Thursday, 7 June 2012

Life & Death

Maybe it's because I'm a writer but I always expect the unexpected. I watched the Woody Allen film "Midnight In Paris" recently, and wondered if some people would have doubted the main character's acceptance of the surreal situation in which he is plunged into the past. I didn't. And if such a thing literally happened to me then I know I would also accept it without question. Writers are embroiled in fantasy - they make things up on a daily basis and coincidence can easily be seen as plot. In some ways, I expect it to happen. Even so, sometimes something happens which knocks you for six. Hence today's post.

On the 10th May this year our daughter Cora was born. That, in itself, was a surreal experience. The fact that my partner Sophie had grown this fully formed person within her body for nine months due to the conjunction of a minuscule part of me with a minuscule part of her is frankly mindblowing. Birth is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. Trust me, it's one of the most unnatural, unbelievable experiences imaginable. If there's anything to knock your individual sense of immortality then it's the creation of a person out of almost nothing. It made no sense to us at all.

Unfortunately, what also made no sense was the news that my first wife (the mother of my 12yr old daughter) died the following day. The two events are - of course - completely unconnected. Yet the juxtaposition of the two creates 'story'. The circumstances of the death are also unclear - there is to be an inquest and currently it is inappropriate to mention any details online - but what I want to focus on is the burial.

Born in Thailand she was naturally Buddhist, but in the last nine months of her life she married someone from Bangladesh and was in the process of converting to Islam. At least, this is what we were told. Her life was full of mixed-up craziness in any event: she was never the easiest person to live with. She was driven to extremes. Not much that she did made sense. We were together for ten years and divorced for ten years. I knew her well without knowing her at all.

We were notified of the funeral only 18 hours before it happened. It would have been awkward attending the prayers at the mosque beforehand, especially as all the detail I had came from someone whose English was difficult to understand, so we pitched up at the cemetery, worked out where the plot was, and waited. Cars approached. Around twenty-five men turfed out of the vehicles and between them they hauled out the coffin and wandered up to the grave. There was a Carry On Funeral moment as it was manoeuvred correctly so it lay at the right angle, with people popping in and out of the hole. Then each of them took it in turns to fill it. Cemetery staff supervised from a distance. Mobile phones rang on and off unanswered. Languages were spoken that I didn't understand. There was a real sense of community but there was no sense of it being her community. Other than her husband I can't imagine she knew many of the people there. Prayers were said and then most of the mourners left - it felt like a perfunctory, anonymous occasion. Suddenly, more people appeared in the distance - the Thai community - as if they came out of mist or were waiting for the others to leave (as I said, a writer will make a plot out of coincidence). Unlike the Muslims, who had been all male, all but one of the Thai's were female. Again, it weaved a weird web around the event itself. My daughter's comment that one of the flowers laid still had a "25% extra free" label attached seemed to sum up her mother's life.

So, like the subversion of reality in "Midnight In Paris", did I find it odd standing at my ex-wife's graveside in a Muslim ceremony twenty years after we had first met amongst the Buddhist temples in Bangkok? Not really. Other than it being a dislocating experience - as all funerals are - it seemed par for the course. And just as there seemed to be no real correlation between a pregnancy bump and a baby so there seemed no correlation between a coffin and a body. We are born out of one box and exit in another. How fantastical is that?

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