White Mini Bus
the story of a
Beautiful Woman who,
with her unborn child
and one by her side,
They fell into a ravine on a mountain-
Entombed in a mini-bus.
I had dreamt of
Last. Gasping. Breath.
The final clutch of sodden fabric that
Ripped as her first born was
Into the frothing swirl.
I follow her route.
I sit in her space.
I give my journey to God.
Travelling through Georgia in the heat of a June day on a white mini bus awakened such a deep fear of death by drowning in me I had to physically hold my own hand to stop myself shaking. English guide books state quite clearly that people die in car accidents all the time here and the public mini buses ought to be avoided at all costs. Even my Georgian companion was concerned when we were talking about the best way of travelling from Batumi to Zugdidi. It took about 4 hours and was fairly terrifying in places as we hugged tiny roads that meandered above rivers which all looked surprisingly fairly benign.
When the woman in the poem died it was at the most intense time of my relationship with him and his choir. The shock of it and the tragedy of it hit him hard. They had sung together and I had been trying to learn a song she had recorded. She had the most beautiful and haunting voice, rich and mountainous full of black grapes and ochre soil.
I found the way he dealt with death, the way they all dealt with death really disturbing. I am no stranger to loss, my own father died when I was 22 and I know how it destroys everything, rips things apart until when you finally begin to feel again, albeit it wave after wave of grief, at least you do feel… something. The grief never subsides but life grows around it but those crumple buttons, the scent of a cherry cigar, a particular song on the radio, transport me back to that moment when I knew he was going to die and I screamed to the heavens, ‘take me instead’ . I know death will not be bargained with.
Death is never far away in Georgia. There is a complete submission to the eventuality of it, in theory at least, the soul goes to a better, higher place and those left behind have an elaborate and fascinating set of rituals designed to keep them connected to the dead in order to remember them and honour them. Georgian families gather at the grave to eat, drink, toast, share stories, cry, laugh and accept their loss at key points in the calendar. The names of the dead are included in the supra toasts as well. I guess it depends which culture you come from and what your own experience of death is as to how comfortable you feel with all this.
One time, when all 12 of them were staying at my house it was a day off from the gruelling schedule of concerts and workshops. For me, a quiet day where I knew all the rules as rituals was really necessary. I wanted to use the washing machine, walk the dog. I had not seen my son for a while as the tour had kept me away and I was happy to be home. He was only 13 at the time and I was aware that there was some interest in how ‘manly’ he was with some well-intentioned but un-welcome ‘male role modelling’ going on. Thankfully my son was content to keep himself to himself most of the time in his converted loft room. His sanctuary.
On this particular afternoon I was suddenly aware of a change in the atmosphere in the house. Everything had gone very quiet and grey somehow, like steel. He called me downstairs and when I got into the kitchen they were all there, all holding a glass of red wine and standing solid, unmovable. I knew they were uncomfortable with something but was perplexed as to what was going on. Then the toasts began, just quiet toasts, respectful toasts, not full of bravado, or ego but full of pain, loss, hurt and displacement.
This toast was for a fallen member. A man who had died in 2009. They told me he had been the best of them. He left behind a young wife and two very very small children. I had been to his grave in Tbilisi. It was a haunting and haunted place and I had felt like an intruder there. That same sense of intrusion permeated my home. On this anniversary they did not want to be there, I did not want them to be there with their eyes full of pain and forever grief. Not because I did not care but because I felt like I was never going to be allowed to. Their grief was not private, nor was it public, it was exclusive and dismissive of mine.
I did try to understand, I really did but I guess it’s the mystery of the circumstance of death that I feel so uncomfortable with, the embracing of it combined with the guilt of celebrating it that kept my face turned to the open window on that 4 hour mini bus journey across Western Georgia. I had a sense of it then, the only foreigner on the bus hiding behind my sun glasses and scribbling into my notebook, why, instead of cursing my inability to insist on a safer mode of transport, or at least praying for the miracle of a seat belt, I found myself thinking, if you can’t beat them, join them.