I needed to get hold of Professor Calculus last week and, when I couldn't get an answer phoning his house, phoned the pub; Caupo told me he hadn't been in, but had looked a bit dicey the day before.
Calculus was a child of the Raj, having been born in an area of India that is now Pakistan. As was the custom, his primary education took place "back home" in England; his parents decided to return in time for him to observe the Battle of Britain going on above his head. One of his favourite childhood stories was about a schoolfriend who took a trophy from a crashed Messerschmitt in the form of a boot but had to get rid of it when the lower leg it contained began to smell.
He graduated from the Home Guard to the Army at the same time as, a younger student than usual, he graduated from university and, his didactic streak showing through even then, was attached to a unit as a member of the Royal Army Educational Corps. Once he'd had enough of getting from the top of a cliff to the bottom at an alarming rate, he joined the Medical Research Council and was part of much vital research.
Having tried life as a teacher in England, he decided to up sticks with his young family and go to Africa, where the Department of Overseas Development would pay him more than he earned in Blighty. Of all the countries he taught in, he loved most Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, the latter so much that he described himself as a South African. He raged against the racial inequalities in those countries and refused to teach in institutions where segregation was practised, sometimes going up against people of faith in this.
Eithe despite or because of being an atheist, Calculus would invariably start discussions about religion whin I'd go over to visit him for our weekly session of discussing politics, history and science and being generally grumpy, more often than not over a glass or two of wine. It never ceased to frustrate him that he couldn't trust in an agency he couldn't see, feel or prove with an algebraic equation. He went to see Rector Pellegrina recently, and asked how he could have faith. Pray, she replied. Although always a model of courtesy in front of a lady he demanded to know how he could pray to have faith when he didn't have the faith to pray, and left happy to have spent the time in her company but ultimately unfulfilled.
After I phoned the pub I called home and instructed Minima to go over: she found him unwell and, calling her mother, the ambulance was called. He was taken to hospital, where he seemed well until he suddenly deteriorated and, this morning, died.
What can a person of faith say of somebody who dies an atheist? Calculus' rage against inequality and injustice was matched only by his frustration at himself for feeling unable to trust in the God about whom he was instructed in school. We would regularly go round the houses of faith and knowledge not occupying the same space until Kingdom Come, and faith being a gift. I had no answer for his forlorn question as to why he hadn't been given that gift.
This evening, after seeing the empty hospital bed and asking the Ward Sister for the details, I went to the hospital chapel. At the back of this there's a "prayer tree" where you can write your petitions on notelets then clip them to nylon leaves. I asked Jesus to have mercy on somebody who had tried to touch His face but felt he had failed, and furthermore to send His mother to stand at Calculus' side to be an advocate for the mystery of God's loving forgiveness.
As for me, I trust that the miseries of the empty hospital bed, vacant chair and unfilled glass are transcended and resolved by the joy of the empty tomb. Sleep well, Professor Calculus. I miss you.