An SMS appeared on my phone last November reminding me it was time to pay the dues for maintenance of our graves and the upkeep of the local cemetery.
This message appears about the same time each year, mentioning it can be done through Alpha Bank at such and such account number, or in person at the church. One afternoon last week as I was driving past on the way back from the supermarket, I saw the priest’s car parked outside, pulled over and parked next to a long whitewashed stone wall.
The church looks closed, but there is a little sign that says “Close The Door – Airconditioned”. It’s a bit of a tight moment to push the heavy ornate iron door inwards, and then to pull the inside wooden door towards you. To ease the situation there’s a little sign that says “Door Opens Outwards” and another that says “Mind Your Feet”.
It is warm inside thanks to the airconditioning that is working effectively against the cold January weather, and looks cozy in the half dark with the tiny flames of votive candles reflecting off polished brass and glass. The sumptuous rich red carpet softens any noise. The walls are covered in icons, in memory of souls departed. It seems deserted.
Behind the carved wooden sanctuary screen there is a movement and suddenly the church bells ring out for a few moments. Silence again. Then the figure behind the screen moves, stops, continues on its way to the sanctuary door on the right. A pale thin young man has been standing there with his hymn books, ready for the service of Evensong.
The priest appears, hesitates on the top marble step as if he’d only just seen me. He greets me by name. He has a way with remembering names, even of those who don’t attend church regularly.
I greet him and state my business, he says he doesn’t want to hold me up or keep me waiting, so goes back into the sanctuary returning with the receipt book and a pen. There’s a table just by, near the huge dark wooden carved throne where the Archbishop would be seated. It’s convenient for resting the receipt book on. One receipt in my name, one receipt in the husband’s name. Ten euros each.
The priest farewells me with good wishes for the new year and I’m about to leave, but there is no congregation, not even the ladies who attend church more regularly than most. I feel bad for the priest and decide to stay; after all I do in fact have a free fifteen minutes. It’s really cold outside and there’s nothing in the supermarket shopping on the back seat of the car that will spoil by being out of the fridge for a little longer.
Evensong starts. The priest’s powerful voice fills every corner of the church, the cantor responds in turn, the Byzantine chanting is uplifting and half an hour passes quickly. Then a mobile phone rings, the chanting stops and the church fills with silence.
I’m not sure if the service has finished and the minutes pass. As I leave, the difficult wooden door thuds closed behind me, probably reverberating around the whole church.
Outside from the steps of the church I look across the road to the cemetery dead ahead of me behind the whitewashed wall. Indeed it does look tidy and well maintained, with the white tombstones gleaming eerily in the fading winter afternoon light. Yes, it was definitely worth buying our plots to have everything nice and organized, and paying the annual fee, in spite of what the husband says.