The trees are still. Their leaves hanging limp in the heat. A kookaburra cackles - its mocking laughter rings harshly across the cemetery headstones and slices through the heat that bears down. There is the constant buzz of flies settling on people’s backs and hats. The unrelenting late morning sun scorches the mourners scattered around the freshly turned earth. A row of tall ghost gums that shelters the graves offers little real relief from the heat. An earthworm moved sluggishly in the blood red soil. Good clay composition, he decides. She would have approved the soil consistency and told him to plant some daffodils and freesias in it. Maybe he should bring some bulbs next week before the soil settles.
An hour ago he wanted to be somewhere else, but was bound to the narrow box of polished wood, held down by his children’s tiny hands holding his trembling fingers. They were calm. He was numbed to the day and had been for days. Tracey had asked him if Mammy was comfortable. Thomas had brought tears to the eyes of many when he went to the casket and patted it, then bent forward and gave the polished wooden side a wet kiss. He had put the rough red heart they had cut out last night and he had traced the words that Brian had written for him – I LUV U MAMMY MISS U! XXXX on it – he put that on top of the casket. Both he and Tracey were calm, but a little bewildered. At three and a half years and four nearly five years of age, death is a difficult concept to grasp. Even for adults. Someone is there and then they are not. Their bodily shell reposes and bears some semblance of who they were, the features are somewhat familiar but the light in the eyes has stilled. The vitality that flowed through their limbs is stilled. The electricity of living is gone. There are only the worms left to hollow out the flesh and then the bacteria sets to work erasing the loved features, taking it all down to the essential bones of business.
They had decided to keep the cask closed. She would not have wanted so many people gazing down at her blood drained features. He also did not want his children to remember a wan corpse. His mother was displeased too.
Don’t you think they should stay with Maria’s parents? Surely you are not bringing them to the funeral?
She was their mother.
Well, far be it for me to speak, but she should have remembered that before…
Mum. PLEASE. NOT now!
Ok, ok. But you have to face facts. It was selfish. Leaving two children and a man who loved her….why?
Mum. I don’t WANT TO DISCUSS this now.
Brian, you should not mourn such a weak person overmuch. She was flawed. Dreadfully flawed and the children do not need to go to her funeral.
She was their mother.
So they are better off without her. Get married again quickly and choose carefully. The children need a mother.
Oh, goody. I just go out onto the street and shout, Hey, grieving widower needs wife now. Taking applications over here. Now fill out this form in triplicate and if you are going to commit suicide at some stage in the future, don’t bother applying. We’ve had that experience. Must be good with young children. Have no transmittable diseases. A passable cook, but willing to learn. Active and clean. An excellent housekeeper and able to drive a car. Anything else I should add to the criteria? Ability to tell jokes on cue to distil awkwardness at the inlaws and last but not least, a fantastic lover.
Well, it is not that bad, is it?
For God’s sake Mum, it is my wife’s funeral. Today. Can’t we leave this a few weeks or months even?
The mourners moved forward slowly following the casket down to the opened grave. He was glad the children were with him. They gave him more comfort through their trusting presence and calm acceptance of Lorri’s passing into another life. Tracey’s acceptance was simply stated.
Will Mummy see God every day now? When we pray, will she hear too?
Yes, Honey, when you pray Mummy will take your prayers straight to God. It will be like having a personal messenger to make sure that God gets the message right.
Now they were numb. The pain would come later. Maybe even years later. When they understood more.
Rita and Maria, Lorri’s best friends stand apart from the rest of the mourners. Brian notices through the mind fog of a blinding headache how Lorri’s friends grouped themselves into the specific areas of her life that he could only wonder about. The indigenous writing group she had started group together over to one side of the grave, the teachers from the school – her colleagues opposite them, her grocery store owner and some of his workers, the bank teller and others from the town where they had spent the last three years. He tried to find some other link that tied them to each other apart from just knowing the deceased while she was alive. The elderly lady down the street she used to invite over on the weekend for lunches because she knew she was a pensioner on a low income and a single mother with six children stand at the back of the those in the forefront, hesitantly as though they really do not deserve to be there.
Lorri’s parents had insisted on a celebrant. They were not particularly religious. Despite he and Lorri agreeing that they did not want religious ceremony, they had agreed that cremation was not a way to go. Lorri wanted to be returned to the earth. Brian just thought fire was too much like the Christian hellfire and brimstone. She thought there was something very comforting about being returned ‘to the bowels of the earth and providing nourishment.’
‘You know the first man was called Adam? She pointed out to him once.
