After The Funeral
Janet Holst (Macquarie University, Australia)
When Eloise’s mother finally died, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn’t disliked, or difficult in her illness, but it had gone on too long: the slow ebbing of that vibrant life was painful to see, and it was hard to recall, in the shrunken, yellowed frame on the bed, the plump and jovial woman who’d played cricket in the back yard and yodeled, on request, after two glasses of cider. Eloise, for the final weeks, had been sent South to her grandparents, while Father remained behind.
The funeral was benign. The deceased, having made her own arrangements, provided a considerate affair, readings resilient and cheerful, and a jaunty Bob Marley recessional to conclude, so that you couldn’t help skipping a little to the beat, smiling as you came out into the sunshine where the sleek black hearse waited on the roadside.
Eloise wasn’t to attend the committal, but help her grandmother with the sandwiches and sherry for the small wake afterwards: just family and old friends, the note had said; and she stands on the pavement, watching four sombre-suited men slide her mother’s polished casket into the hearse. The doors are snapped discreetly shut, the chrome trolley wheeled, and the vehicle glides off to the crematorium. There, Eloise knows a wall will part and her mother slip through, evermore unreachable, into flames that will turn her to ashes.
She waits by Grandmother’s car as the last mourners emerge to murmur condolences. Her father’s face is stern. He speaks little, simply clapping a man on the arm, or bending to kiss an elderly aunt. He turns now as the last mourner approaches, a woman in purple coat and black feathered cap with a wisp of veil drifting over her eyes; his face lightens, he takes both her hands, leaning forward to kiss her.
– Come along now, pet. Grandmother, unfamiliar today in black suit and sweeping black hat, is beside her, rattling in her handbag for the car keys.
– Who’s that? Eloise asks. That lady in the bird hat with Daddy? Her grandmother swivels round and purses her lips.
– She needn’t have come.
– But who is she?
– Oh, someone from his work, I think. Come, child, we’ve much to do.
More people have come to the house than expected, or were asked, and Eloise floats from the living room, where sandwiches with egg and pink salmon grace the polished oval table, to the kitchen, where Grandmother rinses glasses in steaming water, polishes them dry and reloads the tray for Eloise to take back through. The glasses quiver and tinkle on the tray as she squeezes between the perfumed guests, all talking louder now, their faces pink, laughter erupting as they reminisce.
– Do you remember the time she… She was never one to…
– And she bowled him clean out, underarm, too…
– Well it was a release, poor thing, dreadful at the end. Hard on Harold…
Eloise slips from the room along the passage to her mother’s bedroom. It’s been tidied. No medicines crowd the bedside table. The cream drapes are pulled back, throwing a triangle of afternoon light across the floor and over the cream counterpane. A strangely floral antiseptic scent hangs in the air. She moves to the bed, runs her hands along its satiny spread, spreads her fingers and presses her hands flat against the mattress. She remembers the green-eyed lizard on her mother’s brown coat and tiptoes to the wardrobe.
It is empty: the clothes, the brown jacket with the lizard, gone. Her fur stole, the line of shoes, all vanished. A remembered perfume lingers, creeps into her nose, and slips away. She crosses to the dressing table where the crystal powder bowl stands empty and eases out a drawer—empty, wiped clean. Swiftly, noisily, she opens them all. All empty. Necklaces and gloves, the beret for cold days, the scarves, panties and woolens have gone: as if she’d never lived here, never come home after shopping and flopped on the bed, shucking off shoes and saying, Ellie dear, be a sweetheart and put these away, I’m zonked, and Eloise would line them up neatly with the other shoes, hang up her mother’s jacket and go and turn the kettle on, and her mother would sneak up behind her, put her arms swiftly round her and press her cheek to Eloise’s saying, Aren’t you my good pet? Mummy missed you. We’ll have a cup of tea and you can tell me all about today.
Eloise shuts the door, and returns to the party, where people are leaving, giving hugs and kisses at the door. She takes a salmon sandwich and joins Reebok the cat on the floor behind the sofa, feeding him salmon. He lets her pull him heavily over her knees and bury her face in his thick ginger fur. Her father returns from the front door and goes into the kitchen, and she puts the cat down to follow him. They are talking, her grandmother and father. He’s pouring a whisky; she’s leaning against the bench with a tea towel twisted in her hands.
– It’s too soon, her grandmother is saying. It’s not right, she’s not even cold.
– Don’t start that, Mum. Her father’s voice is thick. She’d never stand in my
way. It’s for Eloise—
– What’s for me? Eloise says. What’s for me?
– Hush, child. Your father and I are talking—
– Where are Mum’s things? Eloise demands. They’ve all gone! Where are they?
Grandmother glances at Father, turns away and starts wiping the bench swiftly. Father puts down his glass and looks at her solemnly.
– We’ve had them taken away, he says. We must make a new start. Your mother was sick for a long time.
– But what about the lizard?
– The lizard? What’s that?
– The lizard with green eyes. Her brooch. She said I could have it, it was on her jacket.
