Stanley Klepp deceased (4)
By Simon Barget
It was a suitably lugubrious morning for a funeral; the Atlantic rain swirled in flurries on a recrudescent wind, gusting up not roughly or violently, but in a tempered way; squally but controlled. It wasn’t particularly cold. Parkash shielded his face with the lapel of his gabardine raincoat as he sidled through the rear doors of the prayer hall, and braced for a haze of unfamiliarity, and chastened by the sour odour of the stately wood, he looked up optimistically for Freeman -- that’s to say someone whose appearance might match the brassy timbre of the voice (also it wasn’t completely out of the question that Doctor Last might turn up) -- but all he could make out was strange faces. Partly obscured behind a lectern near the front of the hall, and embroiled in conversation with a slighter man was a man he presumed to be the Rabbi, as this man had a substantial beard and betrayed solemnity and gravitas, whilst the other man had, all in all, a more recessive countenance. Parkash ventured a tentative nod-of-the-head to which the presumed Rabbi gave an almost instant response, as if he’d been well aware of Parkash’s presence as soon as he’d come in, and as if Parkash had been expected. It was hard to get a clear image of either because the hall was set in darkness owing to the paucity and location of windows which admitted very little of what dim light the November morning had decided to give out, and no one had turned on the lights yet. Resting on a trundle and covered by a black sheet was a simple black box, crudely painted; curiously no special pre-conceived position had been ordained for it, so that it just lay there in the centre of the room unprotected, free to be approached, avoided, touched or ignored without compunction, waiting to be wheeled through the second, front set of doors that were to remain closed until the end of the first half of the service.
The second man was a good head shorter than the first, and whilst the other four oscillated centrifugally around their chosen standing positions, their interaction seemed to be possessed of a sort of inquiring and elucidatory dynamic, wherein the latter, maintaining a screwed-up expression of intense concentration, bore a faint wince around the eyes; suggesting that whilst entirely receptive to the second man’s expositions, he was still keeping an eye out for the rest of the men he’d been promised would arrive at ten o’ clock, following the strict precept that for the prayer gathering to be considered quorate, at least ten Jewish males over the age of thirteen had to be present. One might have interposed a surmise, rightly or wrongly, that though an immensely patient and holy man, he was beset by a host of close-knit appointments and that his skill for moral guidance stood in deference to the necessity to make the next home visit attend the next funeral, religious convention or whatever it might have been.
Still they waited; two men came making seven; the smaller man sensed that this was an appropriate time, broke off from the Rabbi, which left no activity bar a cough here and there; a man on the other side of the room took out his handkerchief and blew his nose boisterously; he also coughed afterwards, and the Rabbi interspersed further glances at the door with exaggerated rictuses designed to signal some sort of contrition for the delay. Finally, mercifully, three men walked in together, at their leisure, and a fourth followed soon after so that there were now twelve which included Parkash and a much taller, gallant-looking man who seemed to have decreed himself onlooker rather than participant as he stood near the open doors at the back, out of the ambit of all other congregants. One of the group of three handed Parkash a small prayer reader and a black skull cap, as if the two came as a package -- Parkash took them gratefully -- and at this moment, the man behind the lectern started to speak so he must have been the Rabbi; and he embraced the liturgy measuredly and composedly, looking up at opportune moments to gauge congregant reactions whose heads were mostly too deeply entrenched in their prayer readers to be able to acknowledge his glances. The atmosphere was hushed and solemn and at root rather flat; the whole thing flanked by an oppressive staleness.
What was this motley group of strangers really here for? What was the significance of the body supposedly in this wooden case and no longer visible to the human eye; were these the remnants of a man and was this now the transmuted location of the death they were all seeking to define, with such finality, such certainty? Weren’t they too late? But if they were here for the soul, where was it; was it not everywhere? And surely the soul was oblivious, complete and self-sufficient?