‘And the first woman was called Eve.’
‘Brian, you are missing my point. I just did some research. You know Adam also means earth in Hebrew. Don’t you think that’s ironic?’
‘Well, if we come from the earth and we are the agent of the earth’s destruction, isn’t that suicidal. Self destructive. Kind of awful. We need to nurture ourselves more, don’t you think?
He remembered laughingly suggesting that they sell the house and go to live in a tent down by the river. She became cross with him. Then they argued and did not talk for two days. She was pregnant at the time. He put it down to moodiness. Maybe he should have been more aware.
The celebrant droned on about the brevity of life and the pain of those left to cope. He stopped short of blaming anyone. When the news had became public, some had shot questioning looks at him. Some of the do-gooders in the community had already started talking about an alternative home for the children and they were joined by Lorri’s parents.
‘Don’t you think it would be a good idea for the children to live with us for a while? ‘ Lorri’s mum Annabel had been blunt to the point last night before the funeral.
‘No. I am still their parent. They are staying with me.’
‘Oh Brian be reasonable. They are our flesh and blood too. You could visit or stay whenever you wanted. They are all we have left of her.’
‘I could say the same thing. They stay with me.’
‘So how are you going to work? Are you going to put them into childcare?’
‘No, Ella is coming stay with me. She is writing a novel and doing some research. She will look after them.’
‘You sister from Sydney? But her lifestyle is well …you know what I have heard and not from..your parents, but…’
‘I know from dear Aunty George. The family’s moral guardian. That Ella is a lesbian?’
‘Well, is she?’
‘I don’t know. Never asked her. I am her brother. Not her bloody social secretary.’
‘Well, if she is Robert and I are going to have to take charge.’
‘Look Annabel. I don’t know and I don’t care. She is my sister. Yes, she has some funny associations in Sydney, but she is their aunt. Whether she is gay or not gay has nothing to do with my relationship to her as a sister and as their aunt. The kids are living with me and their aunt. You can visit anytime.’
‘Brian, I have concerns. What if she brings a girlfriend to the house?’
‘Believe me she won’t. She knows better. Besides what if I bring someone to the house? They have already started to line up at the front door. Didn’t you know? Eligible widower with two small children, huge mortgage and small business barely on the starting block. Most of the young women in the town can hardly wait to get a go on. The divorcees have already started leaving offerings of food and other comforts on my doorstep.’
The crowd edges him forward and he is given a shovel. What do they expect him to do? Shovel earth onto the gleaming casket nestled so in the freshly dug six by four feet hole. He digs the shovel into the fresh pile of red dirt and stones. Lifting it up and thumping it down the hole, it thunders in a thudding roll of earth and stone on the wooden casket. He wants to say to someone ‘good wood that’ but does not, then feels a bellow of grief rise to his throat but suppresses it and spades another few loads of the good earth onto the casket before his dad noticing his son’s distress moves forward to take the shovel from his hands. His mother fills his mind and hands with the children when she hands him Tommy and Tracey tugs his shirt sleeve and brings him down to another space. He holds them close.
Then there is a hush in the group. Barry Salmon the school principal and Lee Hammer Lorri’s head teacher come through the gates of the cemetery, rather late. Brian wants to refuse to be greeted or comforted. He inclines his head forward and down to hide tears beginning to slide down his cheeks. Bending he picks Tracey up and she burrows her head into his neck and shoulders curling her fingers into her mouth. His arms hold the two children tightly. His jaws lock. He nods briefly at them. It is over. They walk together briskly over to the other family members and the business is done. They want to say to them, go away. Leave us in peace, but the mourners show their mettle. If they truly love her they keep silent, those unsure chatter away their awkwardness. Brian’s mother Moira turns away from Barry Salmon’s outstretched hand and she takes a tissue from her bag to cover the snub. Brian who was watching suppressed a smile. He knew his mother too well. He wished Ella was here. She would not be here for two days. Caught in Bangkok on holiday, she had been unable to get an earlier flight back to Australia.
Lee Hammer was treated to the full treatment of Moira’s withering scorn. Moira stood and stared straight into her face. Eyes hard as stone, she let Lee know in no uncertain terms how she felt. Lee either pretended she did not know or really did not care.
‘Such a pity. She has two young children. Oh sorry, had two young children. Do you think it could have been post natal depression? ……Well she doesn’t feel any pain now. Perhaps that is a good thing. These things happen..’
Moira gave her a glacial smile. Then turned her head away while Lee was in mid sentence.
‘Joel, I am so tired. When are we going back to the house?’