Bringing My Father Home

“Good morning”, he said in Polish. “What have we got in the back?”

Preparing a face for trouble, Mr Grabowski answered: “Human remains”, and from the glove compartment he fished out the British Embassy document I knew well by now. The guard stood stiffly by the roadside while he read it.

The coffin containing the human remains of the late Mr John Murray Thomson is zinc-lined and has been hermetically sealed to conform to Airline Regulations and Consular Requirements. The coffin contains only the remains of the late Mr John Murray Thomson and nothing else.

After five minutes, with a gesture of dismissal, the Lithuanian policeman said: “Można przejść”, “You may go”. Mr Grabowski put the hearse in gear and continued to drive slowly past the road block, anxious not to appear to be “running away”, as he put it. It was some time before he took the Mercedes up to speed again.

“Snowing”, he said eventually. “God how the snow has snowed. Oh dear. The snow may certainly be worse in Warsaw. At this rate it will be lucky if we arrive in Warsaw without a lot of delay.”

“We’ll be very late?”

“One cannot tell. My experience is – snow this side of the frontier, twice as much snow before Warsaw.”

At Suwałki in Poland we drew up outside the Cowboy Motel, confusingly mock-Tudor in design and far from the romantic Baltic of my imagination. Dozens of lorries with Russian number plates were parked outside.

“Too early for vodka”, Mr Grabowski said with a smile, “but perhaps in time for lunch?”

“No thanks.”

“You are sure?”

I was. The undertaker went in search of food while I stayed in the hearse. I wound down the window a crack, and dozed. Earlier that morning a hospital porter had handed me my father’s possessions. The tagged plastic bag disclosed a sum of Estonian currency, a small blue comb, a wrist watch, a grey wool overcoat, a navy blue cotton shirt, a grey cardigan, a black leather belt, a pair of grey turn-up trousers, underclothes, dark-coloured socks, a white cotton vest and a British passport and a shopping list found in his trouser pocket. All these things tugged at me, but what made me gasp was the watch. The mechanism relied on the wearer’s wrist movement and the hands had stopped ticking at 12.46 am on November 11, four days after the heart attack. As I tapped the watch glass, the hands had begun to move again.

 

 

After an hour Mr Grabowski emerged from the Cowboy Motel.

“Good lunch?”

“Very. The Cowboy Motel don’t microwave the food.”

We slithered off amid a roadside slush and the steering wheel jumped in Mr Grabowski’s hands as we bumped across a land as flat as a swamp. Darkness was falling fast: in Baltic latitudes it is already black night at three o’clock in the winter afternoon. We were fifty miles from Warsaw. The snow-world shifted and changed as we sped along the great Berlin-Minsk-Moscow road. “In ten minutes, sir, my friend, we will be at our destination.” An orange Lucozade glow swept over us as we entered a tunnel. The old year of 2002 was dying and my father was sleeping the sleep of the dead behind me.

Warsaw, a city of war wounds and sorrow, had been burnt to ashes by the Nazis and rebuilt in grim Stalinist architecture. Soviet troops had stood by complacently as Hitler ordered the city and its inhabitants to be annihilated in August 1944. By the time the Red Army finally “liberated” Warsaw five months later, in January 1945, there was hardly anything left.

Big, almost weightless snow crystals showed up glossy in our headlights as we manoeuvred into a four-lane arterial road. A giant green motorway sign CENTRUM WARSZAWY indicated that it was two kilometres to the city centre. At a billboard advertising wedding dresses (“Perfect For You On Your Special Day!”) we took a left turn into Fosa Street. It was not a smooth street for a hearse to travel along. In spite of all the ice-miles we had covered since leaving Tallinn thirteen hours ago the Mercedes felt suddenly fragile.

 

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