I’m late, I’m late

He wasn’t someone I knew well. He was the grandfather of a friend, a Russian friend. A sweet man in life, he was gentle and hardworking. Humorous too, at least I think so; we had no common language to joke around in. I’d eaten fruit from his garden on a few occasions. He was a keen gardener and the fruit was spectacular: big, bullying strawberries as fresh as fresh, raspberries like flushed nipples, red-currents a starling would kill for. I liked him, so of course I went to his funeral.

I’d heard that Russian Orthodox funeral rites involve three separate services over a period of days. But this priest had been bussed in for the occasion from a nearby town, so I guess what they got was a sort of compilation version. It was still long enough. There was a beginning, but there didn’t seem to be anything much resembling a middle, and though I suppose there was an end, I was no longer there to witness it. Now it seems mean-spirited to say that another engagement can call you away from somebody’s funeral, but we all set our schedules and mine had definitely been overrun. Over the years I have got used to the way the local Catholics do things and, having based my planning on that limited knowledge, I seriously miscalculated.

Racing candles and soporific incense

Not that the priest didn’t do all he could to help. He started off at a tremendous speed and got faster and faster until it seemed he’d entered the Derby. The monotone chant droned on and on, slowing down a little now and then to negotiate some curves before taking off, swifter than before, over the fields and far away. The man was an athlete, inexhaustible. He just didn’t stop. Gradually my sense of being impressed began to change into irritation as my attitude altered from a mix of respect for the deceased and exotic appreciation for an experience so out of the ordinary into one of irreverent mirth. Was it a race to see which would happen first: the priest collapsing for lack of air into a fit of incense-induced coughing or the congregation setting their fingers aflame as their little candles burned away millimetre by millimetre and verse by verse down to their tiny paper sleeves? Or would he manage to use up all the oxygen before this could happen? The latter seemed distinctly possible as a warm torpor began to descend on my senses and I started to have trouble focussing. I had noticed that some of the elderly had succumbed and decided, one by one, to sit down. So now I had to struggle to stay on my feet and be counted among the spry, the lively and those in the prime of life, rather than risk taking a seat in death’s very antechamber.

I began to greet the rarest of semitone deviations or briefest sally into minimalist melody with a sense of release, such as a Dutchman might feel upon sighting the Himalayas. He was speeding up again. Did this mean he’d turned into the home straight and was beginning to smell the mews? No chance. Yet another brief flourish as we cleared some hurdles and he was off once more at a steady canter towards some far horizon. For me, time had slowed to a crawl. An hour at the dentist began to look like the blink of an eye in comparison. As professor Hawking has pointed out, and despite the preference of fruit flies for bananas, time flies like an arrow … more or less. But quite apart from the already disturbing effects of relativity, time’s arrow behaves differently depending on where you live, what you are doing, what your religion is and what language you speak. Different tongues have different ways of expressing time, so as to make more or less of it. Different cultures have different ways of living their time, so as to get more or less out of it and different religions encourage different attitudes to time, enabling more or less to be squeezed into it. Russian Orthodox churches built in the Diaspora have their foundations embedded in earth brought especially from the motherland. Now I know why. It makes the cultural contortion of time easier to bear. Here I was living a Russian time paradigm on Belgian soil. It was an unsettling experience.

A thief of time

Usually we have to travel a long way and eat the local food before we become tuned to another temporal frame. But this one had come to me. Robert Levine has written a book entitled “A Geography of Time” in which he explores such phenomena, the contradictions and conflicts they cause and the attitudes they give rise to. Obviously it’s hard to make plans involving someone whose language has no future tense. It’s hard to explain the Protestant work ethic to someone whose culture is founded on a sense of fatalism. It’s hard to meet someone at 10:30 if that meeting is made dependent on the will of God … as understood by the person one is trying to meet. And it’s also hard to maintain a west-European schedule in the face of a culture whose denizens have clearly brought the entire day along with them and intend to spend it all here. Outside in the chapel forecourt the cemetery officers were getting nervous. A queue was forming. Someone was going to be, literally, late for their own funeral.

And still the buzzing sing-song continued, minute upon weary minute. By a fiendishly ingenious paradox, the faster he intoned, the slower time seemed to travel. Our departed friend definitely had the best of it: lying there, mute and anachronous in his beautifully padded casket, idly inspecting the ceiling. I began to consider the merits of Trappism. Darkly clad figures leading a life of the strictest silence and contemplation, dour men whose tongues even a home-brewed beer with an alcohol content in excess of 9% seemingly cannot loosen, men who wait for the voice of God to speak into the stillness of their hearts. I longed to drift off into this image of peaceful reflexion. Would this logorrhoeic prelate ever come to a stop? Do they even have punctuation in Russian? And what if God wanted to say something here? He’d need a really good opener, something a whole lot better than a polite cough. A very sudden plague of frogs might just about do the trick.

Even as I was about to slide gently sideways to the floor in a pretence of fainting, in the hope that some kind people would carry me outside as a convenient excuse for their own escape, I chanced to notice the silver half moon of a wrist watch peeking discretely out from a nearby cuff. Hallelujah! I’m late, I’m seriously late! I really have been standing here for more than an hour. I didn’t imagine it. Bang went Mr Levine’s theory. I hurried, muttering my polite excuses to a family member, past rows of veiled mourners and out into the dappled sunlight. A gravel avenue lay ahead beneath a shaded arcade of sycamores. An iron gate stood open at the end of it. Birds sang at the top of their form, and a voice in the stillness of my heart sang with them. Time waits for no man. Please, please don’t make it wait for me.

Edwin Drood

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