In the sitting room of my flat is a lime-green balloon with a smiley face. It is gas-filled and weighted with a plastic disc which sits on the coffee table, so that the balloon floats just below the ceiling, turning very slowly in the otherwise undetectable eddies generated by the mildly overheated atmosphere. Sometimes the balloon is smiling out of the window at the City beyond, sometimes it is smiling at me, gormlessly. It twists noiselessly on its tether.
The balloon came in a cardboard box which also contained a small basket of fruit, some of which has since been consumed. They were gifts from a kind parishioner to my friend and vicar of my parish who is staying with me. He is staying with me because, three weeks ago tonight, he had an Acute Myocardial Infarction (what we used to call a heart attack) while alone in his vicarage. An ambulance was called and he was taken to hospital where he was observed, stabilised and investigated, and subsequently underwent what medical folk call a cabbage (CABG - Coronary Artery Bypass Graft). Although he has never smoked, is quite thin, and had an apparently fairly healthy lifestyle, the bloodflow through three of his coronary arteries had become restricted. A cabbage was the only solution if he was to avoid further heart attacks and possibly an early death. In a 5-hour operation, they took two veins out of his legs, stopped his heart, and grafted the veins on to it, bypassing the restricted arteries and restoring a full bloodflow to his heart. A small miracle.
He was discharged from hospital on Ash Wednesday which dawned, well, ashen. A typical English day in late winter. Blank, off-white nimbo-stratus covered the sky without a chink from horizon to horizon as I helped him slowly and carefully down the steps of the hospital and into the streets of east London - he, like someone emerging from a space-craft into the strange, blinding light of a new planet. He looked, well, ashen. I eventually saw and hailed a taxi, and we got back to my apartment block. We entered via the car park.
Now, in the Barbican, the common areas have what I always think of as a rather brave, uncompromising Mitteleuropa character, reminiscent of the continental estates on which I believe they were modelled. Between the car park and the lift lobby is a strange sort of antechamber. This small space has two steel and plate-glass doors, a tiled floor, and a grid in the ceiling which admits air and, inevitably, a certain amount of dust and leaf-litter from the walkway above. It is lit by a single, wall-mounted fluorescent light. If you come in this way, you open the first door with your key, and then the second (which does not need a key) and you're in the lift lobby. The doors bang securely and satisfyingly behind you. Five seconds max. It's a functional space (though its precise function is unclear) and not one in which you linger.
On this Ash Wednesday, we got inside the first door, and he asked if we could pause for a moment for a rest. He rested his back against the wall - which he promptly slid down so that he was sitting on the floor, then keeled over, blocking the outer door. His face was so pale as to appear almost colourless. There seemed to be no breath or pulse. I could not open the door to alert the attendant outside, and fumbled for my phone to dial 999. "Please, God", I prayed, "don't let him die here - not in this hard, cold, comfortless place." I could hear unconcerned voices and footsteps from the walkway above, and a dead leaf skittered on the tiled floor. For the life of me, I could not think of any of the proper prayers for the dying. I felt utterly without power or resource. I wondered, uselessly, why, of all the places in which it might have happened - an Umbrian hilltop, a friendly bar in midtown Manhattan, the sanctuary of our own church - a chilly, dusty, pointless no-man's-land of a cell should be this priest's point of departure from the world. I felt a tear roll down my cheek.
Then he stirred. Still deathly pale, he opened his eyes and smiled weakly. "What happened?" he asked. "You must have passed out. But I thought you'd died." "When I do die" he said, "I hope it's like that. It was rather peaceful."