Aloupka is an endless concrete Riviera. Shops line the road that corkscrews from mountain, as though they’ve fallen from heavy goods trucks speeding towards the sea. Ay-Petri sits at the top of the cablecar ride over pinetrees and vineyards peppering the ochre earth. Natives with the faces of evil sherpas hawk from every square inch of the narrow streets – strange wasp infested nougat and baklava, barbecued mystery meats, rides on emaciated nags that respond only to fear and peck at the sparse grass pathetically if you loose their reins, their foals pathetically attempting to nurse every time they stop, like piglets suckling a peperami.
I flip back in the water, my head goes under and I try to calm myself as the surging waves and the weights around my waist drag me down into the wash. The next wave comes and I stand once more, unsteady on the shifting banks of pebbles that descend into the sea. I try to gesture but they haven’t taught us a hand signal for ‘the idiot in front of me lost his flipper!’
“He’s lost his flipper” I say, futily wiggling my foot under the water.
The swarthy dive coach stares at me uncomprehending – trying to discern whether this flabby tourist who can’t even speak Russian, let alone Ukrainian is in mortal peril, or merely demanding a pre-dive double cheese burger with twisty fries. I give up and follow him into the wash. Face down, breathe evenly through your mouth, descend. I sink too quickly, tip forward, try not to flail with my arms. I’m drowning. I am not drowning. Breathe evenly, touch the top of your mask and breathe out through your nose. Explosion of bubbles on each exhale, surely too much air leaking out? My guide is snapping photos with a chunky underwater camera. Fire engine red, it captures me flailing, trying not to make myself drown. Trying to take in something of the seaweed fronded boulders and tiny jellyfish so much less impressive than the cheapest Nat Geo doc. My flippers don’t work. Oh they were plenty big enough to trip me over and over as we stood at the edge of the water practising emergency manoeuvres. Now they’re useless spandrels dragging me back, weighing down my legs so that I move forward at a sea snails pace. I try various strategies absorbed from Gerry Anderson cartoons – the mermaid, the underwater bicycle, the stumbling goat. None seem effective. Even as I watch my guide, a lithe, superbly muscled sea creature, dart and shimmy, drag me by hand up sheer rock faces, literally swim circles around me.
Now the shore’s approaching, after what can only have been minutes and I puncture the greedy sea, falling back and over as my guide works off my flippers and the weights and the aqualung under the water then haughtily strongmans the cart full of equipment back up the ramp to the harbour. I waddle after, vacuum sealed into a rubber cast, auditioning for aquaman.
There’s a white elephant on the Black Sea. Massive, unfinished, it looms over the green hills of Crimea like a cartoon grin. Someone flicks a laser over our ferry in the darkening evening: A piercing light from the coast. A secret signal. A poison pen. No one is blinded. We rumble on over the cooling waves, wrapped in blankets. The vocoded europop fades into Ukrainian ballads and finally to silence. A military boat forces the ferry steer clear of a section of coast between two ash grey and salmon cliffs. The president’s house is there, modestly hidden in the trees, immodestly guarded. Further up the coast a splash of taste, Gorbochov’s old dacha and accompanying white and red chalets, like a piece of Switzerland on Chorne More. Finally, beyond a horseshoe hump of eyesore apartments – 700k euro each, says the middle-aged tourguide with the Princess Di hairdo; the vast palace of ‘a member of the president’s family’. Unreachable by road, the colossus has the tacky pea green hue and faux Whitehouse design you’d expect from a Ukranian Tony Montana. Further up the coast at, Putin’s built his own holiday home, with 350 million dollars meant for Russia’s health care infrastructure, and ample pools for disappearing mistresses.
‘Cock and balls!’ I cackle with delight, overjoyed it’s still here. Don’t hold it by the hat Anya tells me, you might break it. Cock & balls has been all we’ve talked about today and now here it is, wrapped in plastic and cradled in my hands, the perfect present. It’s gift buying day and we’re in Mariupol’s dodgiest supermarket. I pick out a blue policeman to take care of cock and balls on the flight home. I can only hope they’ll survive the trip. What if they push me over the weight limit? I look down at cock and balls sadly. It couldn’t contain more than a litre could it? Perhaps I could sip off the excess.
Back in Alaska we join a barmaid’s birthday party. I’m so tired I have to fake friendliness. Ireland has a reputation to earn. I jokingly suggest taking a photo with the birthday girl – a heavy woman in her forties with tear stained makeup running down her deputy dog muzzle. Instantly I regret it, as Marina runs over to get her attention. ‘Do they have women like me where you come from?’ she asks as I gurn at the camera, thumbs up, feeling like a proper cunt. Not to worry, I cock and balls it out. By the end of the night we’re slow dancing. She won’t let me leave without two fat slices of homemade apple pie. Олеся finds the words hilarious ‘Apple pi’, ‘Apple pi’ she says over and over, as we moonwalk around the table. Every city loves a stranger.
Every grave after 2004 is laser cut with the face of its occupant. Proudly defiant, they gaze at us as we drive past isometric gravestones under a Stalker skybox. Starocrimski is endless and overgrown. Many graves have a table and bench built right over the body, so you can come and eat with (or feast on) the dead. The gangster’s graves are the best, enormous marble temples to slain bosses and their mamochkas, complete with busts, statues and intricate ornamentation – one even has a crucified jesus gazebo. It’s bad luck to take pictures, but I do anyway, earning a thorn bush ripped knee for my troubles. Somehow cut and bleeding even inside my pants. I imagine memetic microbes, soul pieces of the dead, strange brain parasites suffusing the earth and the plants, inhabiting me, colonising my mind till I’m a gangster zombie with the soul of an assassinated accountant, a refugee from Mariupol.