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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #338

Today’s debut for me at the Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra hall wasn’t particularly auspicious. The initial problem was that a friend had misguidedly told me it was just around the corner from my apartment, whereas in fact that’s the National Theatre and instead it was at the other end of town. So I rushed there in a sweat. The tickets were EUR2.50 each, and they asserted that it was free seating, so I figured it couldn’t be too formal. Nothing could be further from the truth. It wasn’t in the concert hall’s main amphitheatre at all but in an ante-room, and there were no seats whatsoever. I wondered why, and then I realised that I had been twice deceived. Whereas I had been told it was a flute recital - something that sounds fairly harmless - in fact it was a religious ceremony of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine and hence we all had to stand up, in the Orthodox tradition.

About 70% of the attendees were wearing Benedictine black monastic robes, which was also a little unusual. I later learned that a substantial proportion of them were an ad hoc choir that would sing uplifting hymns in the style of Gregorian chants, with no instruments, but first we had to listen to a series of political-religious speeches. There were about 250 people jammed into a space of perhaps 50 square metres, so it wasn’t exactly relaxing standing up while listening to all these various individuals give speeches about the status of Ukrainian Orthodoxy within the Orthodox Church - all in Ukrainian. We also had what I ascertained to be the Lord’s Prayer read out in Ukrainian, although again I found that quite hard to follow. The TV cameras were there in abundance, as one priest or professor or whoever it might be was led out, each after the other, to convey their opinions about the tyranny of the Russian Orthodox Church or whatever it was they were talking about.

The temperatures in there caused me to strip down to my t-shirt, despite its being a cool grey and dreary day outside, and it must have hit 40 degrees easily as we all stood tip to toe, jammed in like sardines, while we were regaled with monosyllabic liturgy. By about minute 45 of this horror, I was about to head for the door and cut my losses, but alas it was not to be. The emotion of the moment had so enveloped a large, sweaty, fat man standing next to me that he decided to enter into cardiac arrest. I observed his mobile telephone drop freely out of his hand onto the floor, and his eyes start to flutter and his breathing become shallow. Then he slumped straight into me, and only sheer force of weight, and my bear hugging him tightly, prevented him from crashing to the floor like a falling whale. I held on tight for dear life, as this man was easily 20 kilograms heavier than me, until two of the larger Monks helped me guide him through into the empty amphitheatre, where we should all have been rather than standing up in this stupidly small room, and the three of us together managed to rest this gargantuan man on a chair.

Women ran with bottles of water; someone stripped off his tie and ripped open his shirt. While all this commotion was going on in a chaotic Ukrainian kind of a way, and this man was seeing his life flash before him, the sombre and monotonous religious speeches continued in the ante-chamber next door as though reading the poor damned man his last rites. Then, finally, as my patient continued to gasp for breath amidst his heart attack, the choir of Monks began their Gregorian chant. I listened for really just a handful of minutes to their sublime voices, and I thought of God who was not being kind that day to my benighted patient in making him stand there so long that he ended up having a heart attack. This was one of those events that was not to be.

After a few minutes of enchantment by this music, I decided to clamber out through the throng of densely packed standing people and return to the front door where nobody had bothered to check my ticket on entering anyway because it was so infuriatingly busy. I squeezed out through all those densely packed people at just the right moment; a pair of ambulances and a police car were arriving to deal with the crisis. I could hear the Monks continuing to chant in the background as I walked off into the street, which seemed somehow quite fitting as this unfortunate man continued to gasp for breath and fight for his life while the medical practitioners attended.

I walked home gloomily, it ever-present on my mind that I am more fortunate than that man and that I had not suffered a cardiac arrest today. Every day I stay alive on this earth, I have learned to be truly thankful for that which I have and that includes my life and my health. Whether there be a God in Heaven I do not know but if She is looking down on me then I would like to thank It for His giving me this time on Earth to enjoy and experience all its complexities. In return for this wondrous liberty I have been afforded, I will seek to do my very best for the good of the whole world and for the people of Ukraine in particular. I can still see that stricken man panting now for breath while the Monks sang of God, and I cannot help wonder whether he lived or died after his episode careering into me and being taken into the arms and care of God’s servants. These mysteries, of life and death, for me at least, are for another day.

By the way, the State Security of Service of Ukraine has just approved my military press pass, so I suppose I will have plenty of opportunities to experience brushes with life and death along the front line over the forthcoming weeks and months.


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