– Oh, it will be around somewhere, he says. We’ll find it later. He gulps at his drink. Or I’ll get you another.
– You see, says Grandmother.
– Enough, Mum, he says. It’s my life. He puts down the empty glass and grins uncertainly at Eloise.
– There’s someone I want you to meet, he says.
– Not now, Harry. Not today. Grandmother looks cross, and she snatches up the empty glass.
– No harm, Mum. Now’s as good a time. Come, Ellie.
And he puts his hand on her shoulders and leads her back to the almost empty living room where the voices are lower now, and smoke hangs in the air above the two old uncles slouching on the sofa. A woman stands beside the empty fireplace, looking at their mountain painting, one foot raised onto the hearth—a silvery blue shoe with a sharp-pointed toe and high pointy heels. A black seam runs up the back of her stocking to her skirt, a silky, silvery grey-blue. It’s the woman with the little blackbird hat still hooked over her silvery blonde hair like a wing, and she’s wearing silver earrings, hanging circles that swing when she moves. She blows smoke in a little puff and smiles at Eloise. Miss Webb. Her voice tinkles, and she says Hello Ay-Luweeze, and laughs, as if it’s funny. Her father is smiling at Miss Webb, who has half a gold tooth, and Eloise sees her cigarette has a long silver holder, and her pointed nails are silvery blue.
– It’s pronounced Ell-o-ees, actually, she says firmly. Dad, can I go to my room?
Eloise lies on her bed, flat and straight. What is it like to be dead? She tries to remember her mother the day she went South, the Last Time she saw her. Her mother was sleeping, sort of, hardly breathing, and very small in the bed, her face yellowy brown, not like her real mother at all, something else put there instead. Sickness has a smell. She had kissed the dry, breathless lips and tucked a gardenia into the hand clutching the sheet. What comes to mind now is Miss Webb, Heather her name, standing one hand on hip, her ankle wriggling in the high, pointy shoes, and tap-tap-tapping the ash off the end of her long cigarette holder, blowing smoke in a thin stream past her nose and saying, Oh, do you think so, tinkle, tinkle? to her father.
She picks up her cell phone and sends a text to Ruthie McGillvary in the next street who is in her class at school. EVRIBODI GON. D GOT G’FRND!!? CU 2MORO.
It’s two weeks since the funeral, and Grandmother is staying for a month because Eloise’s father is away on business, but today, Friday, he’s coming back, bringing Miss Webb to dinner. When her mother was sick, Poppy lived with them, a calm Filipina with soft hands and children back in Manila She washed her mother and sat in silence, placing cool cloths across her forehead; she cooked, singing softly in the kitchen. Now Grandmother is cooking and Eloise wanders out to the empty street. She climbs on the white painted gate and looks across at windows shining gold in the setting sun, and swings out and back, clunk: out and back. She’s thinking about Christmas, if they’ll go to the beach, because they didn’t last year. The car is coming along the road and she cranes forward; Father has someone with him. She runs inside.
Later, in the living room, Miss Webb is sitting by the window, her hair golden in the late afternoon light, looking in her handbag, probably for another cigarette. The bag is shiny brown with a silver chain. She asks what Eloise has been doing, being careful with her name. Eloise doesn’t want to tell her about her school project, how Greek women used honey and olive oil on their faces and put charcoal on their eyelids. Miss Webb is wearing blue eye shadow with mascara, and her lips are shiny and wet. Ruthie wears her mother’s lip gloss to school. Instead, she stares right back at Miss Webb.
– Where did you get that bag?
– This? She smiles, and swings the bag by its silver chain; it glistens in the sunlight.
– Is it plastic?
Miss Webb laughs, tinkle, tinkle. Plastic? God no, it’s alligator. Way more expensive than plastic.
– Did they kill the alligator?
– I suppose they must have, tinkle, tinkle, it’s not fake, I assure you!
– How did they kill it?
– Lord, I don’t know. They have alligator farms, I think.
– Like sheep farms?
– I guess so. She puts the bag down on the small table beside her, and says, I’ll just go and help your grandmother in the kitchen; and she gives Eloise’s head a little pat as she passes in her pointy shoes.
In her mother’s room she smoothes down the coverlet, presses the mattress and lowers her cheek to the pillow. Does a mattress remember? She goes to the window where everything outside looks the same: same street, same letter boxes, same shrubs, same boy riding his bicycle in circles on the road. Everything inside is different, empty. She imagines green paddocks rolling over the street, and alligators grazing, some with their tails curled up, some chasing other alligators, laughing tinkle tinkle; along comes the Farmer with Miss Webb pointing, this one! And Bang! with a gun—that will be a very nice bag, thank you…. She sees a slight movement at the door, turns to catch a whiff of something, hears a soft footfall down the passage.
After dinner, Father says the sick room is being painted tomorrow (the sick room!) and does she want to come on a picnic, Ruthie too? To the park at the beach? Miss Webb says she’d lurve to go, her treat. Ruthie texts back, COOL TNX. HPS 2 TELL U.
