Dan Knew by F J Curlew
A puppy born to the dangers of street life. A woman in trouble. An unbreakable bond.
A Ukrainian street dog is rescued from certain death by an expat family. As he travels to new countries with them a darkness grows and he finds himself narrating more than just his story. More than a dog story. Ultimately it’s a story of escape and survival but maybe not his.
The world through Wee Dan’s eyes in a voice that will stay with you long after you turn that last page.
You can take the dog out of the streets but…
‘Hello there.’ I crouch down and call her over. She comes trotting daintily across, leaving the rubbish bin outside McDonald’s and its tasty treats. She slinks slightly through the snowy night, one ear cocked, tail wagging timidly whilst tucked between quivering hind legs.
‘Look at you, out here all alone,’ I say, as I hold my hands out so that she can get a good sniff; check me out. Her look is that of a typical Ukrainian street dog; perhaps a touch of wolf mixed with German Shepherd and who knows what else? She is beautiful.
‘Good girl.’ Her approval is signalled through a little jump and a proper tail wag. I reach behind her silky soft ear and give her a scratch. As I stand up she wraps herself around my legs. ‘You want to come home?’ I ask, smiling at her antics, ‘Come on then.’ It’s a two minute walk from where we are, on Maidan, the main square in central Kyiv, to our flat in Kostolnya, one of its many tree-lined boulevards. She trots at my heel as if she has been my dog for years.
Enter Ceilidh girl.
We walk past lines of old ladies dressed in their heavy overcoats and bulky boots; the obligatory headscarf tied tightly in place.
‘Khotite vodki, sigarety?’ They offer their illicit wares in seditious whispers. Vodka, concealed under coats, in pockets and plastic tartan bags. Cigarettes in the guise of Yves Saint Laurent, Cartier, Marlborough and Benson & Hedges. Enormous tin pots crammed with home made pies (sort of doughy, bread things) stuffed with cabbage or something called ‘meat’ which has an indistinguishable greyness to it. These are covered with a damp tea towel which, when lifted, allows a very peculiar odour to escape amidst the thick plume of steam. It is reminiscent of bad school dinners mixed with a rancid, bitter smell which I cannot identify. It catches the back of my throat in an unpleasant way. The dog raises her nose to the aroma.
Her hackles go up suggesting previous antagonistic encounters. She backs off and gently pads proudly behind me. I no longer need your scraps. I am a people-dog now. See? Suddenly the old ladies dissolve into the anonymity of the proletariat. I wonder what has happened, then I spot them; Militsia on the prowl. They are ominous and intimidating, with the power to do, well, whatever they want. Anything which unnerves the locals, I have found, is best left well alone.
We reach our block and she hesitates slightly at the stair door, sniffing cautiously at the air. I assume it smells okay as she trots in and repeats the performance at our third floor apartment door. The door is, we think, excessively secure and heavy; made of metal, bolted into more metal. The sturdy locks clunk open. Furniture is solid, dark, Soviet, and functional but there is a nice homely feeling to the place.
‘Hey, Lily, someone’s come to visit,’ I call.
Lily walks down the hall to see who our guest is. ‘Oh cool, she’s gorgeous.’ A big smile breaks across her face. ‘Hello there.’
Ceilidh’s tail thumps with enthusiasm.
‘Where did you find her?’ Lily asks, as she crouches down beside her.
‘Raiding the bins outside McDonald’s.’
‘Uhu, I’ve seen a pack of them around there recently. Are we going to keep her then?’ She giggles as her nose is sniffed and then oh so gently licked. We were to discover that Ceilidh’s kisses were rare and therefore special things.
I laugh. ‘Well, what do you think?’ I have a track record of picking up strays and wasn’t about to change now.
Ceilidh is now off, investigating her new home, sniffing every nook and cranny. She has caught the scent of Hamish the cat, our first Ukrainian pet. We found her shortly after our arrival, when we were wandering around Kreshatik, the main down-town street. Beneath the street is a maze of underpasses, in which exists its very own sub culture. Straggly street kids mingle with drunks of all ages. Buskers attract audiences unable to offer more than appreciative applause. Men, dressed in black, do dodgy deals in the shadows. An eclectic array of make-shift stalls display everything from lighters to lingerie and the ever present babushkas stand selling whatever they can get their hands on, one of whom is holding a cardboard box which is alive with an assortment of fluffy kittens.
I ask, ‘Skolka?’ (how much) and pick up that the reply begins with a ‘py’ which I think is probably fifty (pyat’desyat) hrivna. It’s about ten pounds which I deem to be a fair price. I give her the money. She beams at me and waxes lyrical in Russian. I have absolutely no idea what she is saying but suffice to say she’s happy, extremely so! I was later to find out that the asking price was more likely to have been five, maximum fifteen hrivna but hey, I could afford it so why not?
