Bringing My Father Home

Selecting a coffin for my father had not been easy. Inside the Tallinn funeral home hung a pungent odour which I could not quite place. Formaldehyde? Carbolic? At the far end were floral tributes to Ema (Mother) and Isa (Father). A video screen high up on the wall advertised in Estonian and ropy English: Gravestone Negligence, Deceased Transport, Embalming. Sample coffins hung from the showroom walls. The light was poor – just a couple of spots in the ceiling – but I managed to choose a costly and ostentatiously lacquered model. I felt that my father deserved it. The polite word for “coffin” in Estonian is puusärk, literally “wooden shirt”: the idea, Lutheran in its simplicity, is that we come from nothing and return to nothing in a “wooden shirt”. Why not a lacquered wooden shirt? Afterwards, I telephoned the London funeral agency that was to oversee the repatriation. Door to door, it would cost £995. “We offer a bespoke service”, the manager explained. There was just one hitch: lacquered coffins of the sort I had bought are not allowed to be cremated or buried in Britain. “It’s an EU stipulation – the lacquer may be harmful to the ozone layer, you see, or it might pollute the water table.” I returned the coffin to the funeral parlour, exchanging it for one of plain ash-blond wood.

A little past midday, the snow was beating hard against the hearse. The Lithuanian frontier was not far off. We were driving across a land once known as Courland (in German, Kurland). Between 1561 and 1795, Courland had been a duchy that extended into modern-day Latvia, trading with the Caribbean and west Africa (there is a Courland Bay in Tobago). For us, it radiated a sense of emptiness and melancholy. Marguerite Yourcenar, in her great novel of 1939 Coup de grâce, set in the area during the Russian Civil War, spoke of how “Russo-Baltic embroilments” had created arguments over borders, occupations, despotisms, uprooting, displacement and exile. These arguments are with us again.

On we drove through sleety winds. To our right, the Lielupe river slipped in and out of view like a silver eel. From the car radio came cracklings of static and fade-outs in Russian. At a level crossing outside the industrial city of Panevėžys in Lithuania we stopped to let a train pass. A film of diesel smoke blew across the windscreen; we lifted over the rails and continued on towards Kaunas, the cold air split by the train’s siren behind us.

 

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At Kaunas, a drunk-looking man was sitting on a roadside bench with his head between his knees, apparently vomiting. Kaunas had once been a city rich in Jewish publishing houses, Jewish salons and Jewish theatres; then came the war, and the Lithuanians together with the SS murdered 30,000 of the citizens. Those who suffered the most during the Second World War were surely those trapped between the totalitarian millstones of Hitler and Stalin. My mother had hoped to return to Tallinn after the war as a “repatriant”, but with the Cold War under way, she resigned herself to being “unrepatriatable”.

Motorway signs for Immanuel Kant’s hometown of Kaliningrad on the Polish–Lithuanian border rushed past amid a blur of LUKOIL petrol station signs and directions to a cement works. At Marijampolė we parked outside the 1890s railway station, its paint faded and peeling. Mr Grobowski got out to use the waiting room lavatories; ten minutes later he returned. There was cigarette smoke on his breath, and I thought I could smell peppermints, too. “Please, sir,” he said, “it is time for you to adjust your clock.” Poland, he explained, was one hour behind the Baltic states; I looked at my watch, now adjusted, and saw that it was almost time for lunch.

 

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The last Lithuanian town before Poland, Kalvarija, petered out into twenty yards of no man’s land before the Polish boundary post. My mobile phone was registering a Polish network already. An obstruction in the road ahead – a car crash, perhaps? – defined itself as a police road block. Container trucks and lorries were being pulled over by frontier police. Smugglers? Child-traffickers? A blue-uniformed patrolman flagged us down.

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