The Rabbi then continued with the eulogy in similarly curbed tones to those in which he had intoned the psalms:-
It was a great blessing to be present at the burial of a member of the community, though the community hadn’t been focal to Stanley Klepp, he had remained a member of the synagogue which meant Judaism and his roots had still been important to him; living in Wembley since his wife had died; a solitary but reflective being; but still he leaves his imprint behind him...[long pause ]… and despite the sententious fillip conflated into each phrase, it seemed to Parkash as if the Rabbi was going to deliver a speech devoid of all praise, pathos and platitude; a flat paean breaking out into nothing, with nothing at all remarkable to say, as if he were asking for permission to dispense with aggrandisement as it was understood that there was no aggrandisement to be made of Klepp’s life.
The longer the interruption continued, the surer Parkash became that this was it and that they’d be now ready to wheel the trundle outside, but after shuffling the paper that he’d been thumbing throughout, the Rabbi resumed unexpectedly on a downbeat, when the men had already started to move and murmur:-
Can we really believe that death will take us, as a reality, and when I say ‘us’ I mean ‘you’, every one of you; can we fully accept that we are no different to all those that must die and who are dying; can we relinquish our obstinacy; you see, you can’t hold onto anything not the slightest experience; you can’t hold on to time, on to any joyous moment, nor can any period of turmoil continue indefinitely; everything changes instantaneously, everything is fleeting; and how can we come to terms with this because nothing is stable, solid; this includes our flesh as well as the ground below our feet; but in order to embrace continuous change, we must first have a consolation, because to face death as the end is just not palatable: how are we to console ourselves then, who can tell us that death is ok, and would we even believe them if they did? I am strongly convinced that there is something better than hope, blind hope, hope without proof or reflection; there must be reflection, internal certainty, because even if anyone was to guarantee you eternal bliss, you could only believe them from within; within is where the certainty lies; there is no such thing as an external authority; and Hashem must remain hidden without proof…[pause] these were all notions which must have concerned Stanley Klepp who delved into subjects unbroached by traditional orthodoxy, subjects which were perhaps rightly closed off to those not capable of tackling them, but I gather that he was.
But there was no reaction, and even the mention of the word ‘Kabbalah’ had no chastening effect on the mulch of congregants either -- how must the Rabbi have felt --; their faces upturned though still dormant, and from this dormancy it seemed to Parkash somewhat inappropriate for the Rabbi to continue on this tack. But he did, defiantly, even strengthened:-
Klepp must have understood that a cosmic catastrophe took place at the beginning of creation which broke the celestial books; each piece falling down through the spiritual realms and eventually into our lowest physical realm, each splinter a spark of holiness, a fragment of the eternal, unknowable Ein Sof, -- That without End -- so the reason that each soul takes physical form in the body is to raise and gather up these sparks of holiness, and make them whole once again by tikkun olam, the fulfilment of each of the 613 commandments; once completed, the messianic era will come upon us. Each life is meaningful, each life is sacred, holy, magisterially propelling his voice up into the rafters; each life has a purpose, and if we don’t fulfil ours, which is fine, we are sent back to earth for another bite at the cherry, and at this cute phrase he allowed himself a smile, which engendered a proportional response from the crowd, but he’d been carried away by the loftiness of the words. A person attuned to this phenomenon, he continued, was someone who had their grasp on the wider picture, such a person would be well aware that the only real purpose to our existence on this earthly realm is to practise compassion towards others, since others were merely of a reflection of ourselves, and therefore to treat others well was the way in which you could treat yourself well, and feel good. He repeated at the end: our lives have purpose, Stanley Klepp’s life had purpose.