Ceilidh’s behaviour is impeccable all weekend, trotting to heel, coming the minute she’s called, just being the perfect dog. I get up extra early on Monday morning and take her for a decent walk in the local park. We meander around the myriad of little paths through naked trees, their clothing strewn around, creating a musty smell as they gently decompose.
Reaching the little copper roofed bandstand at the corner of the park, I stop to take in the view. From this hill the city spreads out before me. The river Dnieper silently snakes its way past docks where ferries sit, idle; cargo boats queue amidst rusty, creaking cranes; sandy beaches sleep. Columns of smoke and steam rise from black shadows of industry through the pink-blue haze of a still, frosty morning.
I am enjoying the peace of this huge city not yet disturbed by its population of three to five million (the figures vary depending on the source!) Ceilidh is not so impressed and is heading off in the wrong direction.
‘Ceilidh, this way! Idi syuda!’ (Come here!)
We head home in a rush as I am now close to missing the school bus. After the usual hectic day of teaching I am looking forward to seeing Ceilidh. In my excitement I almost forget that I have arranged for a cleaning lady to come and start that week and she is meeting me after school to see what needs to be done.
‘You don’t mind dogs do you?’ I ask, ‘We have one. Ceilidh,’ I smile.
‘No, no problem. Love dogs very, very,’ the would be cleaning lady replies.
‘So, this is the place,’ I say, as I undo the triple lock and open the door.
The scene which greets us is almost apocalyptic! Books have been pulled from shelves, shredded, and tossed all around the flat, cushions likewise, shoes and bags chewed, and as for the rubbish bin – well, it’s as if Ceilidh has carefully selected an egg shell and popped it on pile ‘a’ then a mouldy chunk of bread on pile ‘b’, all the way to ‘z’.
It is common practise for landlords to leave many of their personal possessions in properties they are renting out. Cupboards are often crammed with old toys, clothing, photographs, records and, yes, books. There is almost a feeling of intrusion when certain cupboards are opened, but I can’t help taking a look; guiltily peeking into someone else’s life. I am now desperately hoping that the books lying in tatters around me aren’t precious in any way.
Several faeces sit stinking amidst the mayhem. Ceilidh just stands there wagging her tail then starts this spectacular howl. I can only describe it as a “herroo” type noise, later known as singing. Ceilidh sang when she was happy. She sang when she was sad. She sang when she was excited. She sang when she had been really, really naughty. She also sang to the call, ‘Yushenko’ (one of the leaders of The Orange Revolution in 2004 and subsequent president) to the delight of the general populace!
‘Oh dear. I am so sorry. She hasn’t been left on her own before. I…’ I am mortified!
‘I go. You find no-one clean here. Terrible, terrible.’ She cries indignantly, tossing her head in utter contempt, pulling the front door tightly behind her.
‘Oh Ceilidh!! What have you done? Bad girl.’ I can’t be too cross with her though. Ah well, dog walker and remarkably wonderful cleaning lady required, pretty much immediately. Thankfully this wasn’t to prove too difficult a task in a city of desperate poverty and exceptionally kind people.
Meanwhile, Hamish the cat was not overly impressed with the arrival of Ceilidh and soon after this episode moved himself into the rather nice little gallery shop at the bottom of our stair. I would see him sitting contentedly on the small padded chair set aside for him just inside the door. They were happy. He was happy and well, I didn’t mind.
Ceilidh has now become very confident of her place in the family. She is our great protector and no longer content to trot happily at my heel. Sigh. There are many people she has issues with. People who have the audacity to stand still are to be barked at and made to move. Bumsh, (homeless people) of whom there are many, are seen off hastily, as are babushkas, children, loud people, dogs and with particular venom, people in uniform!
To be in charge of a dog who barks at the Militsiya is a high risk situation and not recommended. I was to find out later that wind surfers were also deemed to be highly dangerous! (Actually factual for her as she came close to being clonked on the head by one she was in hot pursuit of many years later!) Walking Ceilidh has become something to be done with extreme caution.
She needs a lot of exercise and has to be allowed to run free but a thorough scan of the area for possible ‘enemies’ has to be undertaken before the click of the leash announces her freedom. Her back arches and she propels herself forward at great speed, bounding off in utter delight. Whether she decides to come back or not is another matter!
After a week or so Ceilidh has to make her first trip to the vet’s. It is in a dark and dingy basement with shelves displaying a few old fashioned glass bottles, some hypodermics and little else. The wooden examination table is ancient, bearing the scars of its many previous patients, but clean. A smell of disinfectant competes with old wood and damp. The rotund, middle aged, female vet barks something at me from a face which says do not question my authority.
I feel intimidated and stupid as I say in very bad Russian, ‘Izvinite, ya ne govoryu pa Russki. Angliski? (Sorry, I don’t speak Russian. English?)
‘Vot you problem?’ she demands sternly.