In the car, Miss Webb is in front, Eloise and Ruthie in the back. Eloise wears Ruthie’s lip gloss; the grownups are talking about work. Ruthie points urgently at Miss Webb, then to her own neck. Eloise turns and sees a black mole on Miss Webb, just above her zip. Her black strap is showing. Behind her dark glasses she is flashing quick looks at her father as he drives. Then she opens her dead alligator bag and Eloise sees her wallet, a silver compact, tissues and an IPod. Miss Webb takes out a small mirror and a long lipstick and draws it across her stretched lips, tracing a thin line across the upper and lower edges. She paints over the gaps, scrunches into a tight O, makes kiss marks on a piece of white tissue, which she tucks into the ashtray.
-Sit back, Ellie, says Father. Don’t crowd the front seat.
Her mother’s idea of a picnic was to take a plastic bucket round the garden picking a few tomatoes, cucumbers and sprigs of mint, and then throw in a tin of tuna, a knife and some butter —Hey presto, picnic!—and at the corner they’d pick up French bread. Miss Webb’s picnic has a special red-checked blanket and a case with its own plates and cups; there’s cold smoked chicken trussed up in netting like a singlet, olives, something called roe that Father said was fish eggs, and a bought cake with not-real cream in the middle. They have paper napkins and wine glasses; the girls have apple juice.
– Well, that was pretty fantastic, wasn’t it, girls? Father says when they’ve finished. And why don’t they wander off to the beach while the grownups pack up? Ruthie kicks her and jerks her head, so they cross to the beach, where the tide is out, and the wind whipping up the waves, the spray flying, and seagulls are bouncing up and down above the sea, feathers ruffled, screaming their annoyance. The sand is sharp, stinging legs and faces, and they crouch with backs to the wind, eyes shut tight, until Eloise says let’s go back to the park where it’s more sheltered and where Father, as they come through the trees, is kissing Miss Webb on the picnic rug, Miss Webb lying down with one pale thin knee up, and Father bending over her. So gross! They watch through the trees.
– My mother says she’s a gold-digger, says Ruthie
– A floozie. A lady after a rich man.
– My Dad’s not rich.
– Nor was my Dad, but he had floozies, so Mum threw him out.
They had a photo of mother’s old relatives who came from Italy to dig for gold, three men in old-fashioned suits and bushy beards, standing outside an old hotel holding a banjo, violin and guitar. They didn’t find gold, her mother said, laughing. They made more money that way! Eloise will find the photo tonight.
At home she helps Father unpack while Miss Webb takes a shower.
– I want to tell you something, her father says, when they are washing the picnic things. He sits down at the table, folds his hands, his eyes serious.
– We’re going to have a new mother soon, he says.
She swivels around to stare at him, letting a plate slip back into the water, splashing the floor.
– What? Who?
– I’m going to marry Heather, Miss Webb, he says.
Everything collides within her.
-I don’t want a new mother, she says, hot tears burning her eyes. I want my old mother!
– I know, he says. His gaze shifts away. It’s for the best. My work— I can’t manage. Mummy was sick for a long time… now she’s gone. Miss Webb, Heather, will take care of you like Mummy, he said.
– She’s not like Mummy, she cries. She’s not! She’s a—a floozie!
There, she’s said it. She stands defiant, her arms tightly folded, her tears running. He is incensed, jumps up shouting. How dare she speak like that! Who taught her that word? His face is flushed, his two fists clenched.
– I’ll not have it!
Eloise blinks back tears.
-Ruthie says she’s a floozie, she says. Anyway, you don’t want me!
She runs into the living room and throws herself on the chair beside Reebok, breathing hard. Who will she be now? Why can’t it just be Father and Eloise? Who will she belong to? Not to Miss Webb with her cigarette holder and pointy shoes!
The alligator bag is on the table, and she picks it up, its silver chain swinging, and twists open the clasp. Her fingers move over the things inside, the compact, the IPod, lipstick, her wallet—
– Eloise, what are you doing with my bag? Miss Webb is standing at the door in a black dress with her wet hair. That’s a very bad thing to do, she says, coming across the room. You mustn’t look in people’s bags. She’s half smiling, but really cross. Eloise stares back, and Miss Webb swoops down, lifting the bag away.
– Don’t touch my things, she says.
– Anyway, says Eloise. You’re not my mother. She gets up from the chair. My mother was very beautiful, she declares.
– I’m sure she was, says Miss Webb, and you miss her, but that’s no reason to take someone’s bag. I am going to marry your father. I hope we can get along.
– I won’t, Eloise says fiercely. And anyway—she takes a deep breath—you’ll be sorry. He’s got heaps of floozies, my mother wouldn’t put up with it, she was going throw him out, she says triumphantly. Only she got sick—
Miss Webb looks sharply at her and opens her mouth to speak, but Father comes into the room, his face flushed and beaten.
– What’s going on here? he says roughly.
Eloise and Miss Webb stare at each other; neither speaks.
Janet Holst is currently taking the MA in Creative Writing by distance from Macquarie University while working in Oman, Middle East. She is from New Zealand and is “no longer young”.