Walking back to the prayer hall, Parkash felt a soft cajoling touch on the right arm, and turning round saw the Rabbi who smiled searchingly in that way where the eyes seem to delve deeply and kindly into the soul, with no hint of self-seeking in the other’s reaction; Parkash felt immediately calmed, and then found himself taking in the Rabbi’s appearance: fairer than he’d imagined, freckled, with rich russet patchlets on his burgeoning beard; quite raggedy and not the picture of propriety that he seemed to project in the hall; and Parkash was also relieved as he’d wanted to ask him for input on the arrangements for Klepp’s flat i.e. what do to with all his books and belongings and CDs and to get an idea of who’d be taking care of what, he would say that he’d be happy to help but would the synagogue be the first point of contact?; and he was about to do so but the Rabbi started to thank Parkash effusively, with extruding eyes: Parkash was truly a righteous man for having done what he did, may God bless him, there were not many people who would have gone to all the trouble and Parkash was so shocked and touched by the heartfelt quality and sincerity of these remarks; he really didn’t know how to reply, and the Rabbi touched him again on the shoulder of his coat to show that no response was necessary.
The drizzle had since stopped; it was just grey and blustery and this was a relief for all the men. Parkash, realising that the man walking next to the Rabbi was not just a bystander, and that his prolonged presence near the two was intended, said hello to him -- it was the man who the Rabbi had been talking to when Parkash had walked into the prayer hall -- to which the man made only a minute response with a flicker of his pupils, which could have been interpreted as nonchalance or even insolence, as the Rabbi then cleared his throat in an effort to dispel this stagnant energy, announcing ‘this is Mr Klepp’s cousin’ or at least that’s what Parkash thought he heard, and he wanted to thank him personally for all his help; he turned round and went to shake the man’s hand not really understanding who he was; youngish and wiry, festooned in a big khaki anorak, unbuttoned; he kept both hands wedged in his trouser pockets, and just mumbled ‘Len’; nervous, speaking down into his frowzy jumper he explained almost apologetically, that he hadn’t seen him for some years, he said that they’d not been on good terms unfortunately, that was just how it happened, then constantly readjusting his skull cap, palming and patting it down with a tweaking, dabbing movement as if trying to find the perfect spot on his head, shifting from one leg to the other; when he did look up, Parkash noticed a vacancy in his eyes -- irises as black as granite and peppered with luminous crystal flecks, eyes that seemed to have an on/off quality to them, like a reptile’s - as if the man was not all there in that moment and was waiting for something to shunt him into life. I’m sorry, I did try to find your relations, Parkash said, but I didn’t know you had any as Mr Klepp never told me about you I’m afraid…but the man brushed this off as if it didn’t need to be said and Parkash launched into a retelling of how he’d found Klepp lying quite peacefully on the bed; whether he’d really believed that he’d looked peaceful was something that he was willing to hold off from scrutiny at that particular moment; and they just didn’t know how he’d had died so quickly; it really was a bit of a mystery, poor fellow; he really hadn’t been that old. In truth, he was using the man as a psychic receptacle, disposing of all the pent-up energy that had built up from the past few days’ trauma; it was a godsend to have someone there close enough to but yet still significantly distant from Klepp to be able to confide in, and he let his humanism slip, but only a degree or so, so that it was as if he was speaking more about a token object rather than a person who had just died. The man just stared into space, and with no curtailment to Parkash’s flow, he blurted out enthusiastically, in attempted elucidation of the mystery, is your name Klepp then, I didn’t find any other Klepps in the book, or are you on the other side of the family? No I’m not a Klepp, the man said, well I was and Parkash looking confused, he said that his surname was Kaminski, (Parkash heard something like ‘Gurminsy’), which had been his mother’s maiden name. Yes I think I saw that name responded Parkash excitedly, and pretended he’d now understood who the man was, but he hadn’t, although his spirits had been lifted through the one-sided dialogue; but I’m sorry I didn’t call you, because I had no idea who that was and that you were related.
