A couple of years ago on Christmas eve, the boys and I were in nearby ‘Market Town’, I can’t even remember what it was, that was so important to our festive arrangements that I felt the need to venture into town on Christmas eve. The boys were with me and seizing the moment I herded them in to the shoe shop for some new school shoes, they were not impressed they were on a mission to go to ‘Game’, to suss the PS2 games; the shoe shop has a traditional sort of ethos in that it offers good service from pleasant staff, but it is by no means frumpy, it sells shoes that tempt (apart from school shoes) its not difficult to part with money.
The shop was full of children, one boy was jumping up and down with excitement, he was thrilled to bits with his new trainers, the sort with flashing lights in the heels; despite the sparkle in his eyes, he didn’t look well, his face was pinched and thin, his complexion was that sallow yellow/blue of a fading bruise, it was not the hue of of healthy child. There was a cacophony of chatter in the shop, but not a word of it could we understand, (and we are local after all.) Then slowly it dawned on me, the party and their chaperones are all from Belarus. The children live in the poisonous shadow of theChernobyl disaster.
Groups of children come to this area twice a year, for a recuperative holiday, most of then will be suffering from life shortening illnesses, or they are in remission from cancer or leukemia, the chances of them living a full and healthy life are slim,staying with host families, this break is to give their immune systems a boost. The children arrive in the UK, pretty much with just the clothes they stand up in, local businesses donate, clothes and in this case shoes, their visits are on the local fundraising calendar, so that by the time the children go home after their months stay, they have a case full of new clothes.
So there I am, in full ‘consumer mode’, fretting about some inconsequential detail that I think is essential to the ‘perfect Christmas’ and sticking a couple of pairs of school shoes on the Visa bill along with the rest of the Christmas spend; when I am confronted by 10 children about the same age as my own, all of whom are and look very sick: the effect is as good as a slap across the face, It is not lost on me the contrast between all that my children have, good food, a warm home, health care and pretty much all they could wish for, including the most precious thing of all good health; these kids have so little, of so many things. Tears start to fill my eyes, Tom seeing my face asks ‘Mum, what’s the matter?’ trying to tell him what’s going on in the shop and in my head only goes to make matters worse, tears are now spilling down my cheeks; ‘Mum stop it, you are being embarrassing’ hisses Tom. As we leave the shop, the proprietor, is telling the chaperones they too must choose themselves a a pair of shoes each, what ever they fancy, I want to tell him what a generous gesture he is making, but the lump in my throat prevents me* One of the chaperones is trying on a sexy pair of high heeled shoes, may be warm boots would have been a practical choice, to take back to Belarus, but every girl needs pretty things.
We make our way back to the car, and in the shopping precinct, all the signs pointing the way to ‘Santa’s Grotto’ have been sub titled in Russian; this set me off crying again; Tom is by now ‘so not impressed’ with me;
‘MUM will you stop it, you are so EMBARASSING’
Sorry son, sometimes it is important for parents to be embarrassing, it makes us realise just how very, very fortunate we are.
I hadn’t realised till I started writing this post, just how many towns up and down the country fund holidays like this, to all of you that are involved, happy Christmas you are special.
I re-told this experience to a friend who, is in a position to know what they are talking about, (unlike me) and they told me that, the children, are by no means the last, there will be many many more whose lives will be blighted if not cut short by the events of the 26th of April 1986, just how many, is open to wide debate, World Nuclear Association is cautious,Greenpeace is not; part of the problem seems to be in the lack of data before the incident, all I can tell you is what I saw one Christmas eve, I won’t forget.
* It was March before, I caught up with the shops proprietor, and told him how generous I thought he had been, he shrugged his shoulders, ‘I suppose it cost us a bit, but we think is worth it.’ I think he’s right.