by Jenny Palmer
a Ukrainian vodka
After months of deliberations and frantic attempts at diplomacy, the unthinkable had happened. Putin’s army had invaded the sovereign state of Ukraine. A forty-mile-long line of armoured tanks was moving inexorably towards the capital Kyiv. Soon Russian missiles would be bombarding Ukrainian cities. I’d spent the weekend glued to the television, absorbing every ounce of news there was. The whole world was on the brink of war. It was inconceivable and horrifying to the same degree.
On the Monday morning I phoned a friend. It was too much to take in. I felt better after the conversation. Life needed to go on. I had shopping to do. As I was opening the garage door, I noticed a ladybird resting on the wooden post next to the door. It was the first I’d seen that year. I found myself reciting the popular nursery rhyme:
Ladybird, ladybird/ Fly away home
Your house is on fire/Your children all gone
I’d always liked ladybirds as a child. There was something about their glossy red coats with those bold, black spots that made them look so cute. I’d even been happy to pick them up and hold them on my hand, waiting for them to open their wings and fly off. If I’d known that they were really beetles, I’d never have done it. I would have relegated them to the same category as the worms that my brother used to chase me with, or the centipedes that crawled out of the soil, when you were digging the flower beds. That was the sort of wildlife that made your flesh creep if you happened to touch it by mistake, whereas ladybirds were harmless. They didn’t bite or sting. And they were supposed to be lucky too.
I’d often wondered when they appeared in spring, where they had been all winter. Just where was home and why was their house always burning down and their children constantly going missing? What was lucky about that? Still seeing the ladybird that morning on the post had cheered me up. It reminded me of a time when life was simpler.
Shopping could wait. It was one of those chores that had to be done some time, but it didn’t really matter when. During lockdown, it had assumed added importance in my life. Initially I’d tried to stick to the early morning supermarket slots, set aside for pensioners and the clinically vulnerable. Without stopping to chat, I’d found I could whizz around and have it done in no time. These days shopping had become was more of a social occasion, a time when you could catch up on people you hadn’t seen in ages. It was a chance to get out of the house, a chance to mingle and try to feel normal again.
But that day the shopping could wait. I’d always been interested in the etymology of words and obscure expressions. It was fascinating to find out where they had originated. Only recently I’d found out where the expression ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ had come from. A ‘bastard’ was a term used in the carpentry trade, to refer to a coarse file. ‘Not worth their salt’ went back to time when people were paid in salt. It was generally thought that the nursery rhyme ‘Ring a ring o’ roses’ referred to the time of the Great Plague when people were literally falling down sick. Others disputed that interpretation.
In America, I discovered, ladybirds were known as ladybugs. It made more sense if you thought about it. There seemed to be a religious association with the ‘lady’ part of the name referring to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Nobody seemed to know where the ‘bird’ part came from. Apparently, ladybirds lived on a diet of aphids and other insect pests, which ruled out the need to use pesticides. So, they were good for the planet. In olden times it was thought to be unlucky to kill one. Hence lucky to see one.
In England, the nursery rhyme was first written down in Tommy Thumb’s songbook in 1744. The writer was anonymous. There were analogous rhymes in Germany and Sweden, some more doom-ridden than others. Some thought the rhyme was used as a prayer to destroy plagues of plant-eating pests. And there was a suggestion that farmers used to recite the rhyme to save the insects before they set fire to their stubble.
The war in Ukraine was going from bad to worse. Families were being torn apart. Millions of women and children were escaping from their bomb-blasted homes and heading for the borders, leaving their men behind to fight for their country. The men were putting up a strong resistance on the ground, more than had been anticipated by the enemy, who had resorted to using siege tactics. They were trying to starve people out and weaken their resistance. They were bombing housing estates where civilians lived. Then a maternity hospital was targeted. Many people were killed, and images were flashed around the world of two pregnant women being carried out on stretchers. One died with her baby, and the other one survived with hers. A theatre was bombed where over a thousand women and children were sheltering. The world watched on, helpless to intervene for fear of causing a nuclear war.
Everyone outside the country wanted to do something. They collected money, clothes, medicines. Some offered their homes to refugees. Most of all, people just wanted the war to stop. People couldn’t get the images out of their heads. They were the last thing they thought of when they went to bed at night and the first thing when they woke up. No one could believe what they were seeing. There had been relative peace in Europe for seventy years. This couldn’t be happening. The world order had been shattered.
In Ukraine it wasn’t safe to stay at home. It wouldn’t even be safe to take refuge in bomb shelters if they started using chemical weapons.
‘Ladybird, ladybird/ Don’t fly home
Your house is burning/ Take your children and run’
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