ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART FIVE OF SIX)
En Roumanie tout est possible
et rien ne m’etonne plus (Emil Cioaran)
– That’s exactly what happened at poor Costi’s funeral: you know he died at the office and nobody knew until the following morning when they found him seated at his desk with the head slumped on his papers. He had huuuge wreaths from the Ministry and the Courts of Justice, with thousands of gladioli, I have never seen these before except at State Funerals. Well it was almost like a state funeral.
– And, what happened?
– The following day when I went to check the candles if they were still lit by his graveside I had the shock of my life: all the wreaths were completely bare – the gypsies stole all the flowers….
– I will tell you later, now the first funeral service starts for the chap in the centre: did you see? He was soooo young. He died of AIDS.
– But I thought AIDS did not exist in Romania, by Presidential decree!
– Tut, tut, don’t you be so critical, Mr. Westerner, things are changing!
– Slowly, I can’t wait!
– It’s all very well for you to say it, as you live in the West…
– That’s right, I should not be impatient; after all in my profession I work with a time scale of millions of years – I can wait. I am used to waiting!
We left the Chapel in the chants of nasal baritone voices of young priests. Their well-groomed black beards decorating equally well-fed, happy faces, contrasted sharply to the gaunt wax-like faces of the bereaved, who looked more like ghosts from one of Charles Dickens stories, or characters from Madame Toussaud Museum.
– But tell me what you did in the end: did you at least complain?
– Sure I did, I went ape. I descended on those crooks from the cemetery office like a ton of bricks. They never had it so loud for so long and they had it from me: they hated every minute of it. But you know with the mafia it is like water on a duck’s back…
– And what? I decided to take Costi’s body to the Catholic Cemetery next door, you know I am a Roman Catholic! The place is far more civilized and well-kept in check – no skull-duggery, or skull-dodgery here!
– Of course, I know you are a Catholic, but Costi was not! Besides, he was dead and buried ten-foot deep and you would not have been allowed to remove him, just like that, on a whim!
– You are telling me! But I was determined to move mountains! I was not going to let poor Costi have his eternal sleep in a cemetery of thieves and crooks. I got all the papers from the Ministry of Health to have him taken out!
– My dear, this is very Hungarian of you, I exclaimed thinking of her Transylvanian roots.
– And I am proud of it – they were running like rats, trying to assist only to get rid of me, but they did not because I have other relations over here in the cemetery
– -But it must have been awful!
– No, not at all, we just had a second funeral!
– And a wake!
– And a wake too!
– You mean the same people came again to rebury poor old Costi?
– Oh, when it comes to good food and wine-a-plenty there is never a shortage of mourners!
I remember grandfather was telling me that before the war there was a kind of popular bistro across the road from the Bellu Orthodox cemetery whose name was “Better here than Opposite’ (Mai bine aici decat vis-à-vis). This was very handy because the mourners, instead of going all the way to the home of the dearly departed, for the traditional post-funeral meal, they would instead have the drinks across the road from the cemetery, once the funeral was over and the alms given to the poor. And so there was so much merry-making at the bistro, with gypsy brass band and even dancing – all of course in memory of the deceased, that people started complaining for the lack of decorum, especially as the mourners were approaching the cemetery gate with the hearse and all and they were hearing were the fiddles and bassoons playing away drinking songs…
Eventually the police shut the establishment and now it is all history! But you have not got such problem because you live quite close to the cemetery – no need for the mourners to walk far before they attend the wake.
– That’s right, you know I live close – we shall have Angelica’s wake in my flat!
– What time is the service?
– At 11-30 – Service will run forty minutes – you said that you wanted only a medium length service, not the fully-fledged one, with all the trims.
– That’s right. Angelica will not have liked a long service. Besides she was no church-goer. She lived a saintly life as a single woman, looking after her old folk before they died.
– She was not single, she was divorced.
– Well she was, but that did not count because the marriage did not last long after the war and thereafter she lived like a nun, she had no boyfriends. She was very much in love with her estranged husband, but when he returned from his prison years in Russia, after the war, he was a changed man – he was a communist and wanted to marry a blonde Russian girl, which he did, eventually. Angelica never recovered from the shock – she waited for him all those war years to come back – she had no news of him for a long time, not even through the Red Cross, but she firmly believed he was alive and she was going to wait for him, to be freed from the camp and return home, which he did. After the divorce, a few years later, she kept her married name of Lambrino.
– Ah that’s why she has a different name, I did not know it – was her husband related to Prince Paul of Romania?
– Prince who?
– Paul Lambrino, known as Prince Paul of Romania.
– Well that one is Lambrino all right, but “Prince Paul” never! To be a prince of Royal blood you have to be given the title by the ruling Monarch – you would not know all that under Communism, but that’s how it is in a Monarchy – the Sovereign is the fountain of all titles – or, Paul Lambrino’s father was issued really out of wedlock, after his Lambrino mother was divorced by Prince Carol. He had his paternal grandmother’s maiden surname, not the Hohenzollern’s
– And was Angelica’s husband related to him?
