The Belarusian Noble prize winner Svetlana Alexievich relates a curious story in her book Chernobyl Prayer. She talks about a Ukrainian man called Nikolai who, in the spring of 1988, entered the Chernobyl exclusion zone on a motorbike and rode up to his old house in the abandoned town of Pripyat. On the way there, he got shot at, he was chased by the police, he was warned via megaphone that he would be arrested and thrown into jail – but none of this deterred the fellow or made him turn around. When he finally got to his destination, he did not retrieve an heirloom from behind a loose brick or pick up some valuable title deed that had been forgotten on top of a cupboard. Instead he unscrewed the front door from its hinges, tied it to his panniers, and rode off with it to his new dwelling in Kiev.
The reason why Nikolai went to such lengths to reach his house was because front doors have a very special place in Ukrainian peasant tradition. When someone in the family dies, the front door is taken down and used as a temporary bier until the coffin arrives. Similarly, when a baby is born into the family, the door is dismantled and used to carry the infant over the threshold.
Like Nikolai Fomich Kalugin says in the book: ‘My whole life is written down on this door. How am I supposed to leave it behind?’
Obviously, we don’t have a similar tradition in Gibraltar, but every time I walk past the door of my old Upper Town dwelling, where I lived from 1972 to 1991, I think of this Ukrainian man and his struggle to reclaim his ‘most precious family relic.’
There it still stands – the same door that I opened one day to hear my grandmother tell me that my grandfather Albert had just died; the same door through which I passed thousands of times on my way to Saint Mary’s and later Bishop Fitzgerald’s; the same door which my late father used to open as quietly as possible on returning from his twice-weekly night shifts; the same door that I walked out of for the last time in February 1991, never to pass through it ever again.
If you ask me, that Ukrainian chap was right: old doors have a secret history all of their own.
M. G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs, all of which are available on Amazon. More information on his writing can be found at www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez.
Photo by David Parody