Blowing the lid off

The story of Dmitry and I in the forest ended, as it had begun, with a man stopping for a pee behind a tree. Tomorrow, the 26th of April, will be exactly thirty years from the day when Dmitry got hit on the head by the piece of concrete and fell down dead, right there, next to me. After the sound of the huge explosion that brilliantly lit up everything around us and silhouetted Dmitry against his chosen peeing spot, it all went very quiet again. But the silence was brief and broken just a few seconds later, with the sound of debris raining through the leaves high above us. The piece of concrete that hit Dmitry was quite a large; the 4 centimetre puncture hole still visible in the back of his skull probably explains why he died so quickly.

There’s not much left of him now. His cratered skull sits stock-still, white and clean on the forest floor close by me. Over the years, his flesh, bones and clothing have either disintegrated, sunk away into the soil, or been dragged away by scavengers. The crude lump of blackened concrete boiler lining sits, undisturbed, just a metre away.

It’s been a bit lonely here and although I’ve come to like my tree, it’s bark starting to envelop my cross-bar and its roots curling over the bottom of my wheels is a little perturbing. Lonely, that is, until this morning, when the van stopped beside the road and the man came into the trees near us; I was beginning to think that we would stay there, undiscovered, forever. Since the explosion I hadn’t seen another living human being. Not for thirty years.

The day Dmitry died was strange in a lot of ways. Firstly, we were late to work. The two of us had been for a 100km ride earlier that day along the Vuzh River and, although he seemed content that his early season training was going well for that summer’s races, the puncture in the last 10 kms meant we were delayed in getting back to the residential hall where he lived. He’d only fitted the new set of tubulars that morning and the roads had sped along beneath us in the crisp April air; until the loud popping sound from the rear tyre effectively ended the ride. He finally left me in the bike park just inside the perimeter road as per usual, and he’d ran hurriedly away to start his late shift, late.

Afterwards, he would usually be back to pick me up just after midnight, but, for some reason, he was delayed; he had earlier talked to his neighbour about a routine test they were doing, so I guessed that this could be the reason. In the event, he didn’t come and unlock me until about 1.15 am; I became aware, quite quickly, that something had happened as Dmitry was muttering under his breath as he knelt beside me whilst fumbling in the dark with the keys to the padlock in his hand; he never muttered — I only caught a few words.

“Damm…why didn’t they tell me what went on in the briefing — I was only a few minutes late — how was I to know?” Standing up, and looking pensively back at the huge turbine hall, he continued,

“Why doesn’t he listen to Aleksandr? He’s the only one that has done this test before. Someone should report Dyatlov for the way he’s been today — you can’t treat fellow workers like that. Besides, the test should have been aborted when the power fell to 30MW thermal. Something is wrong…. something is very wrong — it couldn’t have been my fault.”

He continued to grumble as we left the plant and headed out of the gate towards the road junction next to the Pripyat Monument. The air was very cold and the hundreds of high power lamps at the Power Station behind us lit our way on that darkest of nights. We had battery lights on the bike but the short 5 km ride to the town was usually so well-lit that we barely needed them. Stopping for a pee wasn’t unusual for Dmitry — especially if we’d been for a ride earlier in the day. I think he drank too much strong coffee in the control room in an attempt to keep him alert and, as soon as we got going in the cold outside, he frequently needed to stop on the way home. The junction was a favourite spot; it marked the entrance to the town of Pripyat with a three metre soviet-style stone carving of the town name with the year of its founding, 1970, underneath.

I was actually too good to be used as a bike for work, but the shortness of the commute and Dmitry’s dislike of the bus meant that I was the only other option. Having been hand-built by Takhion in the capital, Kiev, a couple of years previously, my special Ishiwata tubing and Italian Campagnolo parts meant that I was similar in spec to the Russian national team bikes of the time — the fact that Takhion was named after Tachyon, the hypothetical sub-atomic particle that travels faster than the speed of light, was not lost on Dmitry. Such a pity we weren’t able to travel that fast on that chilly afternoon after the puncture. Things might have been so very different.

The road next to the forest was very busy for a while after the explosion and hundreds of trucks and military vehicles trundled past on the road to the plant for many weeks. But then it went quiet again.

I’m not sure that I looked quite so special when I was found. My ‘new’ tubulars had largely fallen away from my wheels with only a few strips of fractured rubber left hanging in the breeze; my bar tape was dangling from my bars; my leather saddle was mildew green and swollen out of shape. The steel parts were still surprisingly clean and unblemished after thirty years in the forest — probably because there had been no scratches where the rain could have got through to the metal underneath and the trees had protected me from the sun’s rays — but the alloy parts had dulled in the damp air.

It was the smell of his warm urine in the chilly air that took me back to the day of the explosion; he, the man with the van, was peeing against the same tree that Dmitry had done just before he’d died. As he finished, he turned, and I knew straightaway that he had seen me. He walked back, grasped my frame and grappled me away from the clutches of the tree and the roots before carrying me out, triumphantly, into the bright sunshine. Seeing the name on my down-tube he smiled and quickly put me in the back of the van before driving us away to the south.

We arrived at an apartment complex in West Kiev later that evening and he brought a man out to look at me lying messily in the back of the van on top of a pile of tools.

“I found it in the Chernobyl exclusion zone just outside the plant — must have been there since the reactor explosion in ’86.”