Authors: Annah Faulkner
For my two Als: Alison and Albert Svensson
Come sit down beside me
I said to myself,
And although it didn't make sense,
I held my own hand
As a small sign of trust
And together I sat on the fence.
The death of the camphor laurel tree was brutal, but quick. Hacked off two feet above the ground, it collapsed with a great creaking sigh, its aromatic sap leaking into the warm earth.
Chris flicked away a surreptitious tear. Many peaceful afternoons had been spent snoozing beneath the tree's shady arms, working off Gran's Sunday lunch. But Grandpa wanted the field for his spuds.
The roots were not so easily dealt with as the great trunk. With Chris's help, Grandpa dug a circular trench about four feet out, severing the camphor laurel's lifelines. Even then, the tree did not give up: within a few days, a tiny green shoot had sprung from the stump. But the reprieve was temporary. Grandpa was determined to have it all.
Tom, the farmer from across the road, offered his advice: âBlow it out.'
Chris watched wordlessly as Grandpa planted his auger on the hopeful sprig and corkscrewed down into the old flesh. When the hole was deep, he wedged in a stick of dynamite.
âMore,' said Tom.
Grandpa raised an eyebrow, but slid in a second stick.
âAnother one,' Tom said. âStubborn buggers, roots. You've got to give them a proper nudge.'
âThere's more than enough in there for a nudge,' said Grandpa. But he added a third stick and a fuse, packed the hole with clay, trailed the wick twenty feet along the ground and handed Chris a box of matches.
âYou're faster than I am, lad. Light it and run.' He touched the boy's shoulder and walked quickly with Tom to the back of the shed.
Chris struck a match and set it to the wick. It hissed and flared and took off on a bright wobbly journey down the fuse.
âRun!' Grandpa yelled. âFor God's sake, boy, run!'
Chris snapped out of his daze and galloped across the paddock on his long adolescent legs. Behind the shed he crouched down with Grandpa and Tom and plugged his ears â¦
Jo's end was brutal, too, but slow. Not felled by a single blow, but eaten away, from the inside.
Chris sat with her during those last few days, giving her husband, Ben, a chance to slip home for a few hours' sleep or a change of clothes. He murmured to her about the good times, stroked her forehead or held her hand â rigid with pain or limp with resignation â and felt the spirit of his beloved aunt ebb away. When she fell into a coma, he and Ben wrapped her in their love and let her go.
Surrender to the inevitable has left him drained, but a crematorium full of people demands that he must â as Jo might say â press on regardless. He slides back a cuff of the shirt beautifully ironed by his wife, Diane, and glances at the watch Jo and Ben gave him for his eighteenth birthday. Eleven fifteen. The late is late.
He shrugs within the confines of his suit. Damn thing: it's too tight or too poorly fitting or just too â¦
. He doesn't wear suits; wouldn't be wearing one now if not for Ben. Jo wouldn't have cared if he'd worn pyjamas, except he doesn't wear pyjamas, either. Diane gave him a white silk set four or five Christmases ago and when, at her insistence, he put them on, he felt like a Christmas angel or, more disturbingly, like a virgin. He wonders, now, if they were a message from his wife that he'd missed. He pats his jacket, seeking reassurance from the small piece of wood he always carries in his pocket. Not there. He pats the other pocket. No wood. Maybe the trousers.
âChris,' Diane whispers. âStop fidgeting.'
What is he â eight? No, forty-eight. Today, in fact. Some party. Jo gazes at him from the photo on her printed funeral service.
Chris lifts his glasses and runs a finger under his eyes, then pulls out a handkerchief and mops his forehead so anyone watching will think he's blotting sweat, not tears. One of his favourite old groups, Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Plenty of sweat and tears today, but not much blood. Some from Aunty Jo, his mother's sister, but none from her husband, Ben. Yet it is for Ben that Christopher wears the suit. He'd wear a hair-shirt for Benjamin Bright if required. Beside him, his adoptive father is a crumple of grief, yet his suit is immaculate.
âGod created the suit for you,' Chris told him once, âalong with The Word for the rest of us.' Ben had smoothed his lapel. âImagine turning up for work in overalls â my clients would have conniptions.'
âSurely that's the point of being an auditor,' Chris replied. Though the idea of Ben making anyone nervous was ludicrous.
Phoebe, on Ben's other side, bestows her grandfather with a brief, tender smile. With her mother's composure and her father's Nordic colouring their daughter is a head-turner. Today, her flaxen hair is pulled into a bun and her pink-grey suit, though fittingly demure, sticks to her figure in a way Chris finds discomfiting. Not that he'd say anything. Phoebe would arch her exquisite brows and suggest that he mind his own business. At three, Phoebe was her own woman. At twenty-three, you didn't interfere.
Chris rubs a hand over his chin, feeling the blond stubble that springs the moment the razor has passed over it. He read somewhere it keeps growing after you die. He doesn't much like the idea of his body going on doing things after he's left it.
Archie sniffs, and Diane passes their son a tissue. He wears an ancient leather bomber jacket rescued from some musty welfare shop. His current girlfriend has cut his mop of dark hair and he looks neat, if not tailored. Chris has forgotten the girlfriend's name but it probably won't matter. At twenty, Archie's turnover of girlfriends is so breathtakingly fast he might have forgotten too. Chris wonders what it would be like to have girlfriends whose names you don't remember. âSerially monogamous though, Father,' Archie boasts. âFaithful while it lasts.' Archie has been using the word
more frequently lately, mostly accompanied by a bout of moral superiority. Chris hopes he will grow out of it
It's stuffy in the chapel, unusually hot for Brisbane in winter, and the smell of lilies and wreaths propped against the featureless timber walls has intensified to the point of nausea. People murmur, foot-scrape, sigh, hunch over plans for the rest of the day, the rest of their lives. As one man lifts his watch to his ear Chris sees the hearse, a great black beetle creeping down the driveway and disappearing behind the crematorium. Moments later, the holy muzak fades away and the curtain is drawn back to reveal Jo's coffin. Open. Her body is in there, just below the lip. An hour from now, it and the coffin will be ash.
The funeral director steps forward. âThose who wish to pay their respects to Josephine may now do so.'
Chris doesn't need to pay his respects to Jo by viewing her body. But Ben is struggling to his feet so together they walk towards the podium, Chris a full head taller than his adoptive father, and peer into the shiny walnut coffin. And there she is, a doll with satin and tulle frothed around her face, pale in death as an over-washed nightie. It's a small, shrunken-looking Jo, the remaining fuzz on her head combed into submission. Gone, the springy blonde hair, the warm voice and hazel eyes. Gone, the aunt he loved like a mother, gnawed to death by cancer.
Chris glances at Ben and wonders what he's thinking. Despite a lifetime spent with Ben and Jo, he's still not sure how he'd define their relationship. Affectionate and kind â without a doubt â but driven more, he suspects, by compassion than passion.
He escorts Ben back to his seat and returns alone to the podium. In his head is a eulogy so painstakingly rehearsed there's no chance of stuffing it up, but words have a habit of failing him when he needs them most. Worse â they arrive, but their intended meaning is buried in a tactless and clumsy verbal dump.