I am in a coffee shop in Kozyatyn town and it is tiny. One counter, one round table, one set of chairs at a window seat. Proudly established in 2017, proclaims the window decal. I come in because it’s familiar, I know how to deal with a coffee shop, how to order, what they offer. Because it seems to be the only place I’ve found where I can come and sit for a few hours, waiting until my hotel is ready.
It’s a confusing town, I can’t seem to find the centre. I see the bank names but there don’t seem to be the shops that go with it, until I walk another street or two, past high rise flat blocks and small cabins squirrelled in between them. I don’t see any restaurants or cafés, just shops that sell shoes or phones. At one point I walk through the market, where, once the larger stalls tail away, old women sit in front of small amounts of vegetables they have placed on the ground – a bag of apples, a cup of beans. People are selling milk in reused plastic bottles – Pepsi and water – fresh from their own cows? I had to keep asking for the hotel, getting closer each time, down this street and turn right are usually the only directions I can understand and then only when they use hand gestures too. I arrived there at 10.30am, too early I knew. Look through the gap between two shops, cabins really, between the flats and the road and there was a sign on the side of a tower block, 10 storeys high, Hotel Irene – up the metal stairs, mind the missing step where concrete is replaced by plank and into a small blank corridor with an ashtray on a side shelf. I didn’t understand the woman behind the desk, rounded in her middle age, coarse blonde hair and mascara smudged under spidery eyelashes, but together we worked out that I would come back later. She asked if I wanted to see the room, I stood in the dingy corridor, wallpaper peeled away from the walls, plaster edges showing unfinished building work at door frames, hairspray fumes coming from the salon entrance two doors down, and waited as she tried the key. It didn’t work and she went to fetch another from the front desk. I looked at myself in the brown smoky mirror at the end of the corridor, greasy hair scraped back into a slick ponytail, wondering if I’d lost any weight yet from this two weeks of walking. The second key didn’t work and she went to fetch another, which finally gained us entry to a room which was clearly occupied – indoor shoes tidily placed at the end of each bed, a half drunk bottle of coke standing on the nightstand. We made the international gesture for cleaning at each other (a hand holding an invisible cloth wiping the air in a horizontal motion) and she assured me that I could come back at 1pm to stay here, pointing at the clock to show me the time. I noted the colour and print of the bedlinen (bright pink with yellow flowers) and left to find myself somewhere to sit for 3 hours.
I slept in a field last night, walking along the road until the high impenetrable corn crop turned to an area of cleared earth, yellow peas scattering the ground, fuzzy cut stalks snapping under my feet. The sun set far away over the flat plain, yellow gold filling the clear white blue sky, and I basked in the warmth until it disappeared, then prepared for cold. I didn’t put the outer cover onto my tent last night, I so enjoy seeing the sky darken above me, feeling part of the world, not shut inside a tiny nylon cave. I knew it would be cold but felt wonderful, lying in the gauze shell of my tent, all my possessions safely arranged around me, just my boots outside (and believe me I feel nervous about that. I have a fear of waking up to find out some stealthy bandit has crept up on me overnight and left me bootless). I used more of my winter camping gear, not all of it, hopefully it will have to be a snowy winter before I need all of the night-time headcoverings and insulation I’ve packed with me, but I added another layer and was toasty warm all night – waking to find frozen beads of condensation covering my net shelter, like crystals glued to a gaudy wedding dress. There was a thin layer of frost on the outside of my sleeping bag cover.
I distinctly remember, at some point this morning, smelling my armpit and being pleased at how, well I guess in the impossibility of using the word ‘good’ to describe it, I would have to go for the double negative of ‘not awful’. Yes, I remember being happy at how not awful I smelt. It was a crisp, clear and sunny morning, I hadn’t done anything to make me sweaty just yet, the gentle breeze was refreshing and I had a healthy, even pleasant odour. It’s one of the awful things of coming into the centre of a town, standing next to a woman in clean jeans, black puffa jacket and red lipstick, experiencing the faint nervousness of trying to order and pay for a coffee in a foreign language, in a tiny room, that suddenly it is forced upon me that I absolutely stink. I’ve worn the same clothes day and night for five days and have barely washed. Pleasant odour? Familiar and comforting? What am I thinking? There is mud on my boots and pieces of grass caught in the net pockets of my smeared rucksack.
I am unfit for anything but a shower. I must retire to the sanctity of that shabby hotel room as soon as possible. Dry out the tent, air the sleeping kit, wash my socks in the sink, darn my leggings, stretch my body. Prepare myself to go out there and repeat the same again for another week – the same frost, the same autumn colours, shabby villages, wide flat fields, silent forests.