Bringing My Father Home

 

Mr Grabowski doused the headlights outside 12 Fosa Street and the engine cut out. Above the door of a dacha-like building was the sign SLABINSKI AGENCJA FUNERALNA. Men in overalls seen dimly through the doorway were stapling linings into coffins; there was a sound of timbers being sawn. At last my father’s supine journey to Warsaw was at an end. He was to be embalmed here and dressed in a “wine-red” shroud before his air transfer to London. Still, it would be a while before he actually reached the quiet ground of Paddington Green. Numerous consular formalities had yet to be itemized, paperwork stamped and franked; later, there would be packets of deeds and bequeathals tied in solicitor’s ribbon.

I had not eaten for thirteen hours and my lips felt dry with salt. “Stay here a moment”; Mr Grabowski took me by the arm, asking: “Or shall I find you a taxi for a hotel?”

I said nothing but my silence seemed to ask him a question.

“You are okay? A little rest, you will be all good again.”

I shook Mr Grabowski’s hand and walked off in the direction of the church adjacent to the funeral agency. How was I feeling? I was frightened of how my father might look after embalming. Filled with chemicals he could not be as I remembered him in life. Mr Grobowski, with his undertaker’s tricks, would ensure that my father appeared untainted by decay. But with death all the light drains from the face, and nothing can put it back in again.

At the church entrance an elderly man was shovelling grit on to the ice. Inside, a metal grill on the right was adorned with an image of a Polish priest who had sheltered Jews in the crypt during the last war. I lit a candle – it burned almost cheerfully – and after a minute I made my way back to the entrance. There I turned to see the flame waver then gutter out. The day really was done.

The flight home to Heathrow was delayed for as long as the snow drove down hard over Poland. Warsaw was a white-out. Finally, on the afternoon of November 14, my father in his wooden shirt was on his way with Polish Airlines flight LOT285. He arrived punctually at 9.30pm local time, and the coffin passed without difficulty through immigration. The dead have no need of passports. The following day the coffin lay before me in the aisle of St Mary’s church under the Marylebone Flyover. Scuff marks showed on the lid and the silver name-plate was scratched; otherwise the damage done during the journey was minimal. A pale December sun filled the sky.

 

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A good crowd – family, and people from far away – attended the funeral. A pale December sun filled the Paddington sky as the service got underway. From the pulpit I read out Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’, about a man’s homecoming after his unexpected death abroad.

 

 

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

 

Blue incense mist wreathed the lily flowers as friends and colleagues filed out, pressed cold hands, and the verger waited to lock up. Not everything had gone to plan. The Daily Telegraph’s death notice spoke of “Talina” instead of Tallinn, while The Scotsman gave “Finland” as the place of death. Since that time fifteen years ago the winter has thawed and the sunlight on Paddington Green hardened and grown cold many times. My father’s gravestone states: GLASGOW 1928 – TALLINN 2002. A visitor might wonder at this life lived in Scotland and the Baltic. My father had been married to my mother for forty years, no mean portion of a life.

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This is a longer version of an article, ‘Homecoming’, which appeared in the 27 July 2017 edition of the Times Literary Supplement.

 

 

 

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