Monday 15 April 2013

o : Paris, No. 2 (Blank Tombstones)

Cimetière Montmartre
Paris, 18eme arrondissement

Dear o,

An older woman with a wide-brimmed straw hat, gardening gloves and a flower-watering bucket is sitting on the end of a long stone slab of a tomb.  She is stout and sturdy, scattered and determined, lost and motionless.  She says all this with her darting hands and rolling shoulders, and with the tufts of hair jutting from under her hat.

She faces a pair of tombstones laid over a single plot.  The tall maroon blocks are separate, but form the corresponding halves of a heart.  The flowers she has laid, the decorations she has placed, the love she has committed here is reserved to only one half of the double grave, and its inscription reads only, ‘Simon’.  The other half – her half – is blank.  Holding out.

I’m not in a fatalistic mood.  It is spring, after all.  This morning’s sun was the most promising of the year, and heat is the most obvious expectation for my voyage in the weeks to come.  For Spain and Morocco and the rest of Africa I have built an image of endless, reckless, frolicking summer, and I know it is an irrational flash shot against the backdrop of desert and danger.  I suppose what I mean is that I seem split unto myself: I am feeling the blossom of life, but thinking the pincers of death.

I am thinking death first of all because, despite the licks and surfs of summer imaginings, the trip on which I am about to embark will be by far the most dangerous thing I’ve ever come close to doing.  Paris to Dar es Salaam via the Sahara, west Africa, the Congo, Angola and Zambia.  There will be driving on wet roads, desert roads, war roads, and no roads; there will be overwhelming sun, pernicious sand, and daily thunderstorms; poor digestion and chocolate bar nostalgia; malaria and malaria medication (thankfully not Larium, the nightmare drug) – hearts of darkness beating in abundance.  Tack on the worries others would have me have: casual kidnapping, jungle Kalashnikovs, lions.  I can’t help but feel I’m obliged to write a letter to leave behind, titled, In Case I Die.  But I don’t know what I would say.  Some lesson I can’t qualify?  Some wish I can’t justify?  Some final scribbling attempt at immortality, the illusion of which is my fingers curling up from a future grave?  I can see them twist out the grey soil from beneath, but they hold nothing.  Part of me thinks I want to pen such a thing just to prove I saw death coming, should death come.  So I can have said I said so.  How many other contingencies, then, should I prepare for?  If I spent the rest of my life predicting my future I’d eventually get a lot of it right.

At the entrance to this place is a sign that reads, Votre sérénité est notre métier – “your serenity is our craft”.  To be honest, I think the ‘our’ extends a lot wider that the cemetery workers.  We have built this ritual silence in respect to death for generations and civilisations, and the craft of serenity is in our bones.  Have you ever been to graveyard at night?  That is history speaking; its ghosts too have been measured and made.

The woman is holding a stone, transferring it from hand to hand, rolling its weight between her fingers.  She is swaying like a metronome must sway when you think it is still.  What is her craft?  Gardening?  Simon?  A future inscription?

Death is also on my mind because I am dying.  I have no disease, save for that of life, and not so many years save the ones which haunt me in the dark.  I am dying because I am alive.  I don’t remember things like I once did.  The facts and insights ingrained into my grey matter seem all from the same era of adolescence and young adulthood, like I can’t stay grown up, like I’m repeating myself, coarsening the old grooves when I can’t form new ones.  My vocabulary is shrunk, sweet habits have subsumed mental adventure, exercise is hard.  I notice how two weeks of big eating begets an anchor in my gut, and two weeks of less sleep a hammer through my skull.  It’s starting to bother me when I see a couple kiss in the park with their eyes open, and while I try to accept it today, tomorrow I’ll think it should disturb everyone.  Today I think I didn’t used to be this way; tomorrow I’ll forget I was any different.  I am getting older.  I am getting old.  I am dying.  I’d quote Beckett – and who could be more astute here? – but I am swollen with the fear of getting it wrong.  Birth astride of a grave, and something something.

But I’m not depressed about it, so don’t worry.  The endless rows of skulls and femurs in the Paris Catacombs filled me with wonder and imaginative fire, not dread: I saw people’s lives lead to hollow heads, rather than the events which hollowed them.  I am excited about the future and want to dive into its blush and colour.  There is not much thought to it.  Spring floods are always nostalgic.

She points to the stone and whispers something to Simon.  She might not even be making sound.  She passes the stone to the other hand, points, and says something else.  She shrugs.  She places the stone down in front of the inscribed block, gets up, picks up her watering bucket, adjusts her backpack, and turns to walk away.  The backpack straps dangle like those of an absent-minded schoolboy.  She waddles down Avenue Berlioz, named after the French composer buried alongside, and then stops and turns back.  She seems to think about returning to fix a flower or adjust the stone.  But she goes on, and reaches the gate with those wise old steps.

I go to the grave to see her work.  It is not a stone.  It’s a piece of bread, too round and anachronistic to be from a boulangerie – she made it herself.  She left Simon a piece of bread.

Blank tombstones don’t bother me.  They could have just come from the factory or shop, and can be broken up again.  It’s the ones that are placed and assigned yet left uninscribed, waiting polite and inoffensive, that make me feel like I’m being walked over.

If it’s up to you, cremate me.  Yours,


Blank tombstone