The events in Ukraine are tragic and appalling, and very frightening. It put me in mind of a true story I’ve share here before, in a time before these terrible things even seemed a possibility. Names and other details have been changed:
Earth to earth – zemlya na zemlyu
This is a true story, but all the details have been changed, names, places, everything except the essence of the tale. This story is a true mystery – even today, many years after the events took place, the people involved talk about it and puzzle over it.
Sonia went away to University, to a city far from her family. She quickly made friends and got to know the others in the same classes as her. She and her friends noticed among the other students a couple of lads; one was quite handsome, greeny-blue eyes, rather wild brown hair, tall and very upright, with metal segs on his shoes so they could always hear him coming down the corridor. His friend was shorter with piercing blue eyes, high forehead, straight broad nose, wide mouth, high cheekbones and shoulder length hair.
Sonia got into conversation with the shorter of the pair, he was in several of the same classes as she was. His name was Bohdan Yevtushenko and everyone called him Dan or Danny; another student commented on his unusual name and Danny said it was Ukrainian. Later he and Sonia laughed about the girl who’d asked where Ukrainia was. Soon there was a group of friends including Sonia, Danny, Danny’s handsome mate, and another pal, Nick.
In the second year Sonia, Danny and Nick shared a flat together, and became the closest of friends. Danny was a very private person, and said little about his own family, but Nick and Sonia knew he had a brother called Marek, always known as Mark. Danny and Sonia became a couple and bought a house together, just round the corner from Nick. They had never been to visit Danny’s family, but Sonia had an address and would send him postcards when he was with them at Christmas or New Year.
Their relationship didn’t last and Sonia moved away but still kept in touch, seeing Danny and Nick quite regularly over the years, always exchanging gifts at Christmas, and on birthdays. Nick’s was in October 21st, Danny’s on November 21st. Nick married and had a family and Danny became like an uncle to the children. Sadly the marriage failed, but the three friends were still very close until tragically and very unexpectedly, Danny died. He was fifty-four.
Nick and Sonia discovered the address they had for Danny’s family was false… so Sonia had been sending cards to the wrong address. It amused them somehow, that Danny had kept even his family’s whereabouts a secret. They managed to make contact with Danny’s brother -who wasn’t called Mark or Marek, but Bohdan. The friend they had known for thirty years was not Bohdan, not Danny, he was Filip. It might seem strange that all the time the man they knew as ‘Danny’ had concealed his real name. It was even stranger that the name he’d chosen to be called – not just by his friends, but by his professors at Uni, his employers and his colleagues, was actually the name of his brother. Nick and Sonia imagined ‘Danny’ chuckling away in whatever afterlife he now inhabited.
They decided to go to the funeral, and were disconcerted to find that Nick’s ex-wife was also going – she had been close to ‘Danny’ so they tried to put their feelings aside. The funeral was in another city and they drove over the hills to find the church, reminiscing about ‘Danny’ and the person they had known who would have been a total stranger to his family.
They arrived at the church and were greeted as honoured guests by the real Bohdan who had found papers and diaries, letters and postcards mentioning Nick and Sonia when they had gone through his possessions in his flat. The elderly parents spoke only Ukrainian but embraced them and wept.
Nick and Sonia didn’t want to sit near his ex-wife, and were saved because they were shown to the front pews to be with the family. The funeral was conducted in Old Slavonic as well as English, and afterwards Nick and Sonia hurried out to the car to go to the cemetery, anxious to avoid the ex-wife. Her presence was an irritation, but they remarked that ‘Danny’ would have found the situation very amusing. They got lost on the ring road, but eventually found the right place when they stopped at a crossing for a group of people dressed in black and looking like crows.
They arrived at the graveside and were pulled to the front. The elderly priest began the committal, swinging his censer, sending choking clouds of incense towards them. He wobbled as he swayed backwards and forwards reciting the Old Slavonic, and Sonia had an awful and unfortunately amusing image of him swinging himself into the open grave as the censer went back and forth. He was so enthusiastic, that a burning ember of incense fell to the ground, and he risked a tumble trying to kick it into the grave, instead of which it adhered to his foot.
The coffin was lowered and the assembled company lined up to throw a trowel’s worth of soil onto the wooden casket. Neither Nick nor Sonja wanted to do this, but politeness kept them in line behind the family, on either side of the grave. As Sonia took the small shovel she glanced up and opposite her was Nick’s ex-wife. ‘Earth to earth’ intoned the priest, ‘zemlya na zemlyu’, and they tossed their soil, at the very same moment, sending it pattering onto the coffin, as if choreographed to do so. Sonia felt sure she heard Danny chuckling in glee at the hilarious awkwardness of the situation.
Some years later, Sonia visited his grave; she had to smile when she looked at the memorial stone… Danny’s birthday was in August, not November… he had even concealed his actual date of birth. He was a very private person.