‘Well, she is from the streets and I want to check all is good with her,’ I say, gesticulating enthusiastically too, in an attempt to aid understanding. ‘She also has these.’ I lift Ceilidh’s upper lip to reveal quite revolting lumps which have suddenly sprouted from her lips. They are purple, pink and blue blobs, not dissimilar in appearance to a tick having gorged itself almost to death on its host’s blood, which have turned the beautiful Ceilidh into something quite grotesque.
‘Hmm,’ she shakes her head, tutting.
I can feel my eyes widen in apprehension.
‘Zis common in such dogs. Iz, how you say, some bad zing she eat. Poison da?’
‘Is it a big problem?’ I ask, fearing it might be something serious.
‘Nyet, nyet. I give medicine for you and all okay.’
‘Everything else is good?’
‘Da, vse khorosho.’ (Yes, everything is fine.)
Ceilidh is given some injections and a course of industrial strength antibiotics.
‘Skolka?’ I ask. My vocabulary is extremely limited but I do my best to use what I can. It is important to know how to say “how much” but better when you can also understand the reply!
‘Shest’desyat,’ she answers.
I look suitably confused as I haven’t quite got the numbers off pat and don’t want to make another silly mistake with money. She shows me the bill – sixty hrivna – which is about twelve pounds! At first I think there must be some mistake; this is for the medication and I have to pay for the consultation, surely? But no, that is the total bill. Well, this is a country where the average doctor earns under a hundred pounds a month.
‘Spasibo bolshoi,’ (thank you very much) I say, as I hand her the money.
Finally a warm smile and a nod of her head, ‘Spasibo vam.’ (Thanks to you.)
I feel a great sense of achievement as I relate the story to a fellow dog loving expat who has lived here for a couple of years.
‘Yeah, you have to be careful with your dogs here. Every so often, and if there’s some important foreigner due, they clear up all the street dogs.’
‘What, take them to shelters?’ I ask in my naivety.
Suzanne laughs ruefully, ‘No. They kill them.’
‘No. Poison them, shoot them, beat them to death. It’s disgusting. Just make sure you never let her eat any crap from the street.’
‘Easier said than done,’ I reply.
‘Yeah, tell me about it.’
It is summer 2001 and the Pope is due to pay a controversial visit to Ukraine. The weather is glorious and Suzanne and I are taking the dogs for a walk, her two German Shepherds and Ceilidh. We cross Parkovyi bridge, which takes us over the Dnieper river to one of its many islands.
Despite its great distance from the sea Kyiv takes on the guise of a coastal city in the summer. The plethora of sandy beaches skirting the islands are awash with scantily clad teenagers with their beat boxes and attitudes, alongside bulky babushkas standing hands on hips, tutting and discussing. Young men show off their well worked muscles on the decrepit blue exercise equipment. Older men drink vodka, eat sausage, and change the world. The smell of shashlik and sweat predominate.
We are heading away from all the hubbub to what Suzanne has christened “Dog Island,” because it has a huge population of stray dogs, but is also a wilderness in the middle of the city and therefore a brilliant doggie walking area. It is not somewhere I like to go without company however as Ceilidh, with her antisocial behaviour, makes it dangerous.
The stray dogs hang around in packs of ten or twenty and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of them with a feisty people-dog! A quick sprint through the danger zone is best, trying to avert Ceilidh’s eyes from possible enemies and keep her hackles down. We walk briskly past the small cafés and kiosks at the beginning of the island where the dogs usually hang out, scavenging. But they are not here today.
‘No gauntlet to run so far. Cool,’ I say.
‘Yeah, wonder where they all are?’ Suzanne asks. ‘Probably off shashlik hunting somewhere,’ she adds with a grin.
We follow our usual route, turning off the main pathway and into the woods where few others go. Today the stray dogs have also slunk off into the woods. We see several, writhing, retching, making a hideous howling, screaming noise.
‘What the hell?’
Then more lying on the ground twitching with blood and saliva dripping from their mouths.
‘Oh my God!’
As our eyes become more accustomed to the shade of the trees and we focus we see dozens of them. Many are already dead; those in the last throws of life in abhorrent agony.
‘Jesus Christ, I can’t take this,’ I say, crying, closing my eyes.
‘Bastards,’ says Suzanne.
We turn back and head home.
No walk today.
No more words said.
According to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister of the time, Anatoliy Zlenko, the Pope’s visit “…will show the world that we are a civilised society which respects normal human values.”
Ceilidh gets to sleep in my bed tonight.
F J Curlew
Fiona dropped out of school aged 15, because being the consummate rebel, she hated it! After becoming a single parent she decided to return to education, graduating in 1996 with an honours degree in primary education. Ah, the irony! As soon as she graduated she packed everything she owned into her Renault 11, including her daughter, two dogs and a cat, and headed off to Estonia to become an international school teacher. After fifteen years of teaching, predominantly in Eastern Europe, she returned to the UK . She now lives on the east coast of Scotland with two Scottish rescue dogs and a disgruntled Portuguese cat.