– Most certainly not! Angelica’s husband came from a very humble background. Paul Lambrino’s ancestors were minor Squierarchy, dear – but you would not know all these details, because you grew under Communism and you had a Marxist education!
– I beg your pardon?
– Now you are going to tell me that you are a Democrat, just like that, overnight you have become one!
– No I have not! I voted for the Socialists!
– Of course you had, dear, these are the old commies masquerading as Socialists: they are as much Socialists as I am the Empress of China! They all served Ceausescu till the last minute and then they had him murdered.
– You are telling me now that you regret Ceausescu!
– No, I am not: otherwise I would not be here. You know that I could not return to Romania all these years not even to close my parents eyes, when they died and I had instead to live with this burden, for the rest of my life!
– I buried your mother and your father, you know?
– Yes, I know.
– They both died in the middle of the winter.
– Old people always die in winter.
– When your mother died, there was so much snow – two feet high. Your father was unable to walk up the steps of the Chapel to attend the service, so he stayed with me in the car, on the main alleyway, with the engine running so that we would keep him warm. When the service finished and they’d carried the coffin down the steps and passed in front of the car I helped your father to get out and the old man bared his head and bowed deeply in front of his wife’s remains. It was freezing cold and it was very moving!
– Thank you dear for recalling these details, I did not know. I am grateful. I could not return to bury my nearest and dearest: the commies will have pounced on me and put me in prison, as a renegade.
– But you were an English citizen by then.
– Yes, I was a British citizen, but the UK government could not protect its citizens in their country of origin: it’s written on the passport. This is the hard price of exile, of the uprooted – all the sorrow and bitterness one has to live with.
– Now it’s all over: you can come back to the fold and restart your life in Romania.
– You bet! It’s no longer the same thing. All the family properties were either expropriated, or bulldozed by Ceausescu. All my family has long died in Romania. Angelica was the last close relation to die. I have my family in the UK, where I lived longer than in Romania – I studied there, I set my roots there, I have my children there – it is no longer possible, it is like that!
– But you are divorced now, you are free again, your children are grown up and you are the perfect match for a nice young Romanian girl; I know just the right woman for you – a nice thirty-year-old from Transylvania, half your age. Besides, she is not like those skimpy Bucharest females, who spend their time preening in front of the mirror the whole day. Transylvanian girls are good cooks and they are good wives and good mothers too.
– Let’s get on with the funeral arrangements first and the rest we have time to talk about later. You mentioned some paperwork.
– Yes, in the Administration office, over there.
– It must be a long queue – I hate queues ever since mother used to send me to stand for hours on end, to buy bread and milk in Bucharest, in the 50s and 60s: it was absolutely awful! Never again!
– I know, I imagined it, so I fixed it: I gave a bribe to a clerk I know in the office so that the paper will be ready for you to sign without waiting – otherwise it would be pandemonium.
– Well it looks as if they are hundreds in that office, all complaining and perspiring. It stinks: these people have not washed for ages.
– What is it that you know, Mr Englishman? We still have not got running hot water and heating the whole day, you know?
– What? it is a tradition from Ceausescu’s days?
– Well, that’s how it is!
– But you voted Socialist: what do your socialist friends do to improve your lot, after the elections? And you suggested that I should come back: what with no hot water?
– Life is not just about hot water, you know?
– Maybe it isn’t, but it makes the existence a lot more pleasant!
– Anyhow you are a lucky man. This is the kindly lady who had prepared the papers for you.
– Good day, Madam, or I should say, I kiss your hand Madam, because we are in a democracy, again.
– Good day, Mr Professor Doctor Engineer Sir! I see that you live in England: how is life in England?
– What, in one word? Not bad, not bad at all, considering!
– I have a daughter in Howards Hiss: do you know Howards Hiss?
– Oh, I passed through Haywards Heath, what on earth is she doing there?
– She is married to an Englishman by the name of Mr Khan…
– Oh, I see, a good old English stock, your son-in-law.
– Yes, they first lived in Slough, but she did not want to stay with his mother, so they moved to Howards Hiss.
– Lovely place – How much do I owe you for your trouble?
– Nothing, it’s all done. Nothing at all, it is my pleasure. I did it all for my daughter. Maybe you look her up in Howards Hiss?
– Thank you. Sure, I will. You must give me the telephone number of the Khans.
– Here we are, she wrote it on a scrap of newspaper: I knew you will do it. The English are so polite, like my son-in-law.
– That’s right, they are. They’re real gentlemen. Besides they pay – no questions asked… I winked looking her straight in the eye, see if she was blushing. She was past it. We left the office passing through the hallway, where poor people were jostling in the queue, like a bunch of trout caught in a basket.
– Thank God it’s done! How much did you give her?
– Five dollars!
– It was worth every dime; could you see me jam-packed here?
– Yes, it passed my mind and then I thought we’d be late for the funeral and the wake, so I did it for you!
– And for you too, there will have been nobody to hand out all these gratuities to the begars and the buggers…
– (end of PART FIVE OF SIX)