Tales from the back of the eyelids


My bank on Na Příkopě in the centre of Prague is a large multistorey building. When one walks in through the main entrance there is a confusing information board which shows where to go for various services. Only two floors are accessible to the public; the rest, I suppose, is for the bank's administration and that not only for this branch but all the bank's branches in the Czech Republic. After the lobby, if you go straight rather than upstairs, you come to a grand, high-ceilinged hall, in which voices and even the slightest knocks echo in a muffled way.

I was in the bank in the middle of the day and as there were no other customers I went straight up to the cash teller's window. The woman behind the window brusquely shooed me away, saying that I needed to have a number before she could serve me. Obediently I went off to look for the machine that issues numbers. I found it around the corner in a side room, away from the main hall, fixed to the wall. Usually, of course, one would just push a button on it and a piece of paper would emerge with a number on it and then one would wait until the same number lit up above the cashier's window. Today, however, two long pieces of adhesive tape were stuck over the machine in a cross and there was a sign above stating that the machine was out of order.

By the time I had returned to the hall, a crowd of people had come into the place and were waiting where I had been earlier. They were standing all higgledy-piggledly, without forming a proper queue. I joined the back of the bunch and tried to stake out my position, but shortly afterwards some more people joined us and soon it was not clear who was before who, and for which of the two cash desks open in front of us each person was waiting for.

A little while later a group of English youths came in and joined us. I looked at them contemptuously. They were obviously tourists there to change money and not on real business as I was. Even though I am as English as they were, for me they were foreigners, whereas here I was at home. Soon they were on all sides of me and one young man blatantly tried to push in front of me.

"Oy!" I shouted at him. "Get back behind me! I was here before you!"

The lad looked at me with a startled expression, then meekly and bashfully stepped back  to where he should have been. At the same time, though, everyone else in the bank went quiet and glared at me disapprovingly. I had surprised myself that I had got angry over such a triviality, as I see myself as being far more phlegmatic than this. "But who cares?" I thought to myself. "I was in the right, and after all my yelling did the trick. That boy won't try that again with me." In fact the outburst seemed to have a wider beneficial effect, because despite my being personally disapproved of, the crowd as a whole gave me more respect and more berth. Indeed everyone began to treat each other with more respect and as a result the queuing became less aggressive and more orderly.

When I did finally get to the counter, the woman behind it frowned at me in an even more unfriendly way than she had before. She was one of those round, middle-aged non-descript types with dyed permed hair as are found in Czech offices and institutions all around the country. She was giving me an extra dose of hostility - a grade above the normal hostility she dispensed - because of the scene I had caused a moment before. I had overstepped the mark. I had broken an unwritten but tacitly accepted rule by which the customer shows deference to and accepts the authority of the bank. But I was not going to take any of that kind of nonsense. Her manner infuriated me and roused me to be an even greater rebel than I had already shown myself to be. I was right and I was going to stand up for myself. Not only had I done nothing wrong, but I had been treated abysmally by being sent for a number that did not exist and as a result had been forced to queue in a scrum that had been the bank's responsibility to put in order. I said to myself that if this woman was going to give me a hard time, I was going to let her have it.

"I would like to register my father as a Jew," I told her.

I should mention at this point that under a power of attorney I conduct all my parents' business for them. They are both elderly and are more than happy to pass on their administrative duties to me. It is no easy task dealing with Czech bureacracy.

The woman looked at me in surprise and then after a pause said disdainfully, slowly emphasising every word: "We do not do that service here."

"Today you're out of luck, madam," I said with a nasty snarl. "I know my rights. I want you to register him right now!"

The woman sat up straight, taken aback, and all at once appeared intimitated. Without saying a word she looked down and shuffled through some papers she had in front of her, as if consulting them.

After a few moments she replied somewhat timorously: "I'm sorry, Sir. The person who deals with this is not available today. You'll have to come back tomorrow."

At this I said nothing and stared at her. When she saw that I was not going to budge, she said quickly: "Please wait a moment," and disappeared behind the back.

I could hear a couple of exasperated sighs and I could sense that the rabble behind me were getting increasingly irritable because of my causing, as they saw it, this unnecessary delay. "Their tough luck!" I thought, hating every single one of them. The truth was that already the wait was taking more than long enough and even I was beginning to get irritable.

Some minutes later a slim, tall, friendly-looking man appeared at the window. He was in his mid-forties, his hair was beginning to turn grey and he was wearing a small black skullcap on the crown of his head.

"My father would like to become a Jew," I told him firmly.

"Certainly, Sir," the man said with a genuine smile. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"This is more like it," I thought to myself. "Just the pleasant, friendly treatment customers ought to be getting."

I put a thin slice of Roquefort cheese, which is required for registration, into the gap under the window and both of us leant forward and for a few moments studied closely the crevices of green mould on the creamy surface.

"Thank you very much, Sir," the man said, taking the cheese and putting it away in a drawer. My father had become a Jew.

Some may wonder why I did not become a Jew myself. I am, in fact, not in favour of any organised religion, nor, come to that matter, any religion at all. Even though I disapprove in principle of my father becoming a Jew, if that is what he wanted, I felt obliged to help him. For his whole life my father thought of himself as a Roman Catholic, albeit a liberal one. I was glad at least of the fact that he was a liberal, but then I wondered what was the point of his faith, if he did not consider it important to adhere to it. He would, however, occasionally attend mass and even though he never took the host, the frequency of his attendance increased greatly in his later life. I suspect that his motive was more to do more with showing that he was an active member of the Czech community in exile than his fear of dying: he only ever went to the Czech chapel in Belgravia where Czechs met.

Nevertheless he genuinely did believe in God. "Why?" I used to ask him in my youth. Without God and without Christianity, he would tell me, there would be no morality and there would be nothing to stop human beings from, for example, eating little children. I would try to explain to him that, on the contrary, humans are social animals and that our morality is derived from our biology. His reaction to this was to get angry with me; he had no further arguments to give in defence of his beliefs.

Father died one year ago at the age of eighty-three. He had suddenly become ill and slipped quickly into unconsciousness after being taken to hospital. He was kept alive by various machines placed around him with tubes leading into different parts of his body, until my brother and myself were able to arrive from abroad. With the family around the bed, it was decided to call a priest and give my father the last rites. None of the rest of us are believers, and after the incantations and after the priest had left, my mother unexpectedly burst out with: "What a load of mumbo-jumbo!"

Why, if none of us believed, and Father was unaware of what was going on around him, did we bother giving him the last rites? Was it for him or for us? Theoretically there was no point. And yet, we all thought it was for him. He would have wanted it. Despite everything, we believed there was still a chance - and who is to say there is not? - that he could still hear us and would appreciate what we were doing. If that is what Father wanted, we felt obliged to arrange it for him.

And if, a year later, my father has decided that he now wants to become a Jew, I see no reason why I should not arrange it for him. In fact, I am pleased to arrange it for him. I loved him, after all.

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