Mr Grabowski had driven twelve hours overnight from Warsaw, bringing with him his own hermetically sealed coffin with a “drop-in zinc liner” to guard against sepsis and other infections. He was the Polish representative for the funeral agency in west London which oversaw “repatriations” of deceased British citizens from, among other places, the former Soviet bloc. In Warsaw my father was to be embalmed, a legal requirement for all repatriations. Embalming became de rigueur (as it were) in the US during the Civil War when young men died far from home. In my father’s case, however, there was a complication. Very few countries embalm to UK standards, and Estonia before it joined the European Union in 2004 was no exception. Therefore my father was to be embalmed in Warsaw, and from Warsaw flown to Heathrow. Mr Grabowski, tall, with a dead-white complexion and uneven teeth, did not seem to mind when I told him that I wanted to accompany my father all the long distance to Warsaw from Tallinn. He liked the idea of father and son making a last journey home together across maternal lands. In London my father had worshipped at St Mary’s on Paddington Green, an Anglo-Catholic church where John Donne preached his first sermon in 1615. It was to St Mary’s that his body, by way of Poland, was destined.
I felt curiously calm, perhaps because I had not registered properly that I was in a hearse with my deceased father. His death the previous week had been a shock. According to my mother, he had woken early in the hotel where they were staying, and gone for a walk across Town Hall Square before breakfast. Flurries of snow were blowing along the city’s medieval ramparts. My father had almost reached the square when he felt a stab of pain and collapsed. An ambulance arrived and the paramedics, making a quick assessment, administered morphine and insulin; it was too late. The autopsy revealed an “occluded” artery to the heart.
My mother stayed behind in the hotel while I went to identify the body, as British law required me to do. The body had been brought up to me in a lift from hospital storage. How to greet the dead? How best to serve their memory? My father’s eyes, half open, stared incuriously at the ceiling; I noted a strange flat glitter in them. I let my hand run over his forehead and the hair which would soon be ash. But what disconcerted me most was the shape his open mouth made with the teeth bared. A grin, was it? An expression of surprise? Who would have thought that his world would end here, so far from home?
We left Tallinn for Warsaw at 7.30am. Mr Grabowski’s speed was not always compatible with safety. At Nomme, outside Tallinn, we hurtled dangerously beside a railway line; a train rushed towards us and swerved away in a flicker of blue lightning. Disused grain silos and chemical factories used by Tarkovsky in his 1979 film, Stalker, sped by. It was an odd experience, unnerving its way, to be sitting so close to my father. At the British Embassy in Tallinn the young diplomat in charge of repatriations had curiously never seen a dead body. “I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but we don’t get many British deaths here in Tallinn. In Spain of course it’s different – nationals die around the clock there.” My father was the second British citizen to die in Tallinn, I gathered, since the Northern Irish motorcycle champion Joe Dunlop had crashed his Triumph into a tree there in 2000. Having been repatriated in the standard zinc-lined coffin, Dunlop was given a hero’s welcome. Most international flights have a body in the hold; airport cargo-handlers refer to human remains as “HUM”.
Blue motorway signs marked the distances in kilometres: St Petersburg 300, Kaliningrad 515, Warsaw 810. The snow had covered factories and collective farms long since abandoned. By the sea at Parnu we passed a cemetery (surnuaed, in Estonian, “dead garden”), a picture of silence and whiteness. In his odd, dated vocabulary Mr Grabowski said: “The Latvian frontier is approximately forty miles from here, sir. We should reach it before breakfast, if all is going to our plan”.