhead netting, while I placed my own by my feet, intending to brief myself on Donetsk during the flight.
“So what’s the population?” I asked, fastening the tatty seatbelt.
“About a million,” he said, lengthening his own; there was a hint of a paunch.
“And how many coal mines?”
“Well over two hundred.” He glanced at me. “Does that trump the UK?”
I turned down the corners of my mouth in what I imagined could pass for a sage look and nodded slowly. “Pretty much the same, before the cull.”
He raised his eyebrows at that, as I remember, and it did feel thrilling to have filled a gap in his knowledge.
“They’re gonna have to close half the mines,” he said, “That’s a hundred thousand men, in terms you or I care about.”
I tutted gravely. “How are we going to find jobs for all of them?”
“Aw, may as well skip a generation, focus on the youth.” He yawned as he spoke.
I frowned sharply at him, but Dan was reaching across me for a glass of red wine from a tray offered by the stewardess. I declined the drink, my expression overly cross as I grappled with his cynical reaction. My empathy for the unfortunates of this world broiled inside me and I wasn’t going to let him off there.
“You can’t just give up on them,” I said, as he put his nose to the glass and breathed in. “In the UK, we got thousands of miners back into work. Loads of them started their own business too, guys with a passion, a hobby maybe, which they managed to make a living out of when the pit closed.”
Dan took a lingering sip of his wine. To anyone else, this message may have been clear – leave the technical stuff till we get to our meeting – but not me, I persisted.
“There was one miner I knew who just lived for his roses, spent all his time in the garden, deadheading and stuff. Now he set himself up in horticulture – and he made good money from it too. Another guy I knew started recycling old conveyor belts from the mines, making new things with them …” I scrabbled through my mind to remember what things. “Tool bags, for example.”
I waited until Dan turned to me. “Roses and tool bags, eh?”
His mockery smarted, and at first his eyes held only amusement, but then they softened, until finally he seemed quite unguarded. A professional giant exposed.
“You have to start somewhere, don’t you?” I muttered.
He continued to watch me until finally he said, “I guess you do.”
It was me who broke the moment, reaching forward to unclip my briefcase, while Dan closed his eyes and settled back in his seat, the wine glass held balanced at a loose angle on his thigh. He remained silent until take-off, and once we were airborne it was impossible to talk over the din of the propellers anyway, so I spent the flight flicking through my documents, highlighting in yellow as I went. Clearly, I was trying to impress Dan, but he was oblivious to me, making hefty inroads into a John Grisham paperback. As would I these days, of course – I never used to retain the facts in those background papers anyway.
When we came into land after an hour or so, I found myself gripping the armrests. I’d not flown much before and had no particular fear back then, but as we approached the runway the plane seemed to be tilting over. Across the aisle, I could see the tarmac skidding outside, but a glance at the window beside Dan brought only glimpses of sky, and I still swear today that the plane landed on one wheel first, tipping us sideways at a terrifying angle. I braced myself, eyes screwed shut against the squeal of tyres.
“It’s OK,” I heard Dan say gently, “we’re not gonna die today.” I felt his hand on my forearm, the warmth and weight of it both calming and rousing, and I opened my eyes with a lingering smile of thanks.
Then I caught a movement in the seat behind. A woman had stood up and was reaching for her carrier bags in the baggage nets.
“Saditsya!” Sit down!
Even I understood the command of the stewardess. The woman snapped back at her and made a great show of smoothing her skirt before sitting down again. But then, once the plane had come to a standstill, I snapped off my own seatbelt and I too jumped up.
This time the passengers joined in with the stewardess and Dan grinned at me. “Got to wait for the pilot to get off.”
A good five minutes then passed before finally a stout man, eyes bleary, skin flushed, ducked through the door of the cockpit and walked the short length of the aisle, to thunderous applause, both from cabin and baggage hold.
A black Volga from the regional government swept us into the city of Donetsk. We passed swathes of factories spewing toxic clouds into the cobalt sky, which soon lost its battle to camouflage them and became engulfed by billows of grey. When we crossed the vast river, my eye was drawn to the rows of flower tubs which lined the bridge, each of them packed with roses, the vibrant pinks and oranges of the blousy, old-fashioned heads softening the view across the water to the Soviet monoliths beyond. Finally, we drew up at that colossal building in the main square.
The Governor of Donetsk, Vladimir Zukov, was a short barrel of a creature who bustled out of his office and bore down on Dan. As they shook hands, the man clasped Dan’s arm, the way American statesman do on TV, then he pushed him through the door and swung his arm around my waist to propel me in too. I tried to ignore the squeeze he gave me on the way.
Inside his office, a wall of windows had been thrown open to the stunning July day and a breeze rifled the heaps of papers on his desk. On the wall behind it hung an enormous framed photo of Leonid Kuchma, the new President of Ukraine, who had been elected just days before, his eyes gleaming somewhere in the distance, seeking a glorious future – or perhaps a glorious past. Across the whole of another wall was a tapestry of the Donetsk coat of arms, the bottom section a swathe of coal-black, the top half a striking royal blue. A fist, chunky and chiselled, was holding a hammer high up in that sky, beside a luminous gold star, and, as I gazed at the image, I was startled to find myself welling up. I blinked back the tears, staggered by the emotion it had stirred in me.
We took our seats and the Governor boomed at Dan in Russian, while the translator Dan had arranged for my benefit struggled to keep up. “Dan, you are my friend, my buddy, and you are good friend of Donetsk.”
