A Big Ask (Continued from post one.)
And they had done well, fixing up a small, ruined cottage for themselves and helping others in the community in any way they could. They were well
liked and after the two month trial period, they had recently been voted in as permanent members of the community. But I’d never found out what Jan
had done before the disaster unfolded in all its awful, unimaginable magnitude.
“I have no idea, Jan. I’ve seen you lumberjacking, laying bricks, picking fruit, digging ditches, playing the piano and singing, but -- ” I
shrugged. “I simply have no idea.”
He sighed and seemed to sag a little. “I never tell anyone before. I thought that if you know -- if anyone know -- then maybe it will be very bad
Another pause. I waited. Anna gave me a look and I could see deep pain in her eyes.
After maybe half a long minute Jan went on, “I was a geologist. I worked for -- I worked for Royal Dutch Shell.”
“Shell,” I echoed.
“Yes. Shell. And I was -- I was very good at my job. And when the disaster happened and all the attempts to stop the oil and gas were not working
and all was only worse and worse, I was with other experts who they ask to go to the Gulf, to see if we can do it anything, find maybe some
“So -- this was before the final, great explosion?”
“Yes. But I was there, only little while before that very terrible day. And it was only when we are in that region -- only then we discover about
this radiation, how it is so high, so much more radiation than ever known for any leaking of oil and gas like this.”
“Oh my god…”
“Yes, I said this also,” Jan nodded, not a hint of irony in his tones. He was now very matter of fact, as if he were talking about someone else.
“And so we were exposed. To this radiation.”
I saw Anna’s hand tightening on his and at a subtle nod from her husband she continued for him, “We thought that maybe he was lucky and did not
get too much radiation. But Jan began to feel very unwell. It was several weeks ago, not very long after we arrived here. But we knew that we must be
good workers and be useful. So he worked every day and if he was sick then he rested only as much as he needed to rest, and then he worked
“It was -- It has been very hard,” he said simply.
“We thought he had a virus or something. But Jan is never sick like this and every day he was more and more tired, and he was getting dizzy and had
trouble to see well sometimes, and also such terrible headaches… So -- so two weeks ago we took a carriage to the city and we found a doctor. He was
very kind and he promised to tell no-one that Jan had worked for -- for an oil company. He sent us to his old friend who is a specialist. It is
difficult with almost no electricity, but he has some solar panels and he was able to do some special tests, and -- and --”
Suddenly, she began to cry.
Jan moved closer to her on the bench and held her. Neither of them spoke. I got up and went to stand in the doorway that led off the kitchen to my
workshop and just allowed them their grief. As I looked at all the tools I’d gathered, at all the cabinets and shelves and other work I had
underway, I understood exactly what their “big ask” was.
Trying to stay detached, I itemized what I’d need for the task. I had enough planks. Good solid oak, well seasoned, a bit over six feet long, nice
straight grain. Unlike many of his countrymen, Jan wasn’t all that tall, so they would still be long enough after I’d cut them and squared them
off. And I could get the nails and screws tomorrow, and some stain to give the wood a nice tone. Beeswax would do fine for the polishing and I still
had some in stock. Yes, I could get it done fairly soon.
After a while, I felt their presence beside me. Jan’s voice barely held back his pain.
“I -- have to be buried, you see. In our religion, it is against our belief to be -- be cremated.”
“I understand.” I wasn’t Jewish but I knew something of their customs.
Then Anna asked simply, “Can -- can you make it for us? We have so little to barter…”
I also understood that they didn’t want me to use my working time to make this coffin without them paying. Work, in its myriad, honorable forms,
meant food and shelter and a place in the community. Work meant safety and security and friendship. “We can arrange a barter, Anna. It’s no
problem. You can do things for people who will do things for me.”
It had to be this way. Small gifts were special these days. Anything larger needed to be paid for. We all knew that.
But I also knew one other thing for sure. I would set the price very low.