He then wanted to know how he’d known about the funeral; Kaminski said that he’d been notified by the burial service, he’d just got a call yesterday, apparently they had a message on their system to notify him, then he’d spoken to the Rabbi to discuss some of the arrangements; it had all been a bit of a blur. Parkash said that he’d been in contact with Mr Freeman from there who’d been very helpful and who he thought might turn up to the funeral. Kaminski continued that this was typical of his father anyway to make all these convoluted arrangements and there seemed to be a measure of bitterness in his expression. Who is your father then, Parkash said in an effort to establish ultimate clarification on the matter, is he Mr Klepp’s brother, are you his nephew then? Nephew?; and Kaminski made a sort of screwed-up face sending his lip out to the left of his face whilst producing a marked squint: "what do you mean, no I’m his son, I’m Stanley Klepp’s son, although I know I haven’t seen much of him for many years so I might as well be his nephew or just no one, but I’m still his son for god’s sake." He took a big stomach-heaving breath, Parkash was stunned into silence, and couldn’t look back at him, and by that time they’d got back to the prayer hall for the second half of the service and Parkash was forced to bear the ignominy in silence for a further fifteen minutes, a sort of indignant fire of desiring-to-demonstrate-rectitude burning in his belly, both of them standing shoulder to shoulder.
Parkash was whirling in thought: how awful; how had he not known that Klepp had a son, but he’d never mentioned him at all, why? Had he known his father was ill? Imagine just being called up out of the blue and being told that your father had died. Thankfully he’d had time to come to terms with the death of his own father since it had been gradual. It must have been worse that they hadn’t spoken for years, and he felt strokes of unfocussed and self-indulgent sadness around the whole affair. When the service was over and after walking out of the hall back through the rear doors onto a small paved area in front of the car park and standing there while the other men walked by them and left the cemetery, he rushed up to Kaminski who’d slipped out first: “I’m so sorry Mr Klepp, I didn’t hear the Rabbi properly, my sincerest condolences to you, your father was a good man”, almost bowing as he said this. Kaminski all but ignored him, saying just: it’s ok, you weren’t to know; then making a lazy effort to accept Parkash’s sentiment by forcing a thin smile, said that he’d be round to the flat if that was ok but he didn’t have a set of keys and he thinks his father changed the locks recently even if he did have any, so could Parkash let him in; no we had to break in unfortunately said Parkash, and the door was now just padlocked and he could come and pick up the key whenever he liked; yes he would come round at some point in the future to clear his stuff up, but not for the moment at least not today; he wasn’t sure who was really going to take care of the administrative stuff, really. Parkash said that it might be worth speaking to Mr Freeman at the burial society who seemed very helpful; Kaminski responded with a sigh and just a ‘hmmm’.
It was clear that Kaminski wanted to leave and he made corresponding motions to go, but all of a sudden, the very tall silver-haired man who'd been almost completely inconspicuous throughout, strode out of the hall and swished past Parkash’s right shoulder; stentorian, leather-soled shoes clacking on the paving stones, as if in a great hurry, and as Parkash tried to catch the man’s eye throwing an indistinct greeting gesture in his general direction, it was a sort of clumsy raising of his right hand, almost as if he were trying to stop him in his tracks -- partly out of curiosity, partly out of genuine good-humoured feeling -- the other man just walked on obliviously. Do you know him, Parkash asked, startled, his tone peaking at the word ‘know’, as if Kaminski really might be able to disclose something that could explain the callous dismissal or at least soften the blow; no, Kaminski didn’t know and didn’t seem to ascribe much importance to him either, does the Rabbi know him, do you think, and Kaminski offered, sullenly, that he didn’t think he was part of the Minyan (quorum) at least as he didn’t look Jewish; Parkash confessed that he couldn’t imagine that someone would turn up to someone’s funeral without knowing them and as he said this, Kaminski seemed almost transformed, energy flushed into his person, his serpentine eyes lit up, backbone straightened, and imbued with complete purpose, he took off, motioning to Parkash as he went, Parkash murmuring in return that he would ask the Rabbi if he knew who he was, which declaration just got lost on a gust of wind; but in any case, Kaminski was gone, and as he moved away from Parkash, at an ungainly canter, the other man had seemingly moved much further, and at least faster than physical laws could normally allow; now a good thirty feet ahead of Kaminski, and Kaminski had to break out into a full-scale run just to keep up. Within no more than a few seconds, Kaminski was charging at full pelt, and the last a bemused Parkash saw of him, he was through the car park, clutching his skull cap to his head with his right hand in pursuit of the mystery man who had long slipped out of eyeshot.