“Good to be back here, Vladimir, good to be back.” Dan’s voice was full of rich warmth. “And this is Vanessa Parker, from the Levshenko Programme.”
The Governor threw me a quick nod – I’d say he thought I was Dan’s love interest – and with a flash of annoyance I did fleetingly wonder if there’d been other women he’d whizzed down to Donetsk, to ease his negotiations. But then this man was far too professional and I swiftly quashed that thought.
“Ah, such good times we had in Chicago, Dan …” the Governor cried, adding in English, “… in Vindy City.”
More grey suits joined the meeting and greeted Dan effusively, with again the briefest of glances my way. So I sat back, biding my time, and observed Dan in operation; the genial smiles, the locker-room bonding, as he talked about the need for tax breaks for American companies who might invest in Donetsk, as he won them around to his point of view. It didn’t occur to me that Dan might also have been trying to impress me – such was the awe I felt for the deputy head of the USA’s colossal aid programme for Ukraine. At that point, Dan was the epitome of strength for me, possessed with gravitas, although it would only be a matter of hours before I was to witness his fallibility. Finally, he took the chance to introduce me properly and I sat forward eagerly.
Vladimir Zukov cocked his head at me. “Aha, you are also here for official business?”
The translator captured his undertone perfectly with an intonation which infuriated me, and I launched into a defiant opening gambit about my own aid programme, about how I was in Ukraine to help create new jobs in the wake of communism. But the instant I mentioned the budget – a hefty sum for an aid programme back then – the Governor interrupted me.
“Three million pounds, you say? I hope we will see some of that money in Donetsk, in our city of million roses.” He swept his hand towards the open windows. “We are most important city in Ukraine, we have educated people and coal mining, which is biggest industry in my country.” He paused. “Sadly many coal mines must now close.”
For a brief moment I sensed a connection, a chance to be taken seriously. I felt the power of that tapestry on the wall beside me – the stark simplicity of a miner’s fist and the memories it evoked of those I had known. But before I could let him know of my passion to help, the man had slapped a palm on the table and declared that the meeting would continue over lunch. The moment had passed. Then he contemplated me, raising an index finger as a teacher might to a four-year old. “After lunch, we will show you real coal mine.”
The other Ukrainian men chortled then, even Dan smiled, I noticed, which felt like a betrayal of our unspoken Western solidarity in that room. I raised my chin to the room.
“That would be great,” I cried, a little wildly then. “I’ve been down lots of coal mines. I used to manage a programme for miners who lost their jobs in the UK.”
The ‘manage’ was stretching it a bit – I’d been an assistant – but the translation was met with a momentary silence, with the surprised glances I’d been courting, and I sensed myself edging from bimbo to someone of potential value. And so I went on, my heart racing, committing myself further to this region far from Kiev, without any go-ahead from my philanthropic boss Bogdan, whose personal wealth was fronting our programme, and who had never once even mentioned Donetsk. How much of it was the tapestry – all those miners to be thrown out of work? How much of it was the way these men had dismissed me in front of Dan? Even today I’m still not sure, but I was a woman possessed.
“I will be launching a massive programme in Kiev, but I could set up a pilot project here. Dan has taken me through the needs.”
I shot a glance at Dan. He looked surprised, lips parted with amused interest, which fired me up further.
“I could set up a mini Job Centre at one of the coal mines due to close. This would counsel the men, help them find a new job, retrain them even, if need be.”
While speaking ad lib, I was mentally running through the cost of all this; probably no more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds, which we could easily absorb. But I was also aware that the Governor, who had been preparing to stand, had settled again in his seat, that the grey suits had shifted forward in theirs. And so I went further. Much further.
“Job Shops. That’s what they’re called in the UK. And if our pilot Job Shop is a success, then we could help you roll it out to other mines in the region.”
I can still see myself in that office, making policy on the hoof as I sought to prove myself to this man. And to Dan, of course. The way an aid programme takes shape – it was all so willy-nilly.
Over lunch, I was suddenly one of the lads, I was in the tent. The table was heaving with chicken legs, with pig liver pâté, with a baked fish on a platter, and the Governor plied me with vintage wine from Moldova. In those days, I was no wine drinker – I was more used to vodka nights out with Carole, my friend from home – but I found myself knocking back the 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon which the Governor had laid on for Dan, and leading the relentless laughter. After the food, we progressed to the toasts, with cognac, which came at me fast and furious, each drained glass instantly replenished by Vladimir Zukov for the next one. Dan stood, addressing me with a playful smile, and made the traditional Ukrainian third toast to the ladies, while all six men bowed to me and I giggled tipsily, a palm to my chest in modest acceptance. Then I sprang up for the next one.
“A toast to the Governor,” I cried, “to your beautiful city of a million roses, to our future collaboration through the Levshenko Aid Programme.”
Amidst all the cheers, the thumps on the white linen tablecloth, Vladimir Zukov slammed his shot glass against mine and clicked his fingers for the attention of our interpreter.
“May I call you Vanessa?” He leant towards me.
“Please do.” I leant forwards too. “Actually, my close friends call me Ness.”
“Ness? Like the monster? In Scotland?”
At that I collapsed into giggles, banging my fist on the table, an action which by then was the universal language at that lunch.
“You’d better have some coffee, kiddo, you’ve got a coal mine to get through.”
I turned to Dan as he spoke. Again his look was open, quite unguarded. And I’d say that was the moment. I’d say the kiddo did it.